Time to rethink Jewish laws of modesty? Think again

Tzni'us, the Jewish ethos of modesty, has been under intense discussion recently. Do we need the traditional manifestations of established tzni'us or should we apply a general definition without them?

Rabbi Avraham Gordimer, | updated: 16:26

Rabbi Avraham Gordimer
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer

There has been much discussion as of late regarding tzni’us (modesty). Whereas the issue of photos of women has occupied most of the discussion, with all Orthodox commenters on the subject accepting the basic parameters of tzni’us, while debating how they should be reflected in media publications and in the world at large, Rabbi Marc Angel has now taken the discussion in a radical new direction.

In a recently published article, A Modesty Proposal: Rethinking Tseniut, Rabbi Angel comprehensively rejects the contemporary applicability of long-established tzni’us practicesas he advocates for a general exercise of modesty without the traditional manifestations.

Rabbi Angel’s article starts off well, reflecting what should be basic to any approach of the subject:

"Tseniut (sic), though, is not simply a system of prevention from sin. Rather, it encompasses a positive philosophy relating to the nature of human beings. While acknowledging the power of human sexuality, tseniut teaches that human beings are more than mere sexual beings…

"It is normal and natural for people to want to appear pleasing to others. That is why they spend so much time and money on clothing and grooming. If one dresses nicely, neatly, and modestly, one may take pride and satisfaction in his/her appearance. If, though, one specifically dresses or behaves in a manner that is aimed at arousing sexual attention, then he/she has crossed into the non-tseniut mode. One has chosen to be an object a thing,rather than a Thou.

"Why would people willingly dress or act in a manner as to make themselves into objects? The answer is that they want to be noticed, admired, longed for. They think that by presenting themselves as objects, they will more likely achieve these goals. They demand less of themselves and of others; no commitment or serious dialogue is invited or expected.

"Human beings all have feelings of insecurity; we need to be needed, appreciated, and loved. Although these tendencies are often exacerbated in teenagers, they continue to exist throughout adult life. Exhibitionism is a short-cut to gaining the attention—and hopefully the affection—of others. Yet, underneath the veneer of showiness is a layer of essential insecurity, loneliness, and dissatisfaction with self. Exhibitionism may gain the attention of others, but it does not gain their respect and love."

The article then turns south, as it rejects the Talmudic understanding of tzni’us and proceeds to cast off its entire halakhic tradition, with Rabbi Angel asserting that tzni’us regulations in Talmudic and medieval times were predicated upon women being considered subservient to men, and that since women today are not in a position of subservience, the regulations no longer apply:

"It is important for us to understand the underlying assumptions of the ancient and medieval halakhic sources. The early rabbinic opinions on the topic of tseniut emerged from a context where women—Jewish and non-Jewish—were deemed to be subservient to men. The operative principle was that the honor of a princess, i.e. a dignified woman, is for her to remain in private. Women were to stay home to the extent possible. When they appeared in public, they were to be dressed in such a way as not to attract the attention of men. Women generally were not given the same educational opportunities as men, nor were they encouraged or generally allowed to participate in public life or to have authority over men. Women’s role was to care for the household, have children, and maintain piety and modesty.

"Classic rabbinic literature assumes that women are primarily a source of sexual temptation to men, and that women should therefore dress and conduct themselves so as not to arouse men’s passions. Discussions of the laws of tseniut often tend to focus on specific details of what constitutes modest and immodest dress and behavior. Rabbi Yehuda Henkin, in his book Understanding Tzniut, cites talmudic and later rabbinic sources dealing with such issues as what parts of a woman’s body constitute nakedness; how much of a woman’s body needs to be covered; the ervah (nakedness) of a woman’s leg, voice, and hair. He also discusses sociological conditions that may impact on the boundaries of modesty.

"The discussion in Berakhot 24a is reflective of the prevailing talmudic attitude:

"Rabbi Yitzhak said: An [uncovered] tefah (hand’s breadth) in a woman is nakedness (ervah)….Did not Rabbi Shesheth say that anyone [i.e. any man] who gazes even at a woman’s little finger is as though he gazes at her private parts?… Rabbi Hisda said a woman’s leg (shok) is ervah… Shemuel said that a woman’s voice is ervah…. Rabbi Shesheth said a woman’s hair is ervah.

