Can We Dress Less Modestly Because Our Society Does?

Can We Dress Less Modestly Because Our Society Does?


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Hey Jew in the City-

I’ve heard people say that modesty is just for a specific time and place, i.e., based on the times you’re living in. If that’s true, why do we still have to follow it?

Best,
Madison

Dear Madison-

Thanks for your question. I would say that “time and place” thing works as a stringency, not as a leniency, as I’ll explain with (Shameless Self-Promotion Alert!) an excerpt from one of my books, the aptly-named The Tzniyus Book. In it, there’s a chapter entitled “Community Standards,” which addresses this very issue. Here’s a selection, very mildly edited:

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When I was in high school, my friend Aviva, who was a few grades ahead of me, came back from a year of study in Israel. The summer was hot and humid (as it tends to be) and she complained of the relative discomfort of wearing stockings in the summer, a practice that was still new to her.

“So why wear them?” I asked.

“You have to wear stockings in a place where it is the minhag (custom),” she explained.

“And is it the minhag on Long Island?” I inquired.

“It’s the minhag everywhere,” she informed me.

The logic of that proposition eluded me then as it eludes me now, but it introduces an important principle, that of community standards. Not everything is black or white. There is some leeway in one’s practice, but what is acceptable in one place may not be acceptable in another.

When it comes to tzniyus, there are three levels of ervah, private areas. Parts of the body that are Biblically-required to be covered include a woman’s entire torso, a married woman’s hair and the genitals of both genders. Parts that are Rabbinically-required to be covered include areas such as a girl’s upper arm. The necessity to cover some other body parts, such as the calf of the leg, and the acceptable methods of covering certain parts, may fall into categories of accepted practice in a given community.

Let’s take Aviva’s stockings as a perfect example. In some communities, the accepted practice is to wear opaque stockings with seams in the back. In other communities the practice is to wear regular tights (not with seams), but only opaque (so that one will not mistake flesh-colored pantyhose for bare skin). Still other communities accept flesh-colored tights, others accept knee socks, and still others permit ankle socks. And, of course, there are those whose practice is to wear no lower leg, ankle or foot covering whatsoever. This does not undermine the integrity of any community’s practice. Communities differ in many accepted practices.

For example, matzah that has been soaked in water, such as is used to make matzah balls, is called gebrukhts. Some communities eat gebrukhts on Pesach, while others do not. Similarly, there are many differences in community practice when it comes to issues of tzniyus. In some communities, women only cover their hair with a tichel (head scarf). Others permit a shaitel (wig). Still others may only permit a shaitel to be worn if there is a hat on top. Skirt lengths, sleeve lengths, and other issues differ from community to community.

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Here endeth our excerpt.

In recent posts on Orthodox Jewish men wearing black and wearing hats, we discussed the concept of “accepted Jewish style.” This is a real thing in halacha. For example, the Talmud in tractate Sanhedrin (74a-b) tells us that if an oppressive government is forcibly converting Jews, one must die rather than violate even a minor practice. The example given of a “minor practice” is not even to change the style of how we wear our shoelaces. Rashi explains that in this example the Jews tie their shoelaces one way and the non-Jews tie them differently; Tosfos explain it that the Jews wear black laces and the non-Jews wear white laces. The principle is the same either way: if we have an accepted community style, it’s a real thing and we’re expected to abide by it.

Some things are black and white. Women wearing skirts, for example, is explicit halacha and nothing changes that. Other things – like stockings, socks, sandals, sleeve length, and other things that presumably also start with the letter S – may vary from community to community. If a community has an accepted standard, members of that community are obligated to abide by it regardless of what styles may be popular in other communities, and certainly regardless of what may be popular in the general society around us.

Addendum:

Q. Some of my classmates would quote this Rambam (attached) as the source of why tznius is according to the times.

A. Ah, the dreaded follow-up question! (For the benefit of those of you reading at home, the paragraph I have been sent is Hilchos Ishus 13:11.) The context there is the clothes that a husband is obligated to provide his wife at each holiday. One of these “baseline” garments, as listed in halacha 13:1, is a hat. Halacha 13:11 adds the following: in a place where women don’t go out wearing just a hat, but they also wrap themselves in a cloak-like veil, he must also provide her with such a veil.

So this halacha doesn’t discuss tzniyus per se, so much as it does a husband’s obligation to provide his wife with clothing that conforms to local community standards. All this does is say that one can take the baseline halachic obligations (in this case, a hat) and add community stringencies to them (in this case, a veil), and that such stringencies are binding – in other words, exactly what we’ve been saying all along! There is no basis to suggest that a community can subtract from the baseline obligations. (If the Rambam had said that in a place where women go out without a hat, the husband need not provide her with one, it would be another story. To my knowledge, however, such an approach is unprecedented.)

Sincerely,
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, JITC Educational Correspondent

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Comments

  1. Beth Jacobs : July 15, 2018 at 5:26 pm

    Thank you for a thought-provoking article! The article did not mention covering the knees – was this deliberate?

    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz : July 17, 2018 at 10:09 am

      Thanks for your question. The list given there is illustrative but it is not meant to exhaustive. There are lots of body parts one could have named, such as thighs, collarbones and buttocks, but it’s not meant to be a limb-by-limb analysis.

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Rabbi Jack Abramowitz

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, Jew in the City's Educational Correspondent, is the editor of OU Torah (www.ou.org/torah) . He is the author of six books including The Taryag Companion and The God Book.


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