Judaism: Why Dress Modestly? Tell Them: It's the Rule!
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedThe writer is Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law, whose works include the series on Jewish law "Pininei Halacha" and a popular weekly column "Revivim" in the Besheva newspaper. His books "The Laws of Prayer" "The Laws of Passover" and "Nation, Land, Army" are presently being translated into English. Other articles by Rabbi Melamed can be viewed at: www.yhb.org.il/1
Dealing with Immodest Dress in Ulpanot
Q: One of the problems bothering teachers in ulpanot (women’s seminaries) and public religious high schools is how to deal with girls who come to school dressed immodestly. The conventional approach is to deal with the problem through education and explanations. Issuing from a belief that our generation is an amazing generation, full of wonder, with lofty ideals, we discuss the value of modesty and its spiritual qualities with the girls, attempting to minimize our disciplinary comments which create an unpleasant atmosphere and a sense of remoteness and distrust by the girls of the teachers. The problem is it usually doesn’t work. The girls repeatedly ask: Why aren’t we allowed to wear these clothes? Why do you always lecture us about tzniyut (modesty)? We’re sick and tired of hearing the same thing all the time! What’s wrong with wearing short sleeves or a short skirt?
How should we answer them?
The Answer is: Kakha!
A: It appears that the most fitting answer to the question is: “Kakha!” (Because). In other words, that’s the halakha – without any additional spiritual explanations. Teachers and parents must get used to saying “kakha”.
In the study of Torah and emunah (faith), we explain numerous foundations, but faith in God and Torah also includes difficult matters which are hard to understand. The basic premise is that in spite of man’s intelligence, he cannot understand everything. And if he wants to connect with God, and with eternal values, he is required to say “nasay v’nishma” (first we will do, and then we will listen). This does not make a person less intelligent; on the contrary, he is then able to connect to Divine intellect, deepening his human understanding.
The Power of Halakha
When all the stores in the shopping malls are filled with tons of clothes that do not meet halakhic standards, and it’s hard to find “kosher” clothes that can compete in beauty and style with the immodest clothing, and moreover, the winds blowing from the fashion centers of the West dictate immodest dress – it is very difficult for a young girl exploring the limits to overcome the temptations. Therefore, the only way to deal with this is through a commitment to halakha.
And do not underestimate the power of halakha. Try persuading a heavy smoker to stop smoking one day a week. Use all the explanations, and see how difficult it is. But when halakha declares it is forbidden to smoke on Shabbat – people do not smoke. Amazingly, even heavy smokers don’t find it so difficult!
Most children and teenagers enjoy playing on the computer, but on Shabbat – miraculously – they don’t! Why? Is it because they were lectured about the importance of Shabbat, and given profound explanations about how playing games on the computer harms its sanctity? No. They don’t play because halakha forbids it. As time goes by the sanctity of Shabbat can be discussed in greater detail.
True, when the foundations of emunah are rickety, halakha gradually loses its power. When the heart is weak, blood fails to properly reach the small capillaries. Therefore, a person is constantly required to diligently study emunah and mussar (ethics) as well, and strive to understand Am Yisrael’s mission in the world, and the unique destiny of each and every one of us. This is the purpose of derashot (sermons).
But when dealing with the temptations of the yetzer (desires), the power of halakha is greater than that of derashot.
The Role of Principals and Teachers in Religious Schools
It is not the job of principals and teachers to chase after the girls when school is out. That is the responsibility of parents and the girls themselves. But when school is in session, a religious institution must determine that the boundaries of halakha are binding, and enforce them vigorously and consistently. Whoever comes to school not dressed according to the rules – is sent home. Discipline also carries an important educational message. It expresses commitment to halakha and mussar. Incidentally, dress codes have now become customary even in secular high schools, and seeing as the rules are strictly enforced, the rules are rarely broken.
Without any connection to this, the values of family and modesty should be discussed, just as the values of honesty, kindness, faith and redemption are also discussed.
The Parent’s Role
Parents must also set boundaries and uphold them consistently. When this is done, dealing with problems becomes relatively simple. Just as religious people are able to walk past a non-kosher shwarma stand without buying something to eat, in the same way, they can also refrain from buying “non-kosher” clothes. Independent of this, it is important to discuss the role of Am Yisrael, the importance of Torah and halakha, the Jewish way to start a family, and the immeasurable advantage of living in a religious framework as opposed to a secular one, with regards to marital relationships and true love.
People with Limited Faith and the Cucumber Miracle
Three weeks ago I wrote about individuals with limited faith who believe emunah is mainly based on miracles, and consequently, attempt to describe everything that happens as being a miracle. For example: “I got to the supermarket and all the cucumbers were almost gone, but miraculously, there were a few left – exactly what I needed, and even more… and by the grace of God, I bought them! Blessed be the Lord, whose kindness has not abandoned me, and has performed this great miracle of cucumbers on my behalf!”
Science also poses a major problem for them, because it supposedly expresses the grandeur of nature’s wisdom at the expense of miracles. Thus, every so often we hear people say: “All the doctors said he had no chance of living; but in the end – miraculously – and contrary to the opinion of the doctors, he recovered”.
Why Shouldn’t One Try to Perceive Divine Providence?
In wake of this, I received a number of questions, asking primarily: “Why shouldn’t one try to observe Divine Providence in everything, like in the example of the cucumbers?” There were also family members of ill people who wrote about the recovery of their relatives, asking: “Why shouldn’t we view it as a miracle, and thank God for it?”
