Of Mice and Men (and Skirts and Treats): Overcoming the Physical in Order to Transcend It


My husband is a bit of a survivalist. What I mean by that is that he longingly dreams of things like being left in the woods and having to fend for himself by eating wild mice. He got this idea from a reality show he once saw. Yes – this actually happened. (As a side note –  although mice are not kosher, if a person had to save his life by eating non-kosher, he would be obligated to do so.) He said I could come along, but suffice it to say that such a scenario is the stuff my nightmares are made of.

While my hubbie, thankfully, has no plans to be dropped off in the wilderness any time soon, when he heard that Hurricane Sandy was coming, he was filled with a little bit of pre-disaster glee. (It doesn’t even make sense to me as I write it, yet that’s the only way to describe the look in his eyes as he was getting ready for the storm.) It’s not everyday a survivalist gets to prepare for a natural disaster, after all! Besides copious amounts of water, batteries, ice, and firewood, one of the things on my husband’s must-have-survival-list was a lifetime supply of candy, which he conveniently found stocked at Costco.

He figured that in case the (short) natives got restless as we rode out the storm, we could drown their sorrows in sugar.  Unfortunately, after we opened it, we discovered that there were MANY non-kosher candies in the package. At least half of it was nothing my kids could eat. But since my son’s babysitter is not Jewish and has a candy-loving kid of her own, I asked my daughters to sort out the non-kosher candy for this boy so it wouldn’t go to waste.

As I watched them sort the pieces one by one, I was filled with amazement and pride. A seven and nine year old, who are quite fond of confections, were willingly giving their perfectly delicious candy to a strange kid for one reason and one reason only: It was not kosher. No muss, no fuss. They were on board with this candied-karban (sacrifice) because at their tender ages, they are able to exercise self-control for the sake of spirituality.

I thought of my daughters giving up their candy as I stood in front of the dressing room mirror today at the mall. I went to return a couple of tops, but the store would only give me credit, so I figured I’d try to find something else while I was there. And find I did! An adorable pink sweater dress caught my eye just a moment after I began my search. “But would it be long enough?” I wondered, as I scurried towards the dressing room.

Yes.  If I stretched it a bit – it was a stretchy sweater material – it would cover my knees, which is what most Orthodox authorities believe a skirt should do in order to adhere to the laws of Jewish modesty. But, it was a bit baggy in this size. Still cute, still wearable, but not perfect.

So I tried a size down, and it looked awesome! “Not bad for a lady with four kids!” I thought to myself. It was fitted but not tight – just figure flattering. But in this size, no way, no how would it stretch to cover my knees. As I stood there in the dressing room, in my clunky snow boots and dark tights, with my above-the-knee dress, I noticed that while I looked “attractive,” I certainly did not look “overtly sexual.”

And for a brief moment, I felt a longing, probably the kind of longing my daughters felt as they sorted the candy. This is perfectly good, but it is not for me. See, I don’t only see tznius (Jewish modesty), as a way of keeping certain parts of myself away from public consumption. I also see it as a way of tempering my vanity. Reminding me that everything physical in this world is fleeting, including my looks. Neither this outfit, nor my body will last – but the choices I make for spiritual reasons, those I believe have the power to transcend this world.

Thankfully, I have many tznius outfits that I feel beautiful and stylish in, but those boundaries from the Talmud, which might seem arbitrary at times – elbows, knees, no plunging neckline – they force me to exercise a restraint that goes beyond what my own moral compass might guide me to do. And although there’s that tinge of pain of not getting to do something that I both want to do and have the ability to do, what I gain instead is knowing that I am learning to master my baser instincts in an effort to live for a Higher purpose.

Because serving my Creator is more important than serving my vanity, my taste buds, my exhaustion, or whatever else my body wants to do that Jewish law conflicts with. And although there is a slight loss on one level, what I’m mostly filled with is pleasure. By exercising my free will towards a spiritual goal, I feel uniquely human–pulled towards the physical but with the power to overcome it and transcend it completely.

In a funny way this is actually quite similar to my husband’s survivalism. In both cases, although the easiest thing is to be lazy, there’s an awareness that the only route to true pleasure and a sense of accomplishment is through pushing past one’s physical limits, or overcoming one’s physical desires. But I prefer the spiritual route. It transcends our fleeting world — and involves less mouse-eating.

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Allison is the Founder and Director of Jew in the City. Please find her full bio here.

Comments

  1. Great post, I would have bought the dress though and worn, for times when I was just with my husband alone or with a black maxi skirt, when Im out, if I was frum.

    • Thanks, Simone. So the truth is that when I’m home with just my family or just women, I wear whatever I fee like, as the laws of modesty technically only apply when I’m around men who aren’t in my immediate family.

      I’ve actually gotten a ton of clothes recently for various events I’m going to. In no way did I need this dress! And as I said – what I really discovered in the moment that I struggled for a moment was that what I gain from an observant life is so much more valuable than the things I give up.

  2. That is the best argument for modesty in Jewish tradition that I have ever heard.
    Thank you.

  3. Suggest you add a 5+ inch big piece of pink fabric with pink lace over it on the bottom. You can also find large lace in a fabric shop with an opaque back. I have done this with somewhat short skirts or dresses and it adds some fashion style along with modesty. It can also be used to cover up a lower top.

  4. Rina Schiffman says:

    Beautifully written, and so true.

  5. Elya Goodfriend says:

    Do u think orthodox males should adhere to the norms of their community with the same strictness? Say not wearing a camel colored sport jacket… Or a sport jacket and slacks on Shabbos instead of a matching suit? What about colored shirts on shabbat?

    • The color of a men’s suit is not a matter of Jewish law. Plus there are many orthodox communities where the men wear different colors and styles.

  6. Fashion-isha says:

    Love it! But you need a really glamorous photo to go with this article because I wasn’t ‘enticed’ to read it until your reposted it a couple of times…All I saw was a mouse..ewww. Because as we both know you can be both glamorous and modest..a couple of inches for the sake of spirituality is not going to make us feel less beautiful in the end..only more so!
    Thanks!
    xo
    Sharon

  7. EstherAsna says:

    beautiful points regarding tzniut laws and spirituality – very inspiring, thank you!

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