Modesty

     Ines Sainz recently received her 16 minutes of fame (one more minute than customary, for reasons that will become clear), leading to potential disciplinary action against the New York Jets. She is the Mexican TV sports reporter whose wardrobe ranges from 1/3-naked to 2/3-naked, and whose scantily-clad presence while “working” a football practice drew excessive attention from some of the distinguished athletes in her vicinity – including hoots, hollers, catcalls and perhaps a dinner invitation or two.

      Throughout, although several footballs were thrown in her direction, Ines was untouched by human hands, and that is one obvious red-line. No person has the right to lay a hand on another without permission, and that type of abuse should not be tolerated by society or its laws. Nevertheless, there has been talk of a sexual harassment lawsuit being filed because she was subject to verbal taunts, notwithstanding that she was able to procure and conduct the interviews she sought. This is where the matter gets a little cloudy.

     It is perplexing when women who dress in order to attract the attention of others protest when they attract that very attention. A person who flaunts his/her body in the workplace – or in public – is asking to be judged by that body and its attributes. It seems unseemly to complain when that judgment is rendered, especially if the judgment is favorable though proffered crudely. The reactions speak to the low moral level of the observers, to be sure, but also to the shallowness of the party who is looking to be noticed and might even be irritated if not noticed. In a word, both sides are at fault, and the incident itself testifies to the further decline of the standards of decency that used to obtain in society. There was a time when lingerie was limited to the bedroom and was inappropriate in the boardroom. Those days are gone, and apparently anyone who points it out becomes labeled as a chauvinistic suppressor of women, or a primitive voyeur with the table manners of a caveman. Actually, all it means is that a person has eyes and values – eyes that increasingly have to remain shut and values that have to be unabashedly reinforced.

     It poses a special problem in the Rabbinate. Rarely does a week pass in the spring and summer that I am not approached by people lamenting the declining standards of dress of some women in shul or walking the streets of our fair neighborhood. Lest you think that these men should mind their own business, I hasten to add that four out of five complainants are women, not men, protesting the visual affront of women (in number, actually very few) coming to shul wearing mini-skirts, micro-sleeves and low-cut blouses. Interestingly, some of these women are themselves stylish but modest dressers, and not all cover their hair outside of shul – but they have a healthy intuitive sense, that used to be prevalent in the Jewish world, that in a shul we strive for our optimum religious behavior, and that even dignified practices that they haven’t adopted yet in the street should certainly be embraced in shul. For example, there are women of a certain age who might wear pants in public – but they would never enter a shul wearing pants, even on a weekday to drop off a flyer. For most of the younger generation, that sort of discretion seems to have been lost, another victim of feminism that has empowered women, among other types of empowerment, to dress however-they-please even at the cost of their good sense or halachic propriety.

     Cynics might think that the complaining women are “jealous,” but nothing could be further from the truth. They are merely troubled by what they rightly see as a problem in our world, and are especially troubled by parents who allow their teenage daughters to leave the sartorial demands of their weekday yeshivot on the dressing room floor and dress on Shabbat in what used to be considered beachwear. And since I have been told – because I never would have guessed – that women dress primarily for other women, not men, many women feel that their spiritual experience is shul is cheapened by the fashion show sashaying about and the chatter it invariably provokes.

     Invariably, these complainants wish me to address these matters publicly, from the pulpit, excoriating the offenders so they will be shamed into adding more material to their clothing. I have noticed that Rabbis have generally shied away from doing just that, excepting those who will offer learned discourses on the appropriate length of sleeves, skirts and necklines, usually to the already modestly-dressed. The area is a tough nut to crack, because some women will complain that the Rabbi shouldn’t be looking (true, but irrelevant; he may not even see it), or that there are more important issues in the world to discuss (always true… especially when you touch a sensitive chord with someone; that is when “preaching” steps over the line into “meddling”!), or that it is just another indication of the insensitive rabbinate’s contempt for women, yada, yada, yada. I have on several occasions authorized women to speak to the offenders, and even to address the issue publicly; all, to date, have declined to take me up on the offer.

     On the other hand, not to address the issue is a Rabbinic copout, despite the discomfort it causes on all sides. It is a valid point, and it is one of the ModOs failings that tzniut is often not even construed as a religious concern – which is precisely how the general society sees it. There was a recent buzz when a graduate of Maimonides appeared on a reality-TV show featuring models, and this particular young woman – a self-described “modern Orthodox, Sabbath-observant Jew” – ditched her commitment to Sabbath-observance for the duration as soon as she learned it would impair her chances of winning the prize modeling job. The broader question is: how does a yeshiva graduate see her future as a fashion model in the secular world ? The very job requires a person to showcase her body as the means by which she will earn her living, or acclaim. To be a fashion model is as suitable to a Torah Jew as is being a hunter, and about as common.

     So, what is there to say, beyond the technicalities of inches here and there ? In truth, while the inches matter, tzniut is more about presentation and attitude that about lengths and widths. A tight-fitting outfit that looks like it has been painted on (from the Ines Sainz collection, perhaps ?) is as immodest as anything that is too short, even though the requisite parts of the body are dutifully covered. The Jewish laws of modesty focus on one critical point: we demean ourselves when we seek to be perceived and judged primarily as bodies.

    Every human being, male and female, was created b’tzelem elokim, in the image of G-d, and we degrade ourselves by seeking acclamation not for those attributes or activities that foster that divine image but for the accident of our physical shell. Nothing can be more humiliating than to be judged primarily on our looks rather than on our spiritual or intellectual achievements. Clearly, the soul endures, whereas the body erodes over time, even while we are alive. We should seek to be defined by what pleasures the soul and not the body – and that is the essence of tzniut.

    Any person who calls attention to himself/herself because of some physical characteristic engages in an act of self-debasement, and is looking to be treated as an object, not a person. There was a time when women recognized that to be demure was not only classy but alluring. That was a gift of Torah society that had pervaded the general culture. It is when Jews again take the lead, and discard the world view of Ines Sainz and her loutish hecklers, that we will be recognized and lauded as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation and lead the world back to its moral equilibrium.

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2 responses to “Modesty

  1. When I was in undergrad, a non-Jewish female student approached me and asked if it was okay for her to come to synagogue and see how Jews prayer. Her father was Jewish but she came from a small town with no synagogue and only 3-4 other Jews. So I said, fine. Then she asked how she should dress. I told her “respectfully”.
    She arrived in a nice, conservative outfit with appropriately long skirt and sleeves. And then I looked at the Jewish girls our age. Microskirts, no sleeves.
    A gentile had more sense of how to dress tznius than them?

  2. Women come to synagogues in pants suits and some women have no taste how to dress. One cannot fault them. Men are too involved how women look – well, how to they look. When was the last time they took a good look in the mirror and asked themselves, “Is that really mean is that the impression I want to make?” To Thy own self be true. When you feel criticism is due, right or wrong look at yourself first before you”throw the first stone.” It was the woman’s good heart to offer the forbidden fruit to Adam. Adam has a choice to take it or not, he chose to take it. Taking responsibility is the hardest of human endeavors. To Thy own self be true.

    Respectfully
    Eva Feld
    efeld07@gmail.com