Thanking God Should be Complete and Balanced
A: It is a great virtue for an individual to see the goodness of God in everything that happens to him, and even to learn a moral lesson from it. The problem is that a person who is overly impressed by the “cucumber miracle” usually has nothing left inside of him when it comes to the really important events in life. For example, he is less impressed by the actual creation of the cucumbers and other foods.
Similar to this, our Sages said: “Jerusalem was destroyed only because the small and the great were made equal” (Shabbat 119b). When a minor event is turned into a miracle, the magnitude of the truly big miracles is diminished. There is room for suspicion that the same person who is moved by the “cucumber miracle” tends to ignore the miracle of kibbutz galiyot (Ingathering of the Exiles) and the establishment of the State of Israel – unparalleled miracles in the annals of history.
Accordingly, our Sages fixed a detailed and categorized order of blessings of thanksgiving. The blessing “Who creates the fruit of the ground” is recited over cucumbers, and for each and every food, they fixed a blessing. Our Sages also fixed the order of praise, thanksgiving, and prayer in Psukei D’zimrah, Birkot Kriyat Shema, and the Amidah prayer. That is also the place to give thanks for a sick person who was healed: “Heal us…Blessed are You, God, Healer of the sick of His people Israel”. If the sick person was seriously ill, upon recuperating he blesses “Hagomel” (the blessing of thanksgiving). And if the illness was severe and prolonged, when one recovers, it is fitting to prepare a thanksgiving feast.
Exaggeration Leads to a Reduction of Value
Similarly, we have learned in the Talmud Berachot (33b) about a certain person who prayed in the presence of Rabbi Hanina, and said: “O God, the great, mighty, terrible, majestic, powerful, awful, strong, fearless, credible and honored.” After he finished, Rabbi Hanina said to him: “Have you concluded all the praise of your Master?” Surely, there is no end to His praise. Rather, what the Anshei Knesset Hagadolah (Men of the Great Assembly) determined we should say in prayer is proper, and should not be added to. “It is analogous to an earthly king who had a million coins of gold, and someone praised him for possessing silver ones. Would it not be an insult to him?!” In the same way, a person who is overly-impressed by “cucumber miracles” is comparable to someone who praises a king for his clay vessels, when he possesses expensive, gold ones.
The Definition of a Miracle and Nature in Halakha
In truth, there is no significant difference between a miracle and nature – everything comes from God. For that reason, we say in prayer “for Your miracles that are daily with us”, because natural existence is also a miracle. Usually, however, we call the normal order ‘nature’, and anything beyond of nature, we call a ‘miracle’ – whose function is to teach us something special.
The definition of a miracle can be learned from the blessing our Sages fixed for someone who was miraculously saved; upon revisiting the place in which the miracle occurred, he blesses: “Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has performed a miracle for me at this place”.
Some authorities are of the opinion that if a person’s life was physically in danger – such as surviving a car accident, or falling from a high place, or being attacked by robbers – seeing as he was saved, he is obligated to recite a blessing (Rivash). Other authorities say that only when the vast majority of people in a similar, dangerous situation die – is one obligated to recite a blessing (Rosh M’Lunil).
Given that the general rule is safek brachot l’hakel (leniency for a doubtful blessing) this is the halakha (S.A., O.C., 218:9). Therefore, someone who was in a large building that collapsed, and searchers dug through the rubble and found him alive, or a person who fell from a very high place, or an individual who was shot at and took several bullets to his upper body, or someone who suffered a serious car accident – if saved, he should recite a blessing with shem u’malchut (the name of God and His Sovereignty). But if the danger was such that only a majority of people die from it – but not the vast majority – one should recite the blessing without shem u’malchut.
A Woman Who Comes to Synagogue on Shabbat Right before the Amidah
Q: A woman who comes to synagogue for the morning prayers on Shabbat and finds the congregation about to pray the Amidah, is it better for her to skip Psukei D’zimra and Birkot Kriyat Shema in order to pray together with the congregation, or should she recite the prayers in order?
A: According to halakha, a woman is entitled to choose the way which fits her best. If she wants, she can pray the entire order of prayers individually, or she can start praying right away with the congregation. This is because women are exempt from reciting Psukei D’zimra and Birkot Kriyat Shema, and also from praying in a minyan with the public. Thus, in this case, when there are positive aspects in both approaches, every woman may choose whichever she prefers. The most important point of prayer is kavana (intention) – whichever way she feels she can have more kavana is the proper way for her to act.
If, nevertheless, she asks for advice, seemingly it is preferable for her to skip Psukei D’zimra and Birkot Kriyat Shema so she can pray the Amidah with the minyan. Seeing as a woman’s main obligation is just to pray the Amidah, it is preferable for her to pray it in the most enhanced way – with a minyan – and afterwards, she merits answering amen and kedusha to the repetition of the Chazan, and can hear the reading of the Torah. Still, she should be careful to recite Birkot Hashachar and Birkot HaTorah before praying the Amidah. And if she has more time, it is advisable for her to also recite Kriyat Shema and birkat “emet v’yatziv”, thus fulfilling the mitzvah to remember the Exodus from Egypt, and link geula to tefilla (Peninei Halakha: Nashim 22:7).
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew.