Apr 3, 2011

Embarking On Modesty (Tzniut) -- On Your Own Terms

It could be worse, this could be our headgear!
I received a question on a recent blog post from a reader that I'm going to paraphrase and discuss here. The situation? Well, the reader is considering dressing/acting in a more modest way, from hair to clothes to what she says and what she doesn't say. The reader lives in a predominately non-Jewish area, she's married to a non-Jew, and she's a Reconstructionist Jew. The question? Do I (that's me, Chavi) think that non-Orthodox women can enjoy modest style, dress, mannerisms, and everything else, or is it somehow taboo?

My first thought regarding this question was BEWARE! Why? Well, being someone who came to Judaism via Reform avenues, snaked through Conservative Judaism and zipped on to Orthodox Judaism, I can tell you that once you take on a certain mitzvah -- whether superficially or otherwise -- you really tend to get hooked. For me, it was the realization that if I was going to do x, y, z, I wanted ... nay ... needed those around me to be doing the same thing. The pull of mitzvot like modesty meant that I ended up in a place I never thought I would, but here I am. And that, folks, is the danger. 

That being said, I think that all women -- Jewish or not -- can find an appreciation and enjoyment for tzniut. But you have to be acting, dressing, and carrying yourself modestly because of a personal conviction and understanding of what you're doing. I think that many Orthodox Jews who live or work in non-Jewish atmospheres will tell you about the painstaking moments when someone queries why long sleeves are necessary in August heat or why you suddenly are toting a hat or tichel atop your head, and I think that most of those individuals would tell you that ultimately your modest oddities will be a point of information and education. If, of course, you own it. 

There is a lot to be said for speaking and carrying yourself modestly in all you do, even if you don't take on skirts and elbow covering and hair covering -- we could all use a kick back to respect, shame, and holding back some things. There's no mystery in life anymore (says the blogger who tells her readers just about everything under the sun -- or so you think! Bwahahaha!) One of the biggest problems in the Jewish community, many rabbis will tell you, is lashon hara, or gossiping and bad-mouthing your friends and foes alike. We have loose lips, many of us, so I think we all can benefit from modest mouths.

Oh! And another warning: Those who will question your motives and changes the most will be other Jews, probably those of the non-Orthodox bent. So beware; you might get some really unpleasant reactions from those around you who either think you're "heading to the dark side" or who just don't get why someone would even want to go down that road. 

Ultimately, if you feel good about yourself and the image you're portraying while dressing or acting modestly, then by golly, you're doing something right, and whether you believe or don't believe, HaShem can respect that and those around you will, too. I observe tzniut for a multi-fold reason: because I'm an Orthodox Jew (it's how we roll); because I feel powerful and beautiful when I dress and cover my hair, because I'm making that choice and styling myself in a Chavi-specific way; because I gotta respect the fact that I'm married (that's for you Tuvia); and, well, because I feel like I've gained HaShem's respect for taking on tzniut. I'm not saying those of you who don't dabble in modest dress don't have HaShem's respect, we all have our own ties and vibes from HaShem, right? 

What do you guys think about this query?

My question to the reader who posed the question would then be (and maybe she can guest blog post for us) why do you want to dress modestly, with your own special circumstances that wouldn't otherwise dictate tzniut,? What inspired you to consider this step? 

PS: Modesty doesn't mean frumpy or ugly or out of fashion or oppressive ... mmk?


Batya said...

Modest dressing is elegant, shows a self-respect instead of skin. How it affects the inner workings of a person's mind and soul, as you wrote, it can be the first step on a spiritual journey.

Frume Sarah said...

I am so happy to see this issue being discussed in liberal circles!!! As a Reform woman who has recently taken on tznius as an important value, I applaud those who struggle with finding ways to be more modern in dress, speech, etc.

In fact, I had some interesting conversations with rabbinic colleagues just this week about whether there is a place in liberal Judaism for tznius, taharat hamishpacha, etc.

esther said...

There's a place for modesty as long as it's not coerced and people aren't shunned for not living up to narrow community standards.

Hadassa said...

Modesty is all about respect, for everyone, and therefore has a place in any setting. It's the people who don't understand that who start talking about the "Dark Ages". Is her query more nervousness about how others will receive her new look and new attitude than her want to change? I started wearing only modest clothes during my last year of high school and virtually NO-ONE noticed because my style didn't change. Perhaps suggesting a gradual change is best. If being careful about modest speech doesn't win compliments from her friends, then her friends have a big problem! What kind of people enjoy malicious gossip and verbal back-stabbing?

Experimental Knitter said...

Tznius is more than clothing- it's about personal values too. Many married women I know don't cover their hair all the time but still embrace what tznius really means. They are the ones organizing day care for a shiva house behind the scenes, or food for the family of people suffering through life-changing illnesses. They are the ones who come through with money (no fanfare, no plaques) when a need is made known.

Anonymous said...

What an interesting, and for me timely, post. I'm a Reform woman who is finding hair covering on her mind a lot lately.

I agree with Chaviva that a conscious adoption of modesty is not the exclusive province of the Orthodox. I think controlling one's outer appearance can be a powerful tool for shaping ones inner self, and that this is the reason to do it. My elbows are not inherently meaningful, but my thoughts and feelings about covering them, or not, can be.

And, although I agree that it is good to understand and own one's reasons for adopting any particular modest practice, I think it can be helpful to simply try an observance on for size, paying attention to the thoughts and feelings it brings you. Sometimes this can help you name the reasons you are doing something, when you could not have articulated them before trying it.

This was very much my experience with adopting daily prayer. I felt an urge to do it. I tried it. And then I knew why I wanted to do it.

erika said...

I think in some ways taking on something fully can make it easier. I've always dressed modestly since I had the choice in buying my own clothes and I don't drink alcohol so I used to think "boy, my life would be easier if I were Muslim!" At least then people would leave me alone about it!

But I guess I really struggle with taking on modesty as a commandment. For one, I don't feel commanded. For two, I don't like where the commandment may have originated and, similarly, how some people view the need for modesty (i.e. cover yourself since guys are oh, so easily distracted). Reading this and other blogs has helped me understand how other women have got to the place to accept tzniut, but it's also made it clear that I'm just not in that headspace.

Interestingly, I've also been thinking of wearing a kippah, for services, and I like some of the head coverings I've seen here, but then I worry about giving the wrong impression about myself.

This is a very interesting area.

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

You are some of the most intelligent and insightful women around -- thank you for contributing to the dialogue!

@erika What kind of impression do you think wearing a kippah would give? I'm glad that I've helped (in some way) to express how tzniut can be more than what they teach seminary girls about distracting flesh-hungry men, and I think it's fine to not be in the all-tzniut mindspace. It's a journey, and we're all on different tracks at different paces. Explore and learn more about yourself :)

@Anon You are totally on the right track. There's nothing wrong with trying a mitzvah on for size and seeing how it makes you feel. Some people will keep it, like you, and others will decide it's not for them, but at least they give it a try. And, as a sidenote, a personal thought: I always believed that as long as I believed that x,y,z mitzvah is "right" or "commanded," that was fine and working up to actually observing it was my journey. That is to say, I knew that kosher was a commandment and that I should be observing it, but it took some work and I refused to feel bad about figuring it out because I was working in that direction.

@Hadassa Not sure ... good question. We'll see if she responds!

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