May 17, 2011

The Tzniut Project 1: Knowing the Social Norm

This is the first in a multi-part series called The Tzniut Project. Women from a variety of backgrounds with a variety of observances have volunteered to anonymously answer questions that I have written about their practices, people's assumptions, and more. For more information on the project, click here. Please continue to check back with The Tzniut Project to read more stories and comment abundantly!

Note: This post is contributed by a reader

1. How do you affiliate Jewishly? Feel free to elaborate on the words people use to describe you and the words you use to describe yourself.
Modern orthodox. Modern in the sense that I live in the secular world, work in a "white collar" job, and interact with men on a daily basis. Orthodox in the sense that I care what halacha has to say, and that I try to go by halacha in everything I do (even if sometimes I pick and choose at my psakim).

2. Growing up, did your mother or grandmother dress modestly in any way? Do you think modesty was something instilled in you by your family? Did you dress modestly growing up?
My broader family dressed modestly and are very religious. My grandmother and aunts always wore skirts and sleeves, and one of my aunts also covered her hair. My mother dressed modestly in order to make sure that her family and her surroundings did not think badly of her and did not gossip about her, not necessarily because she believed in it. In fact, I think if she had the choice to she would have left a lot of the modest clothing by the wayside. I went to an orthodox girls' school and was required to wear skirts that covered the knees at all times, with no slits, shirts with sleeves till the elbows, and to always have my toes covered. I dressed modestly, most of the time according to school guidelines, even though there were some guidelines that I did not agree with or see the point of.

3. Are you married? How does your spouse feel about your choices for modest dress? Is it a dialogue or does your partner leave the mitzvah to you?
I am married. Before we got married, my husband and I learned together some of the various halachot relating to tzniut, particularly those pertaining to hair covering and discussed what we both felt comfortable with. Since then, the decisions on tzniut have been left to me, with my husband having the right to veto what I am wearing if he thinks it is too exposed, or if we are going to meet his family or friends and he would feel uncomfortable if I wore certain outfits in that company.

4. What would you wear on a typical day? On Shabbos? If you dress differently on weekdays and Shabbos, why do you make this distinction and how?
Typical day: Pants and T-shirt, or long skirt and T-shirt. T-shirt always has sleeves, but not necessarily down to my elbows or past them. Pants or skirt always get to knees and cover them when I am standing. I make sure that my shirts aren't low enough to show cleavage, and I try to make sure that this is kept also when I am bending and such, but that is not always the case. This is an issue that my husband comments on most frequently of all these types of issues. On Shabbat I always wear a skirt or dress, and a more elegant shirt. My hair is always covered, typically with a tichel or beret of sorts, and my bangs and/or ponytail sticking out. I don't allow my hair to get too long out of the head covering because then I feel it misses the purpose, but I most certainly do not cover every possible millimeter of it. I do not wear pants on Shabbat, because I feel they are inappropriate for shul, though I do consider them modest, and I feel I look more elegant in skirts and dresses and like to honor shabbat by looking more elegant.

5. What do you think other people infer from your clothing and hair covering choices? Has anyone ever said anything to you outright that expresses a judgment based on your appearance? (Ex: “You don’t cover your hair or wear skirts, so why do you keep kosher?”)
In Israel, people infer that I am religious Zionist, but as they say, not TOOO religious, since I wear pants. Someone once asked me, in a very inappropriate manner, "If you were pregnant and knew there was a problem with the baby, you would abort it no problem, right?" When I asked what made them say that they responded "Well, you wear pants and such so I figured you wouldn't ask rabbis about issues that are very personal and would affect your life, and about which halacha is very archaic. You would probably do what you want and only ask a rabbi when you thought you would hear the answer you want..."

In the states, people have a difficulty with the pants and head covering concept. I was once asked to bring a snack to my son's preschool (a kosher school) and was taken aside by one of the teachers to make sure I knew that the snack must have a Chaf-K or OU symbol on it. When I told her that of course I know this, after all I am frum and cover my hair, she said to me: "You wear pants and go to THAT shul, I wasn't sure if you were just covering your hair to respect the school or you are really frum." So yeah, people have definitely judged me based on my appearance.

6. Have you ever surprised someone by dressing more or less modestly and making them rethink their stereotypes about what it means to be an observant Jew?
Yes, as in both stories above. People were surprised to hear that halacha was important to me even though I wear pants and some of my hair sticks out of my tichel. I guess people think that if you don't go by the strictest halachic opinion, that means you are just doing what you feel like, and don't base your actions on halachic heterim, or permissions, given my other reliable rabbis.

7. When you see someone who observes tzniut differently than you, what are your initial thoughts? How do you deal with them?
I often wonder what psak they used to decide how they would dress, and if they are dressing that way because of knowledge of the various halachic opinions and a conscious decision to follow that halachic way, or they are being driven by the surrounding society and its expectations, or by what they feel is right without consulting any rabbinic authorities and/or without regard to such authorities.

8. I say modesty or tzniut … what does that mean to you?
Being dressed in a way that does not draw attention to you. This includes being covered in all the right places, but also other things such as not wearing shirts or dresses with strategically placed prints which draw attention to specific body parts and not wearing things that are too glitzy or glamorous, and would draw attention even though they are modest in length and what they cover. Also, after talking to several men who made it very clear to me that they cannot distinguish a sheitel from a woman's hair, and after seeing some sheitels that look ABSOLUTELY AMAZING, and realizing that you would never have a bad-hair-day in a sheitel, I also choose for it to be my modesty not to wear a sheitel but to wear something on my head that people can clearly identify as a covering and not mistake it for my hair.

