Ask the Rabbi: Do norms of modest attire change?

The Talmud prohibits exposure of any areas that “should normally be covered.”

Slutwalk Toronto 390 (photo credit: REUTERS/Mark Blinch)
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 participate.
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, unambiguous standards.
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 modesty.
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 times.
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.
Given 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 Students.