"This passage, and others of the same tenor, operate with the following tacit assumption. Because women’s body, hair, and voice are so alluring to men, women are to cover themselves up to the extent possible, and are not to use their voices in a way that might arouse men. Halakhic literature contains various opinions as to how to apply the tseniut rulings—but by and large, the general assumptions outlined above are taken for granted…

"Women today are no longer relegated to the home, but are involved in all aspects of society. Women interact regularly, and in many contexts, with men; women often hold positions of responsibility, including having authority over men. Few today would agree with the notion that the honor of a woman is to remain in the privacy of her home. Few today would agree that women are or must be subservient to men…

"We need to return to the underlying philosophy of tseniut: the expectation that we be holy, that we live dignified lives, that we not present ourselves as sexual objects. How these aims are actually fulfilled very much depends on the societal conditions in which we live. In ancient and medieval times, when women lived highly restricted lives, the rules of tseniut were applied accordingly. In our times, when women function openly and freely in society, the rules of tseniut also must be applied with this reality in mind.

"The following are some proposed applications of the rules of tseniut in our modern societies:

"1. Neither men nor women should dress, speak, or act in a licentious manner that will arouse the sexual attention of others. It is a violation of tseniut to wear skimpy, overly tight, or other clothing that is designed to highlight one’s sexuality.

"2. It is proper for men and women to dress nicely, neatly, and modestly. It is fine to dress fashionably, as long as those fashions do not violate the philosophy of tseniut.

"3. In our society, it is normal for upstanding and proper women to wear pants/pants suits; short sleeved dresses/blouses; clothes with colorful designs. Wearing these things is not a violation of tseniut, as long as these items are not fashioned in such a way as to highlight one’s sexuality.

"4. Married women need not cover their hair, as long as their hair is maintained in a modest style. The wearing of wigs does not constitute a proper hair-covering for those married women who wish to cover their hair. Rather, such women should wear hats or other head coverings that actually cover their hair…

"It makes little sense to pretend that our living conditions today are identical to those of antiquity and the middle ages. Women’s roles in society have changed radically. The interrelationships of men and women today are far more common and far more frequent than in former times. Fashions have changed dramatically. Definitions of brazenness and immodesty are far different today than they were in olden days. Recognizing these changes is essential to formulating a proper application of tseniut rules…"

All I can say is “Whoa!”

Before even broaching the halakhic issues here, Rabbi Angel’s thesis is flawed, for women being purportedly deemed subservient or equal to men is unrelated to issues of sensual allure and the need to be on guard. To argue that a subservient role of women in society is the controlling factor for the halakhic regulations of modesty does not follow logically.

(I furthermore take issue with Rabbi Angel’s contention that women were considered subservient in Talmudic society; the very Talmudic dictums themselves which Rabbi Angel cites do not support his claim. There exists in the Talmud and in all traditional texts an unmistakable difference between gender roles, but the word “subservience” is an inaccurate and unfair connotation.)

As per the Talmudic discussion in Kesubos (72A-B), some aspects of tzni’us and conduct between genders are Biblically mandated; this category of regulations is termed Das Moshe and is an inviolable, always-applicable set of standards that is not a function of society or custom. Included in Das Moshe is basic hair covering. Other aspects of tzni’us, termed Das Yehudis, are related to communal norms; poskim maintain that the details of Das Yehudis requirements can vary between societies and times, based on the common and current practice in each locale. Aside from basic hair covering being absolutely mandated, the Talmud (Berachos 24A) states that a woman’s thighs and voice are deemed ervah, invoking Biblibal verses to this effect.

It is clear from the Talmud, as well as from all halakhic codes and major commentators, that Das Moshe considerations as well as those cited in Mas. Berachos (ibid.) are objective, baseline requirements, and are not a function of social custom or of a “subservient” role of women.

This disproves Rabbi Angel’s claim that these matters are governed by a “prevailing Talmudic attitude” which no longer pertains, and it refutes his conclusions about tzni’us requirements in the contemporary era. Furthermore, it is clear from poskim that even Das Yehudis requirements are not a mere reflection of social practice; social practice provides contours, but tradition is at the core of it all, and contemporary practices which diametrically challenge basic Das Yehudis regulations cannot cause these regulations to be dispensed with.

All of this information, which is dispositive to a basic presentation of the topic, is totally absent from Rabbi Angel’s article and his concluding applications.

Although Rabbi Angel’s article is long, there is no need for elaboration to show that its position is incorrect; the basic sources (Rambam Hil. Ishus 24:12-13, Shulchan Aruch – Orach Chaim 75 and Even Ha-Ezer 115) with their commentaries make this eminently clear.

But let us delve a bit deeper in order to gain a better grasp of the issues.

