Towards a New Tzniut

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July 25, 2014

This essay originally appeared in The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism, edited by Danya Ruttenberg (NYU Press). It has been adapted and updated for ZEEK.

MY THIRD DAY of rabbinical school, a male colleague ran his finger slowly up my arm to my shoulder and said, in a voice that was somewhere between flirtatious and downright creepy, “You’ll be wanting to cover up, then.”

I was dressed in a tank top — a sleeveless T-shirt — and a skirt. Where I came from, upper arms were not considered obscene. This, then, was the beginning of my formal religious education.

Much is made about tzniut — modesty — in contemporary religious Judaism, particularly in Orthodoxy. Though tzniut is a broad concept that traditionally addresses many different ways that a person should be humble and unassuming, in today’s context it refers almost exclusively to female dress, and sometimes to female behavior. As women’s increased roles in the broader culture threaten to encroach upon a traditionally gendered society, placing special emphasis on tzniut reframes any discussion of gender roles back to a woman’s humility, the importance of knowing her place, and staying away from the influence of Western secular culture and sexual norms.

Increasing numbers of popular books on modesty are being published by the religious Jewish world, describing in obsessive detail the ways in which proper women ought to attire themselves — featuring lists of acceptable fabrics and explicit measurements of skirt lengths as well as extensive debates about whether or not patterned tights might be considered acceptable. One such tome, Eliyahu Falk’s Oz Vehadar Levusha (the English edition is titled Modesty: An Adornment for Life), makes the stakes and boundaries clear: “Even a minor exposure is provocative and a serious shortcoming in tzniut. It is therefore asur [forbidden] for the neckline of the garment to extend even half a centimeter beyond the permitted level.”

Modesty has been an issue in Israel for some time — the neighborhood of Mea Shearim has had signs up for a number of years proclaiming, “Please do not pass through our neighborhood in modest clothes,” and then goes on to detail what this might involve. But in recent years, the intensity level has increased, with reports of women being physically assaulted for not dressing to standards acceptable to some ultra-Orthodox men. In the town of Beit Shemesh, an 8-year-old was spit on and called a whore for not covering up to whatever level was deemed acceptable.

And yet, in the grand scope of history, the focus on this issue relative to other halakhic concerns is relatively recent. Nonetheless, the Jewish impulse to cover women’s bodies — and the reason why — has been explicit for a long time. The Talmud in Tractate Berachot 24a discusses the aspects of a woman’s body (from her little finger to her hair and voice) that might be considered erva, a word that can be translated, variously, as “nakedness,” “sexually forbidden,” or “intimate.” The talmudic commentator Rashba explains why this would be the case in his comment on Rav Hisda’s statement, “A woman’s leg is erva,” explaining that it is specifically “to men because of sexual thoughts.” A woman’s leg in and of itself is not problematic, but the thoughts it arouses in men are problematic — to the men. Therefore, according to the halakha derived from this passage, women need to cover up. It’s worth noting that the Talmud passage itself deals with the question of what’s in one’s view while reciting the Sh’ma, a prayer which requires particular concentration — not with legislating female dress in a general sense. Nonetheless, many later legal statements on modesty use Berachot as their textual foundation.) Tova Hartman sums up the situation neatly: “What we find at the end of the day is that the full-time job of managing male sexuality has been displaced onto women, freeing their counterparts to more noble pursuits.”

This job has been extended further and further as of late. Oz VeHadar Levusha encapsulates its ideals in a clever little catch-phrase: “What Torah does for men, tzniu[t] does for women.” The author explains that, just as study is the corrective that saves men from temptation, so too, women are kept at their holiest through scrupulous attention to proper covering of clothing and hair. Ironies abound; one might even cheekily ask if this formulation intends to suggest that women don’t need Torah at all, but, rather, just a long skirt. As Rabbi Yehudah Henkin observes, “This ideology prohibits a woman from standing out — and from being outstanding. She must not act in a play, paint a mural, play an instrument or otherwise demonstrate special skills in front of men, lest she attract attention and her movements excite them.”

