The Real Challenge of Tsniut
Many non-Jews are puzzled when they see a woman walking with long sleeves in the summer. I have experienced this myself multiple times. When walking around on a summer day, I always feel like people are looking at me strangely, almost as if to say, “Is she insane?” Although covering up more, even in such hot weather, may seem odd to those unfamiliar with the practice, after discovering the meaning behind modest dress many are fascinated by it. However, many Orthodox women are not as fascinated. Especially for young women, tsniut is a very restrictive and troubling rule. As Jews, we have many practices that are different from general society, but they are not all as troubling as the idea of tsniut. Tsniut is very different from other practices in that it is an immediate way to peg someone as a religious Jew. The idea of dressing in a way that obviously sets us apart from the rest of society is especially troubling to many young women. However, being different from the society around us is not the real challenge. The real challenge is taking the “restriction” and revealing its true meaning and benefit.
In the modern, secular world we look to the surrounding culture to define standards of dress and fashion. When you flip through a magazine, through channels on the TV, or even walk through a mall, it is very rare to see a model or celebrity wearing modest clothing. Despite the recent trend of maxi dresses, dresses that go to the floor, the majority of the fashion that is on display is not considered modest by the halakhic standard, and even by completely secular people. Furthermore, it is difficult to take yourself out of popular culture and stray from the group. When religion is pitted against popular culture, it is very hard for many to choose religion. However, paradoxically, the same situation that creates the challenge of following the laws of tsniut becomes part of the importance of doing so. Tsniut is an opportunity to go against trends and live a life dedicated to a higher standard. When one differs from the popular culture, it will sometimes result in strange, puzzled looks, but ultimately it leads to more respect. People respect those who do what they believe is right instead of giving into the pressure of popular culture.
Although tsniut really can be meaningful and impressive to those around us, many orthodox women find it to be oppressive. This is often because of how the message of tsniut is delivered to them. There are many people who educate women in a way that focuses on the negative aspects of dressing modestly. Instead of focusing on positive benefits of tsniut, they try to scare people into dressing modestly. When people feel as if they are being punished for not doing what they are told, it often leads to resentment of not only the messenger, but the message as well.
A letter that was sent out to Bnos Yaakov Elementary School parents in Lakewood, NJ, is an example of people focusing on negative aspects of dressing immodestly.[i] The letter tells a story of a group of travelers who heard someone screaming for help. When they reached the source of the screams, they saw an older woman and a younger lady. The older woman was taking clothes out of a boiling pot of water and putting them on the young woman. The travelers, terrified, immediately ran away, and later remembered that there had never been a house in the place where they had seen this event. They realized this was really a vision of the world to come: this was the punishment of a woman who had not raised her daughter to dress in a tsanua manner. The story says, “This is the onesh of women who burn the neshamos of their children in this world when they ‘have rachmanus on them’ and do not lead them in the ways of tznius.”[ii] I do not think this is a very effective way of teaching girls, especially teens, to dress more modestly. This negative approach could be the reason why many girls grow up with a feeling of resentment towards dressing more modestly.
There are others who take approaches like this, only focusing on the negative aspects of not dressing modestly. R. Pesach Eliyahu Falk in his Oz ve-Hadar Levushah,[iii] a book that has become a standard text in the Haredi world, follows this method. R. Falk focuses on the rules of tsniut in great detail, but not as much on the reasoning behind the halakhot. When he does discuss reasoning, he often explains why not dressing in a tsniut way is wrong, not why one should be more attracted to tsniut. Additionally, he writes disparagingly about people who do not dress in the way that he deems appropriate (which happens to be an extreme view). For example, he writes, “A tzaddik marries a tzenua; a rasha marries a perutza.”[iv] If this had been my first exposure to the concept of tsniut I would have been completely turned away.