That being said, I do see the usefulness in sheitels in situations where your work would not accept a tichel or hat, such as when a lawyer represents people in court. If I were ever to be in such a situation, I would of course opt for covering my hair using a sheitel rather than ignoring my belief that married women should show that they are married by covering their hair.

9. Anything else you’d like to add about your choices, experiences, and more!
To me, modesty is very much influenced by its social context. Not all of it of course, things like not wearing mini skirts or having very low neck lines seem pretty obvious and undebatable to me, particularly knowing what this does to men ... However, I feel that things like covering hair and sleeve length very much depend on a social context. Unless they live in Williamsburg or Meah Shearim, all men today see women with their hair uncovered on a daily basis, with this having no affect on their attraction to such women. Therefore, I don't think that women who do not cover their hair are doing so particularly to attract or seduce men, or that they are immodest in the fact that they do not cover their hair. On the other hand, social context should be used not only to allow ourselves to be more lenient in our interpretation of tzniut, but also, when necessary, to be more stringent in such interpretation. For example, just like no self-respecting woman would walk into a lawyer's office in a bikini and expect to be taken seriously, in social context where more stringent tzniut guidelines are expected, such as when visiting ultra-orthodox neighborhoods or yeshivas, I would expect women to dress according to the social norm in the place they are visiting, even if that is not how they would dress on a day to day basis.


Tamar SB said...

Great "project" Chaviva - love learning other women's takes on tzniut!

Emily said...

I'm so glad that you're doing this series - and that there are awesome women who are willing to weigh in and share their thoughts with you and us!

Anat said...

I love this project!

H. Ilana Newman said...

This is a really cool idea! I looke forward to reading future entries.

(I do have one suggestion: I understand that the people writing entires may want to remain anonymous, but it's not immediately clear that this isn't Chaviva writing these answers, so I would suggest perhaps having pseudonyms.)

David Tzohar said...

I hesitate to comment on this "womens' project, but I must protest against the misconception that tzniyut as a halaachic concept has anything to do with societal norms. Modesty in Judaism doesn't mean covering up more or less than our Gentile or non-Orthodox neighbors. Our women do not wear a veil or chador even though these are very modest modes of dress because halacha as brought down from the gemara rishonim and acharonim doesn't require it. There are some disputes {sheitel vs tichel comes to mind) but in general the halacha is clear as to what must be covered (plus minus one tefach.} As to the inner meaning of tzniyut and gender differentiation I would refer you to the writings of HaRav A.I Kook espescially Orot Ha Kodesh which are available on line at several sites in Hebrew or English.

Anat said...


The halacha is an adaptive corpus. It does not state anywhere in the 5 books of the torah exactly what needs to be covered and what does not. That is something that the rabbis discussed in the oral tradition, and as such, it is something that can be opened for reinterpretation in later generations, such as ours.
Many other things in Halacha were rediscussed as the social norms and situations changed. For example, following the destruction of the temple, prayers were given a more prominent position, in a sense to replace the sacrifices that took place in the temple. Similarly, the holidays changed from being related to agricultural seasons to having different focal points - celebrating leaving Egypt for Passover, and celebrating the receipt of Torah for Shavuot, as opposed to the previous "Chag haaviv" (holiday of spring) and "Chag Hakatzir" (Holiday of harvest) interpretations.

In later generations, other great poskim made changes to halacha to allow it to adapt to social situations. For example, in the first shmita celebrated after the restarting of agricultural farming in Israel, the Chazon Ish created the concept of "heter mechira" to allow the Jewish people to continue working their lands, because it was clear that if they did not there was a chance that the Jewish population in Israel would perish. In the most recent shmita, this issue was once again raised, as many rabbis felt that the psak allowing for heter mechira was only suitable for its time, and should be cancelled now that a very small percentage of Israeli economy is based on agriculture.

Another example, is the change that brought about allowing women to study Jewish texts. This is something that happened in the late 19th century, when women were starting to be allowed to attend universities and learn secular subjects. At the time Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that women should be taught halacha and gemara, to make sure that they are well versed in their own traditions in addition to the secular studies.

All these examples come to show you that halacha is adaptive, and does change according to changes in social norms. Thus, I believe that the halachot of tzniut can also be changed based on the change in social norms. This is not to say that every woman should do what she sees fit, but that different poskim should reconsider the current interpretation of halacha based on present day social norms. Specifically such social norms may vary between locations, and then the halacha may also vary between locations, just as there are different traditions to Ashkenazi and Sefardi Jews, all of which developed because of the different situations in Ashkenaz communities and Sefarad communities.

Suburban Sweetheart said...

I like this series a lot, too. Tznius fascinates me, though I admit that it's mostly in a "People do WHAT?" sort of way. Still, I like learning about it. I agree, though, that maybe pseudonyms would be helpful, or a mini bio that doesn't give too much away - what sort of family the person has or how she grew up, where she lives or what her profession is, something to help contextualize her answers further & differentiate answerers, as the project goes on.

Shira said...

Hi, This was a great read. I'd love to know more about the psak's/background for this woman's decision to wear pants, and short sleeves, and have hair showing out of her covering. That sounds like a much less intimidating form of tzniut to me. Can she post a comment, or make a follow-up post?

Anonymous said...

Searching for English translations of the resources...
Will get back to you about this :)

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

@David I think you're missing the point of the project. I'm not here to say "this is the way things should be done" or not, I'm here to have a dialogue by women, for women, on how they are viewed and view themselves based on their choices -- which are informed by study and halacha.

@Shira She's working on it!

@EveryoneElse So glad you're enjoying. Next post is coming Thursday!

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