This is, of course, unacceptable. At its most benign, this fixation on the modesty of women’s dress fosters hypocrisy (check the women’s section of any Modern Orthodox synagogue in Manhattan on a Friday night, and you’ll find legions of young women whose clothes, though reaching comfortably past the knee and elbow, are I-can’t-breathe-and-I-bet-you-can-see-every-single-curve-on-my-body skin tight) and at its most sinister, demands (as R. Henkin suggests) the absolute erasure of female potential.

A common feminist response to this sort of oppression is to assert female sexual agency by revealing exactly the body parts (and perhaps a few more) that the Modesty Police are so intent on keeping covered. I certainly agree that each body is its owner’s to do with as she pleases. Yet in our current context, women traverse a fraught and complex path in which the decision to reveal is as loaded as the decision to cover. Given the fact that babes in bikinis are used to sell everything from beer and cars to computers and bank accounts, even the most articulate feminist can find that her reasons for uncovering are slightly fuzzy. There’s a cultural reward that comes to women who dress in minimal clothing, who facilitate the objectification of women in its secular context. And even when executed with feminist intent, this set of sartorial choices can all too easily support the patriarchal demand that the female body be, at all times, readily available for consumption. On either end of these extremes, the obsession is with revealing or covering disparate female body parts, keeping women (individually or as a collective) neatly packaged, compartmentalized and, perhaps, more easily controlled.

In her landmark essay “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power, ” Audre Lorde writes:

The erotic has often been misnamed by men and used against women. It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, and plasticized sensation. For this reason, we have turned away from the exploration and consideration of the erotic as a source of power and information, confusing it with the pornographic. But pornography is a direct denial of the power of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling. Pornography emphasizes sensation without feeling.

She continues:

The very word erotic comes from the Greek word eros, the personification of love in all its aspects – born of Chaos, and personifying creative power and harmony…. Erotic connection functions [in] the open and [is a] fearless underlining of my capacity for joy, in the way my body stretches to music and opens into response, harkening to its deepest rhythms so every level upon which I sense also opens to the erotically satisfying experience whether it is dancing, building a bookcase, writing a poem, or examining an idea.

In other words, Lorde defines the erotic as that which embodies the deepest and most fundamental connection to the self (and, I’d suggest, to the Divine) and the pornographic as that which cuts us off from the self, the sense of embodiment, and, I’d suggest, God Godself. In the erotic, we are subjects. In the pornographic, we are objects.

Can this distinction, I wonder, be useful in an examination of modesty? How can we begin to talk about women’s bodies and clothing, as well as the notion of tzniut in a broader sense, in a way that emphasizes the importance of our erotic, integrated, Divinely connected selves rather than focusing on desiccated individual body parts? What would it mean to get dressed as a subject?

In several places the Talmud debates the question of whether mitzvot tzrichot kavvanah, whether the performance of a mitzvah requires the intention to perform it. In Tractate Rosh Hashanah, for example, the Gemara debates the status of someone who passed by a synagogue and heard the shofar being blown on Rosh Hashanah, but thought that the sound was an animal braying. If he did not have the intention of fulfilling his obligation to hear the shofar when he heard the sound, is he considered to have fulfilled the obligation? Or, if the person who blows the shofar does not intend to use the horn to fulfill a mitzvah, but rather to make music — does it count for the listener? The Gemara ends this discussion with the position of R. Yose, who argues that “an ordinary individual does not perform his religious duty until both the hearer and the performer put their mind to it,” intending to fulfill the mitzvah. Mitzvot, it seems, do require intention.

The halakhic commentator the Rema supports this notion when he suggests that cross-dressing is permitted on Purim, despite being forbidden the rest of the year, because the dresser’s intention (kavanah) is only for the joy of the day — not, say for the pursuit of the sexually forbidden. {See Endnote 1} Again, it’s not what you do, but how you think about it that’s spiritually significant.