Another example of educators focusing on negative aspects of modesty is found on a blog for Camp S’dei Chemed.[v] Dovid Teitelbaum tells the story of a girl who was in an accident and was told she may not have the use of her legs anymore. A rabbi came to visit her and Teitelbaum recounts what the rabbi told her: “It was her legs that were no good and…Hashem was sending her a message. She must have used her legs for some un-tznius reason or maybe some yeshiva boy was staring at her legs and causing him improper thoughts.”[vi] This disgusted the girl and she vowed that whether she could use her legs or not, she was going to uncover them in the summers. She stuck to her promise until she was inspired again in Camp S’dei Chemed where “the new counselors and rabbis she met during the summer …showed her that there is another kind of Judaism that exists. One of love and kindness.”[vii] The focus on the negative aspects of dressing immodestly really has an effect on the way a teen will look at tsniut for the rest of her life.
Even within the Modern Orthodox world we encounter those who focus on negative aspects of tsniut. Although it is not always as obvious and extreme as seen in Haredi and Ultra-Orthodox communities, there are community members and even rabbis who use tsniut as a way of judging others. I often hear people complaining about how girls in various communities dress, and people using lack of tsniut as a way to judge others. Many people see a girl not dressed in a modest way and automatically assume the worst of her. I think that this is detrimental to those that may be attracted to the idea of dressing more modestly because they begin to view modest dress as something negative. I think that many rabbis are aware that there are girls within their communities not dressing in a modest way, but they choose not to address it. Many of the rabbis who I have met see that there is a problem, but they know that if they call too much attention to the issue young women may be further repelled from the concept of tsniut. Although there is not as big of an issue with rabbis making the concept of tzniut unattractive in the Modern Orthodox world, there is a big problem with members of communities making modest dress seem like a simple tool with which to judge people.
If, instead of focusing on enforcement, we educate young women about the reasons why dressing in a tsanua manner is meaningful and a value that anyone in society could and should appreciate, young women would develop a more positive outlook toward tsniut. Allison Josephs of “Jew in the City” tries to communicate Jewish values, thoughts, and ideas to a broader audience.[viii] She contends that modesty is not about making one look unattractive, but rather about keeping some things private. She writes, “While you can find some strains within Orthodoxy where the women seem to do less to enhance their physical appearance, there are many groups that believe that it’s fine, even commendable to look attractive and put together.”[ix] The things that we are expected to keep private are things that many people find reasonable to keep private. Josephs relays a personal reflection of when she decided not to wear pants and describes it as “a good personal reminder about who I was, what I believed in, and what I wanted to represent to the rest of the world.”[x] This is the focus that Josephs conveys to her readers: The purpose of tsniut is not to protect men from sinning. We are also not just dressing this way to avoid punishment. Rather, tsniut is something that betters each of us as individuals by showing ourselves and others who we really are, not just what we look like. After relaying the story of a student who commented that by dressing modestly it is easier to find those that are similar to us, Josephs ends with the following idea: “I think all too often we Jews see our laws and customs as restrictive and limiting, so it was nice to be reminded, especially by someone from the outside looking in, as to how fortunate we are to have them.”[xi] You can hear a million people say how meaningful tsniut is, but you will only see the beauty of it if you experience that beauty yourself. On the surface, the idea of modest dress may seem restrictive, but it opens up a whole new way for people to look at you, to see you as the person you really are.
