Sunday, February 20, 2011

Tznius and Modern Orthodoxy

[ This week's Haveil Havalim is here]

First: I dislike the term “tznius” as applied to clothing, because it more accurately refers – both linguistically and historically - to an overarching sense of privacy and humility, expressed in all levels of behavior. However, “tznius” is the term our generation uses to refer to Judaism’s traditional, conservative halachic and philosophical approach to dress. So I’ll use it here.

Second: I also dislike the term “Modern Orthodoxy”... but we’ve been through that before.

This past week I witnessed a discussion on the reasons why many in the Modern Orthodox community are lax regarding tznius.

Some participants laid the blame on popular ignorance, and I suppose that is a part of it - especially as our leaders and role models send mixed messages on the issue, even in their own dress. How many of our kids go to shabbatonim or youth programs where their advisors dress in a manner that is less-than-tzanua?

To this I'd add that many Jews don't recognize the difference between halachah, minhag and personal preference in these matters.

And I’d add an agnatological point: It’s a willful ignorance, as many don’t want to learn more, and therefore they don’t know more.

I also think part of it is that some modern rabbis mock those who dress in a more tzanua way, or in a more chassidish way (how many times have I heard people justify their own choice of garb by mocking those who dress "like a 16th century Polish nobleman"), and this adds fuel to the non-tzanua fire.

Both the ignorance and the scorn are eminently solvable, though, via commitment to greater education, and to respect for those whose practices are different.

I think another, more challenging point is the Universalist ideology that is second nature to Modern Orthodox Jews – an appreciation for the value of our world, and a desire to engage other citizens of that world as equals. This Universalism, perhaps better rendered as Humanism, makes tznius difficult.

Being tzanua in a non-tzanua world, and believing that being tzanua is a moral statement rather than a technical observance, carries the implication that those around us are immoral, or less moral than we are. This runs counter to the idea that the people around us are our moral equals.

And being tzanua in a non-tzanua world makes mixing in society difficult. Today’s multiculturalism encourages tolerance of the Other, but not engagement of the Other. The tzanua is definitely the Other, and has a hard time feeling socially accepted.

In a sense, the anti-tznius phenomenon manifests the flip side of the parochialism practiced by other groups of Jews. Parochialism, taken to its extreme, causes its practitioners to (a) look down on others, and (b) avoid activities which will help them blend in. And universalism/humanism does the opposite.

Perhaps one solution is a more nuanced universalism. A universalism which deems all equal in substance (Tzelem Elokim), but not in actions. A universalism which is balanced with the rest of our halachic/philosophical values. Allowing any one plank in our platform to become outsized is unhealthy.

Ultimately, dressing in a tzanua manner is an expression of a halachic and philosophical value of our Judaism. Whether this is dropped out of ignorance, or scorn, or a desire to blend in, the result is the loss of a major element of Judaism, and a significant lacking in each individual's experience of Torah.

[You might also see this old post from November '08.]


  1. If I had to guess, I'd say the reason is that they just don't see a 1 to 1 correspondence between what is being defined as tzniut dress and "common sense" (e.g. why are loose fitting pants not tzanua but form fitting dresses are, why are sheitels more beautiful than any natural hair tzanua, but leaving part of your hair uncovered not, do my elbows really excite anyone.....) once this dissonance occurs, unfortunately all rules may be looked at askance.

    Joel Rich

  2. I'd add another factor that leads to the lack of modest dress --psychological/sociological. I have observed those who would describe themselves as modern orthodox (I don't like the term either and thus don't use it for myself or others) with a mindset that says "we do X (e.g. wear tank tops or go about bearheaded after marriage, but it could be other issues that have nothing to do with dress)" and anyone who grew up doing something different is part of a different group, and anyone who changes their practice is changing groups. The "other" group may or may not be looked down upon (it probably depends on the individual), but either way as long as one isn't in the "other" group and doesn't have a desire to change groups, there is no impetus to examine one's behaviors. I think this thinking closes off a lot of opportunity for personal growth. I make this observation with pain and not to be critical or point fingers.

  3. 1) The gemara about kol hamosif gore'a in Sanhedrin (28a IIRC) is understood by many Rishonim to be a call to carefully distinguish a siyag from the ikkar mitzvah. And the Rambam requires a beit din making a gezeirah to distinguish it from the d'oraita it protects. The point of a siyag is to habituate us to staying far from the issur, not to blur the distinction between waht is forbidden d'oraita and what is permitted. Nor is it to fool the masses because if we "give them an inch they'll take a yard." Unfortunately, many who are strict about modest dress for people of both genders tend to be careless about this and it undermines their credibility.

    2) The broader understanding of tzniut is largely lost, and it helps undermine the case. In particular regarding what the rabbonon call "yuharah"--public display of surface piety. In one of his tshuvot to Rav Teitz about blended whiskey, Rav Moshe Feinstein (whose piety was certainly genuine) mentions that if a ba'al habayit gives him a l'chayim from the whiskey blended with a small amount of stam yeinam, which R. Moshe said he generally avoided even though it was muttar, he would drink it because for him to refuse would look like yuhara. A rabbi who behaves like that has more credibility on the subject of tzniut than one who is always proving how frum he is.

    3) A related point--the emphasis on surface manifestations of frumkeit also provokes a reaction which is not particularly healthy.
    So does the phenomenon of segments of the community who blame every tragedy on women's dress, and where rabbi's call meetings to discuss women's dress with male only audiences. This is not to justify the reaction, but one cannot address the issue without recognizing some of the factors that produce it.

  4. These are all good comments. I should be taking the time to reply point-by-point, but the week has entirely gotten away from me. I apologize.