The erotic instead of the pornographic. Intention. What if all of these things were to matter in our ethics of modesty? In order to restore the self to the erotic core, the first crucial step is to cease preoccupation with superficial details. After all, the distinction between the erotic and pornographic is based on internal and interpersonal context. The same woman could be wearing the exact same shirt with two very different thoughts in her head, and the wearing might, as such, mean different things: “I’m going to wear this shirt to the bar so that a bunch of guys will think that I’m desirable and will want to have sex with me,” is very different from, “I’m going to wear this shirt because I feel beautiful in it and because I love feeling the sun on my shoulders.” In one case, our wearer wills herself into becoming an object—she is pornographic and desiccated. In the other, her subjecthood is at the front and center, she is erotic and whole. Whether her skirt is long or short, it must enable her to feel the quiet but always-pulsing connection to a sense of internal sacredness and to God Godself. For different people, at different times, in different contexts, the clothes that enable that connection will vary. Cross-dressing is permitted on Purim because it’s done in the spirit of joy.

As such, modesty requires intention—the intention of connection, the intention of wholeness, of subjecthood, of care for the self and of the sacred. As one piece from The Vagina Monologues attests, subjecthood comes in all lengths of clothing:

My short skirt, believe it or not, has nothing to do with you. My short skirt is about discovering the power of my lower calves, about cool autumn air traveling up my inner thighs, about allowing everything I see or pass or feel to live inside. But mainly my short skirt and everything under it is mine, mine, mine.

If we demand that true modesty involves a subjective connection to the erotic, if we place its definition in the hands of each individual, it ceases to be an exercise in which women constantly and vigilantly manage the male gaze. Rather, it becomes a way for the woman-as-subject (and man-as-subject; everything I’m proposing here is meant to be relevant for everybody) to connect to her deepest sense of self and to that which enables service to the Divine.

A caveat: there’s no such thing as perfect intention. For all of us, myriad motivations, some loftier than others, come together in our decision-making. A woman may be genuinely grounded in her sense of personal power and also be slightly self-exploitative about the very same sartorial choice. It happens. The model of erotic connection for which I’m advocating here is an ethic to pursue, a way of relating to the self to be fostered in our communities. And, little by little, it will take root. As Lorde suggests:

When we live outside ourselves, and by that I mean on external directives only rather than from our internal knowledge and needs, when we live away from those erotic guides from within ourselves, then our lives are limited by external and alien forms, and we conform to the needs of a structure that is not based on human need, let alone an individual’s. But when we begin to live from within outward, in touch with the power of the erotic within ourselves, and allowing that power to inform and illuminate our actions upon the world around us, then we begin to be responsible to ourselves in the deepest sense.

This ethic of modesty seeks to enable empowered individuals to live in connection with the Divine.

But it’s also a communal value. When Maimonides discusses modesty in the Mishna Torah, he talks relatively little about women as a category per se. {See Endnote 2} Rather, he argues, the way to behave with tzniut gedolah (great modesty) is to be discreet in the bathroom, to refrain from talking louder than is absolutely necessary, to refrain from showing off your money and to generally keep other people’s needs and reactions in mind as you move through the world.

Care and concern for the feelings of others is at the heart of modest behavior. Even though this ethic has been exploited at women’s expense in the past, its significance is real. Caring for others, after all, is a vital part of how we live an engaged life of service to God. This, then, is the core of a new tzniut: To dress and behave with a sensitivity both to oneself and one’s deepest needs, and to one’s context, to the reactions of others. To love our neighbors as ourselves in our actions and in our interactions.

However, feminist religious scholar Carol Lee Flinders observes in At The Root of This Longing, in our patriarchal culture, care for others can be, sometimes, fraught. She writes:

Enclosure, silence, self-naughting, and restructuring of desire are proven avenues, say advocates of meditative spirituality, to resources that remain untapped in most of us. Well they might be, feminists are quick to reply, but unless a woman can choose them freely, knowing that she could come and go as she likes, say what she wishes, and be somebody, then her apparent embrace of those renunciations is relatively meaningless and surely can’t be expected to bear fruit.

In other words, religious practices that might have a profound effect on someone who has always had male privilege might be disastrous when foisted on a woman who has been raised with a much more tenuous relationship to her personhood, freedom, and independence. The spiritual effect of tzniut can be powerful, but for the woman whose selfhood was never firmly established to begin with, the tzimtzum — the self-contraction — demanded by adapting oneself to suit the needs of others has the potential to be quite dangerous, to make it even harder for her ever to connect with her erotic core. Tzniut is an important spiritual value, but one’s selfhood, subjecthood, connection to the erotic and the Divine must not be threatened. It’s a two-step process. One must have a certain amount of selfhood available before one can transcend it and give to others. There may be times in an individual woman’s life when she is more able to do this, and times when she is less able to do so, times when self-care is paramount and times when generosity needs to be at the foreground. It’s not static.