Blima Moskoff develops a different, positive approach to the value of tsniut.[xii] She suggests the idea that tsniut separates physical traits from spiritual, personal ones. People are not defined by what they wear, what they achieve, or any other physical qualities. Rather, they are defined by their inner, more personal qualities. She expresses this with a very simple question: “Even if I would give a very detailed physical description, does that give a true portrait of my friend?”[xiii] Instead of focusing on what we cannot wear, she focuses on what we can expose: the face and the hands. “The face reveals who we are: the smile, the eyes (which are windows to the soul), facial expressions, etc. Our hands represent what we do, our endeavors in life.”[xiv] Moskoff shows that by dressing in a modest way, women are allowing the outside world to get a peek of what they are truly made of. Moskoff also contends that tsniut is not a sexist idea, but that it actually fights against sexism. Women are guaranteeing that others see them as they truly are, not just based on how they look. Instead of focusing on the negative, restrictive aspects of dressing modestly, Moskoff focuses on the beauty of tsniut: “When a woman covers up her body, she is not hiding her true identity. To the contrary, she is exposing her real self.”[xv]
To try and better understand the way that young women think about tsniut, I spoke to many of my peers from various cities and places on the Orthodox spectrum. There are teens who feel as if tsniut is a negative, restrictive law. However, this is not because the teens think the concept of tsniut lacks value, but because they think people use dress as a way to judge others. Hudis Lang, a high school junior from Brooklyn who until recently attended Haredi schools with very strict standards of dress, said that forcing people to dress in a certain way only tempts people to go in the opposite direction. Lang says, “You can’t force someone to dress modestly and get them to feel that they actually want to dress like that.” People should find their own level of modesty and decide for themselves how reserved they should be, instead of being forced to follow guidelines. If this were allowed, Lang feels that there would be more people dressing in a modest way. Lirona Freund, a student at Sha’alvim for Women in Israel, seems to think that tsniut is an impetus for negative feelings between various groups of Jews. Freund expressed the idea that “people begin to judge people based on it.” She says that although there is value to dressing in a modest way, there is more to a person than what she wears and sometimes people are too busy judging others based on clothing to notice this. From what I have found, many feel that tsniut has value; however, the way it is enforced and used as a way to judge people often overshadows that value.
However, despite some of the negative energy surrounding tsniut, I have found that many young women think of modest dress as something that is beneficial and very important. Remy Kaskel, a high school senior from Chicago said, “tsniut is a way of representing yourself.” She expressed the idea that dressing modestly is difficult in an environment where tsniut is not “the norm” and you receive stares, but this difficulty is what gives tsniut meaning. Sarah Lennon, another high school senior from Chicago not only addresses the idea of tsniut as a way to respect yourself, but also as a way to protect yourself and get others to respect you. She said, “If one cannot respect one’s body and be modest, then how can she expect others to respect her?” To express the idea of tsniut as protecting yourself, Lennon compared the concept of tsniut to a seatbelt: even if one is a careful driver, one must be careful and cautious by wearing a seatbelt out of fear of other drivers. Similarly, Lennon says, tsniut is an act to protect yourself from others. Although both Lennon and Kaskel acknowledge the difficulty of dressing in a way that is so different from today’s culture, they both agree that the benefits of dressing modestly make the difficulty easy to overcome.
Because of the value inherent in tsniut, people who are not raised dressing in a modest way often come to it on their own. Brittany Prero, 24, says that although she grew up wearing pants and short sleeves, she always identified with, and even admired, those that dressed in a modest way. She truly realized the beauty of dressing modestly during her year in Israel. She explains, “As I transitioned into dressing more modestly, I began to feel like I was going in the right direction to truly being myself, which I realized was what I admired in those who already dressed modestly.” Prero explained that although it took time to get used to and can be frustrating, she is proud of her decision to dress modestly because she feels as if she is truly herself. Courtney Thomas, 20, is another example of a woman who decided to dress more modestly as she became older. Thomas truly learned the value of dressing modestly as she started to work. Instead of dismissing the puzzled looks and questions about how she dresses with a simple “I prefer skirts,” Thomas took her time to explain the concept of tsniut to her co-workers. She relayed the idea that tsniut is well received by people of all religions and that people respect it. She ended the discussion about tsniut by saying, “Not only is dressing [in a tsanua manner] a kiddush Hashem, but also it defines who I am as a Jew in the secular workplace.” People who find value in dressing in a modest way are not free of obstacles, but they find the strength to push past these obstacles.
