Slutwalk Toronto 390.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mark Blinch)
The recent publication by Rabbi Shlomo Aviner in the Shabbat newsletter B’ahava
Ub’emuna of detailed guidelines for modest female attire (tzniut) led to a storm
of controversy. In addition to establishing relatively stringent standards,
Aviner prohibited certain types of fabric and further delineated methods for
testing these standards (e.g. one should check the transparency of clothing
against sunlight). This followed a similar controversy in which Aviner had
declared that, ideally, women would neither vote nor take active roles in
political affairs, even as he conceded that given the current reality, women may
Many objected to the notion that modesty laws should be
delineated in such a technical manner, as if depicting how to clean an oven
before Passover. The prophet Micah teaches, “Walk modestly with your God.” This
is an overarching value with respect to many aspects of our lives (for men and
women alike), and should not be reduced to detailed discussion about the
proprieties of bright orange shirts or unbraided hair. The Ne’emanei Torah
V’Avoda movement further asserted that the publication of “modesty codes” is
counter-productive. “The obsessive engagement in pieces of clothing is in itself
immodest, and all this advertisement distorts Halacha, which seeks to reduce a
person’s engagement in matters of human urges.”Instead, modesty norms
are best taught informally at home or in school.
Defenders of these
detailed guidelines retort that we are bombarded daily with immodest images in a
society that promotes an uninhibited, provocative ethos. As such, it is
important to bulwark our firm dedication to modest behavior through clear,
This reaction, in turn, relates to a central
question: how do societal changes impact notions of modest behavior? During the
heat of the women’s suffrage movement in the early 20th century, Jewish scholars
debated whether women should receive voting rights. Many scholars opposed
women’s suffrage, with some, such as Rabbi Abraham Kook, arguing that entrance
into public affairs would corrupt women’s inner integrity and lead to family
strife over differing political viewpoints.
Strongly opposing this
position was Rabbi Benzion Uziel, who cited a basic moral claim of “No taxation
without representation.” He further argued that there was nothing immodest about
women voting (or even being elected to public office), since intermingling
between the sexes is only inappropriate when done in a light-headed fashion, not
when dealing with weighty political and economic affairs. He added that husbands
and wives could amicably disagree regarding political matters, just like parents
and grown children do. Eventually, women’s suffrage became fully accepted even
within ultra-Orthodox circles, albeit in some circles for reasons of
realpolitik, a sentiment which Aviner apparently shares.
Most readers of
this column, I suspect, believe that granting women the right to vote was a
development that promoted human dignity without impinging on standards of
When it comes to guidelines toward female attire, the Talmud
prohibits exposure of any areas that “should normally be covered,” while further
asserting that a man should not recite prayers in an environment where these
parts are exposed, lest he become inappropriately distracted. The Sages taught
that some of these norms are mandated by Jewish law (dat Moshe) and remain
unalterable, while others represent the customary behavior of Jewish women (dat
Yehudit), which, in certain circumstances, may change with the
Contemporary scholars sometimes debate how to classify certain
restrictions on attire. For example, the vast majority of late-20th century
Orthodox decisors, including Rabbis Moshe Feinstein and Ovadia Yosef, believe
that biblical norms mandate a married woman to cover her hair. Yet a couple of
scholars, including Rabbi Yosef Messas, asserted that this practice was
dependent on contemporary norms of dress.
Once modest women in general
society no longer covered their hair, then modest Jewish women could follow suit
because uncovered hair was no longer deemed provocative.
A related area
of dispute deals with which areas of the body should be covered. The Talmud, for
example, asserts that a woman’s thigh should not be improperly revealed.
Decisors debate whether this includes all of the leg until the ankle, or only
the area above (and including) the knee. While Aviner preferred the former
position, other scholars have adopted the more lenient standard, in part because
they believe that such attire remains fully modest within contemporary society.
Yet even advocates of the latter approach recognize that there are limits to the
impact of contemporary standards, especially in societies – including much of
Western culture – which do not share the values of modest dress.
the sensitivity of these debates and its impact on both external appearance and
self-image, it behooves the community to engage in a scholarly and sensitive
dialogue regarding the best way to establish guidelines and educate toward
modest behavior. One prays that such dialogue will lead to a further enhancement
of personal dignity that will allow men and women alike to walk modestly in the
ways of God.
The writer teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and directs the
Tikvah Israel Seminars for Post-High School
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