The Aruch Ha-Shulchan (Orach Chaim 75:7), discussing the prohibition of reciting the Shema in the presence of women who are not garbed according to Halakha, writes:

And let us now come and decry the breach in our generation, among our numerous sins, that for these many years have Jewish women been committing the sin of going about with uncovered hair, and all attempts to condemn this plague have been futile, such that married Jewish women now go with hair like that of unmarried women. Woe to us that such a thing has occurred in our time. Nonetheless it appears that one is halakhically permitted to pray and recite berachos in the presence of these women whose heads are uncovered, since most women now go about that way, and their hair therefore has the status of areas of the body which are commonly not covered (in the presence of which one may daven), for the Mordechai writes in the name of the Ra’avyah…

A crucial distinction is being made here between tzni’us (sensual appearance) and ervah (halakhic nakedness): even if something is not considered to be a breach of tzni’us in general society, it can still have the status of ervah. This concept runs throughout halakhic literature, and it puts to rest the suggestion that conduct which is not considered immodest by contemporary societal standards somehow therefore becomes halachically permissible.

After presenting his main thesis, Rabbi Angel attempts to demonstrate a disconnect between the concept of tzni’us and its application, in an effort to compel the reform of normative practice. In this vein does Rabbi Angel target the practice of women wearing wigs (pe’ah nochris/sheitel):

“Women’s hair is considered ervah. Yet various posekim allow women to cover their own natural hair with a wig. As long as they have fulfilled the technicality of covering their hair, they are not in violation of halakha. In some circles, it is expected that married women wear wigs; if they do not do so, they are considered to be religiously deficient.

"Does this make any sense? Women will spend thousands of dollars to buy wigs that often look better than their own hair. They will wear these wigs, which can be quite attractive, and be considered to be within the laws of tseniut. However, if a woman “wears” her own hair, in a modest fashion, such a woman is deemed (by many) to be in violation of halakha. If a woman’s hair is indeed nakedness, how can it possibly be permitted for them to wear wigs—also made of hair? Would anyone suggest that a woman is permitted to wear a skin-colored dress that is printed with the design of her private body parts? Of course not. Such clothing is obviously anti-tseniut. Likewise, if a woman’s hair is nakedness, covering it with a wig is anti-tseniut."

The permissibility of a sheitel is disputed by poskim (v. Remo in Orach Chaim 75:2, from Hagahos Alfasi, with Mogen Avrohom, Ateres Zekeinim, et al), and Rabbi Angel is certainly entitled to his opinion. But the issue in truth relates to the delineation between tzni’us and ervah, which Rabbi Angel does not address. 

Tzni’us is a concept denoting modest conduct and appearance rather than allure and attraction, whereas ervah is a legal category. The hair of a married woman is legally deemed ervah, and many poskim therefore rule that covering it with other hair (a wig) suffices, and by the same token, areas which are commonly not covered, even if technically ervah, may not pose an issue to prayer and Torah study in their presence, for the issue in those cases is one of distraction and allure. Rabbi Angel’s article conflates these two distinct concepts, leading to an erroneous conclusion.

As part of his effort to demonstrate a disconnect between the codified rules of tzni’us and the reality, Rabbi Angel writes:

"An unmarried man may not teach children because of the mothers who bring their children [and we fear possible immoral thoughts or conduct between teacher and the children’s mothers]… A woman may not teach children because of the fathers who bring their children [and we fear possible immoral thoughts or conduct between teacher and the children’s fathers]. (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh Deah, 245:20–21).

"Few, if any, Orthodox schools follow this halakha. It is quite common for single men to teach in Day Schools and yeshivot. It is also quite prevalent for women to teach in Day Schools and yeshivot. Indeed, Hareidi girls’ schools tend to encourage students to become teachers."

In reply to Rabbi Angel’s contention: These restrictions are not disregarded in Orthodox schools of today; rather, they do not generally pertain, as the Shulchan Aruch speaks of old-fashioned single-staff schooling, in which the solitary teacher at his or her private residence is the school, and hence all interaction between parent and school is directly with that solitary teacher at his or her home. Modern schools/yeshivos are structured entirely differently, with the type and forum of interaction being totally dissimilar to the case featured in the Shulchan Aruch.

It would have been wonderful for Rabbi Angel to focus on the real breaches of tzni’us in contemporary Orthodoxy, including the hypocrisy of women wearing sheitlels together with miniskirts, men who are lax in their physical contact with women and who engage in immodest speech, and the proliferation of open discussion of intimacy, especially as manifest in a public podcast conducted by a liberal-Orthodox rosh yeshiva along with a sex therapist and a female clergy student, who together explore graphic sensual topics in the context of Judaism.

Readers would have appreciated a greater treatment of the traditional concepts of tzni’us, reflected both halakhically and in terms of dignified and disciplined social presentation and interaction.

Rabbi Angel’s article is a radical, bottom-up appeal to redefine tzni’us and abandon traditional norms, and it does not give proper consideration to the most essential halakhic discourse on the matter. Upon a basic review and understanding of the issues, Rabbi Angel’s thesis cannot be sustained.

This article also appeared in Cross-Currents.








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