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Jan 14 '13

Modesty: A Glance Beneath the Surface

I usually steer clear of opinion pieces. Confrontation stresses me out, and dissecting the flaws in someone else’s argument is painstakingly nuanced. However, when this article popped up on my Facebook wall this afternoon, I felt obliged to speak up regarding an issue that directly affects me and the women in my community.

The topic of the article is tznius: Jewish modesty. Author Dvora Meyers acknowledges a growing trend in which women defend their modest dress on the basis of feminist principles. Modesty allots women an increased sense of dignity and self-respect. They feel “beautiful” and “confident,” fortified with the assurance that their body belongs to them and to no one else. Furthermore, these women claim that anyone who does not dress modestly is lacking in self-respect.

Dvora attacks this standpoint, accusing these women of committing “modesty apologia.” She reminds the audience that modesty is a patriarchal, socially constructed mandate that serves the needs of men- not women- and then goes on to provide a number of examples of how modesty does not, in fact, enhance women in spirit nor in character.

My main issue with the article is that its discussion of tznius is completely removed from the context of Torah. Modesty is examined from a sociological standpoint, evaluated in terms of its function and how effectively it serves the needs of those who practice it. This may be a valuable discussion, but if we’re going to discuss divine law, can we please involve God in the conversation? Blaming patriarchy alone is not going to solve an issue that God has orchestrated through divine providence. Let’s appeal to God for a change! Let’s confront Him and work through the issue together. 

Dvora additionally omits the fact that every aspect of Torah contains an inner and outer dimension. Anyone versed in the study of Chumash knows that we analyze a text based on the PARDES (an acronym for pshat, remez, drash, and sod), four levels of interpretation that simultaneously foster awareness of the most simple, literal layer of Torah along with its deeper, esoteric meaning. Every word in Torah may be approached in this manner. So why is popular discussion of tznius denied similar exploration? Why are explanations for tznius taken at face value and then immediately shot down for being too feminist, too sexist, or too apologetic?

Of course we’re dissatisfied- and somewhat disturbed- to learn that the “only” reason for female modesty is to protect men from their own desires! We feel deep down that this can’t be the whole story, because we have such firm faith that God designs His Torah with kindness and truth. We know His laws work in our best interest while also propagating the goal of creation as a whole. We believe these things to be true, and yet we don’t have a positive association with modesty in our daily lives. Many times it feels like something imposed on us, more constrictive than enabling. When we groan into our stockings in eighty degree weather, our subjective experience of modesty feels light years away from the ultimate Good in which it is rooted.

I believe that this is what the modesty “apologists” are getting at. They recognize that women are dissatisfied with the “pshat” explanations of their observance. Women want something deeper, something that speaks to an essential part of them. Finding alternative justifications for modesty, such as those provided in feminism, is one way that women seek inner contentment. They’re not denying the simple level that teaches that modesty helps males to overcome their urges. They’re simply reminding the world that Torah has a soul, that there is always an added understanding hidden beneath the surface.

The problem with this picture is as follows: Women shouldn’t have to look outside of Torah to a social movement like feminism to attribute meaning to modesty (or to any mitzvah, for that matter)! It’s all part of our infinite Torah already. We just have to take the initiative to look for it. Females should never be afraid to dig deeper into their tradition, and their Jewish educators should not only tolerate their questioning, but demand it of them.

The second issue I’d like to address is Dvora’s reluctance to accept that the way we dress matters. She concludes with the remark that “Respect and dignity should always be determined by our actions and the content of our character, not the contents of our closet.” While I’m sure her feel-good proclamation appealed to a great number of women, I question whether her stance truly reflects a Torah perspective.

To understand the Torah perspective, I’ll have to start at the beginning. Or rather, before the beginning- before a physical world even existed. Back then, souls experienced unmatched clarity as they relished in the light of God, free of that fleshy and confusing encasement that would come to be known as a body. As we know, God had other plans. He wanted a physical reality, the sole purpose of which would be to act as a conveyer of Godliness. The revelation of Moshiach would come when an ultimate union between body and soul is reached- meaning, when the outer, physical world perfectly expresses the soul within.

This is precisely our mission here: To employ our physical bodies and surroundings as a vehicle to express divinity. Therefore, to pronounce a disconnection between our inner and outer selves is not only a hindrance to the fulfillment of our mission, but it’s a regression of the most serious grade. It’s ignoring the very purpose for which we were created! We should not be discounting the importance of our physical appearance, but rather emphasizing its centrality. As Jewish women, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to transform our mode of dress into a spiritual act.

With all the above in mind, I think what the issue comes down to is the following: As Jewish women, we need to engage in study of both the practical and esoteric dimensions of Torah. This is the only way we can appreciate what it means to be a servant of God- not just the how’s, but the why’s. Although women were traditionally encouraged to study only applied law, the time has arrived for us to probe deeper. It’s our prerogative to view mitzvos on a functional level, an inner level, and ultimately see that the true value of mitzvos is that they were given as a precious gift from God to us.

So when the going gets tough, we can certainly cry out to our parents, our teachers, and discuss our woes publicly through social media channels. At the end of the day though, our answers will come from God and His Torah. I encourage you all to keep probing, keep challenging the answers you’re given, and if others deny there is something deeper, never be afraid to insist that there is.

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