With this reframing of tzniut, the individual’s choice to adapt to one’s circumstances and surroundings becomes not a denial of the self, but rather a way to allow the self to flow in caring relationship to others. This does not mean that, under all circumstances, one must dress for the “most easily offended denominator” but rather one should understand that others’ reactions and impressions matter, that it’s crucial to live in connection with other people as well as with God. In one sense, the length of the skirt does not matter, if it’s worn with “good kavvanah.” And yet, all people are embedded in contexts, and we may not all be coming from the exact same perspective. How to care for others without being squeezed unfairly by their expectations? A generous openheartedness that pours forth from an open, connected, erotically engaged heart is key — a will to give of the self not because that giving is demanded, but because it will help to foster connection. And, sometimes, a firm, loving, “no” to requests that seek to deny or destroy the spirit is appropriate.

At other times, this understanding of tzniut involves inner work, rather than changing external reality. I think of the men who try to displace feelings of unease onto the women in their communities, asking that these women change their behavior to make the men more comfortable. Perhaps these men ought to learn how to cope with their own desire in a less harmful way, so that they can deal with women as whole people, rather than as body parts. Tzniut requires a measure of tzimtzum, of withdrawal of the self for the sake of others. These men, learning how to place others’ needs before their own in order to connect with those people, might find the spiritual work of this tzniut practice rather valuable.

Obviously, in our culture(s), asking men to reframe old ways of thinking may seem like a formidable task, but perhaps only because of the relentless objectification of women in both religious and secular contexts. It’s not necessary that we maintain this status quo, however. As an analogy, most people would advise someone who expresses feelings of discomfort around someone with a noticeable disability (a missing limb, for example) to learn how to “get over it,” and to figure out how to focus on the person herself. Why does the same request seem outrageous in regard to expressed discomfort with the mundane female body? In fact, as gender theorist S. Bear Bergman observes:

There’s no other situation in which [placing the burden of desire onto the object desired] is culturally acceptable. We don’t camouflage a doughnut shop to protect dieters from the tempting sight of a doughnut, nor shutter bars to protect alcoholics, or any other such thing — one is responsible for managing one’s own cravings responsibly and appropriately. But when it comes to women’s sexuality or sensuality, it is still culturally and socially appropriate to say that any display is a temptation and that men … cannot be expected to resist such a thing.

Learning how to manage these desires in an effective way — committing an act of tzimtzum in which one deals with his or her desire in a way that does not impose upon others — can be an important aspect of a culture of tzniut. This, combined with the generosity of the oft-objectified party to try to connect with others and adapt to her surroundings as long as her connection to herself, to God, to the erotic impulse remains intact might help foster far-reaching effects. An ethos in which women are perpetually subjects and where men work to relate to them as such has the potential to help transform our culture and the toxic ways in which gender is currently constructed.

In this formulation, the internal, rather than external, aspects of tzniut are emphasized. Living in relationship to God and to the deep well of one’s own spiritual power is at the forefront, and care and concern for others is understood as a major value. If we strive to live as whole, connected beings and to regard others as such, the length of a skirt, the cut of a top and the volume at which we speak with one another become secondary. How things look in this new modesty will vary with the players and contexts involved. Shaming, coercion and disregarding one another’s needs is unacceptable. Treating one another with love and respect — never at the expense of our own selves — will be at the forefront. It is with this love that we serve God.

Author’s Notes:

Endnote 1: There’s plenty to be said about the prohibition against cross-dressing and the ways that we might understand it, but, unfortunately, it’s outside the scope of this article.

Endnote 2: I’m looking specifially at Mishneh Torah Hilchot Deot 5:6-9. Only about 28% of the Rambam’s use of the word “tzniut” in some form is related to specifically female behavior. Of course, the Rambam does discuss proper norms of female dress and behavior (noting, in Hilchot Ishut 13:11, that at the very least norms of head-coverings are culturally relative), but my point here is that he — as others before him and since — understood tzniut as more of a global issue.

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