As a child, I was raised to dress in a way that was respectful towards others and myself. This was certainly not based on religious beliefs, but instead on the idea that how you dress gives off an image of the type of person you are. My parents would not consider themselves religious people, but modest, respectable dress is still an important value for them. My parents instilled this value in me and, although when I was young I never fully appreciated it, I did later when I grew older. I think this value is what made modest dress the most attractive thing to me in religious people. I did not grow up in a religious home, but I did grow up attending a religious school. I was surrounded with friends and family that had customs that I did not take part in. Yet, when I looked around at them, I did not see people who were restricted; I saw people who dressed in a way that challenged me and forced me to look at them for who they were, not what they wore. Appropriately enough, when deciding to become more religious, tsniut was the first thing that I decided to take on.
People often question me, asking why I wanted to dress in a restrictive way when I did not have to. I think that is exactly why it appealed to me so much. It was not something that people were forcing upon me. The idea that tsniut does not simply define what you wear, but who you are and the potential you have was something that spoke to me. Contrary to what I had previously thought, I found that dressing more modestly does not mean you have to dress in an ugly way, or throw away your physical qualities; you just have to integrate them into who you really are. I took the opportunity to learn more about dressing modestly. I spoke to teachers who inspired me, friends who dressed modestly, and family members who had begun to dress that way on their own as well. I realized that tsniut is not something restrictive, weird, or stupid, like many around me had thought. I realized that in society, people use your exterior appearance to define you. However, I do not feel like that is what defines me. All of my exterior qualities and achievements are things that can be taken away from me, and I define myself by more than just those things. Dressing modestly forced people to find my inner qualities, it made people see who I really am and not just what I wear. Some people were even inspired to learn more about the concept of tsniut.
I realized that there were two challenges in dressing more modestly. Popular culture pulls us in the opposite direction of modest dress. We also live in a world that promotes rights and freedoms. In this world we cannot imagine that someone, even an authority figure, could tell us to do something, especially in an area as personal as how we dress. But the greater and more important challenge is finding meaning in those commandments that we do not connect with so easily and making them something we want to do, using our free choice. We all want to be appreciated and valued for who we really are, and this is the opportunity that tsniut gives us.
If we all look at these aspects of tsniut and focus on them as we teach the next generation, people will be more attracted to the idea of dressing in a modest way. When people use tsniut as a way to judge others or only focus on its negative parts, it seems restrictive. However, if we focus on the positive, beneficial aspects of dressing more modestly, we cannot argue that it is negative or restrictive. Although tsniut is something that is extremely personal, strikingly different from the culture around us, and often looked upon as weird, it does not lack value. The concept of tsniut is a way for us to show people who we really are. It forces people to look at the true, inner us as opposed to judging us by our exterior qualities. In Judaism, we are taught that our inner selves are our souls. If we make our bodies seem less important by covering them up, it allows us to reveal our souls, or inner selves, to other people. If we focus on these positive characteristics of tsniut, I think we can all work together to restore its true, beautiful meaning.
Jamie Epstein is a high school junior at Goldie Margolin School for Girls in Memphis, TN.
[i] The Lakewood View Staff, “Reader Submitted: From Bnos Yaakov…,” The Lakewood View, 5 June, 2012, available at: www.thelakewoodview.com.
[iii] R. Pesach Eliyahu Falk, Modesty, an Adornment for Life: Halachos and Attitudes Concerning Tznius of Dress & Conduct (Nanuet, NY: Feldheim Publishers, 1998).
[iv] Falk, 580.
[v] Dovid Teitelbaum, “An Open Letter to Bnos Yaakov of Lakewood: Doing More Harm Than Good,” Tales from a Summer Camp…, available at: blog.campsdeichemed.com.
[viii]A website that is “breaking down stereotypes about religious Jews and offering a humorous, meaningful look into Orthodox Judaism.”
[ix] Allison Josephs, “Where’s The Line Between Tznius (Modest) and Sexy?,” Jew in the City, available at: www.jewinthecity.com.
[xii] Blima Moskoff, “Uncovering the Mystery of Modesty,” Chabad, available at: www.chabad.org.