Here’s One Reason Why I Cover My Knees

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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 several years ago, 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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13 comments

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  • Avatar simone says on November 30, 2012

    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.

    Reply
    • Avatar Allison says on December 1, 2012

      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.

      Reply
  • Avatar Flora says on December 1, 2012

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

    Reply
    • Avatar Allison says on December 1, 2012

      Thanks, Flora. I’m so glad to hear that!

      Reply
  • Avatar Farfel says on December 1, 2012

    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.

    Reply
  • Avatar Rina Schiffman says on December 2, 2012

    Beautifully written, and so true.

    Reply
  • Avatar Elya Goodfriend says on December 2, 2012

    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?

    Reply
    • Avatar Allison says on December 3, 2012

      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.

      Reply
  • Avatar Fashion-isha says on December 3, 2012

    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

    Reply
  • Avatar EstherAsna says on December 13, 2012

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

    Reply
  • Avatar Beth Jacobs says on January 11, 2018

    <3 the new photo 🙂

    Reply
  • Avatar Dorothy Smith says on March 29, 2020

    I’m not Jewish, but I wonder more and more about how we create our rituals to hold ourselves to God, when I do not feel this actual constraint between that love which calls us and my own heart. My belief is that we know right action is born from love and treating each other with kindness, good intention, and a pure heart. I think rituals were created because we stumbled and thought, if I do this thing, it will keep me pure or for the safety of the tribe as a whole (as in food or bathing). But I cannot see it as so, for our relationship with God cannot be hidden from God nor improved by anything other than love and obedience. And obedience is not God’s forced mandate, but rather comes from free will and from the joy which springs from living in God’s love. Which is to say none of this springs from ritual, though ritual may spring up for each of us as a choice to help us find our way. For myself, I hope when ritual enters the practice of worship it is not forced, but rather an individual’s choice or sacrifice which they, not others, formed for themselves in the practice of following God.

    Reply
    • Avatar Allison Josephs says on March 29, 2020

      Thanks for your comment, Dorothy. Being a good person is the foundation of being a religious Jew. But we have rituals to deepen our relationship to God. Anyone can be a nice person. That doesn’t take a specific teaching to do that. But rituals can add another element to our relationship to and service of God. They can also teach us discipline that simply being nice may not. But they should always be done out of love.

      Reply

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