It was an inevitable question for a discussion of this sort in my Orthodox high school classroom: "If we, as Jewish girls, are supposed to dress modestly, isn’t it missing the point if our long skirts and high necklines cause us to attract more attention in a crowd?"
Two types of students present such queries. The first is the disingenuous type, delighted at her clever attempt at ritualistic one-upsmanship. Watch me deconstruct tzniut, the imperative of modesty in Jewish religious law, or halacha – and be even more religious than my religion as I do it!
The other category is the genuinely sincere student, who displays in her inquiry a very real desire to understand the roots of this commandment that confronts her at every turn, at school or on the street, and especially during that Rorschach test of American womanhood, clothes shopping.
Whatever the origins of the challenge, it is a gauntlet I pick up with relish. For it reveals a fundamental misconception in the understanding of Jewish modesty, a misconception I value the opportunity to clarify, as it so often serves as a springboard for a discussion of issues of identity and femininity with girls on the cusp of adulthood.
Like a stereotypical Jew, I answer the question with one of my own.
If modesty is such a high priority for women in a Torah society, I ask, why don't we go all the way? Why don't we wear thick veils over our faces, and gloves to cover our hands? Would that not be the ultimate expression of tzniut?
They all know that the answer is no; if it were otherwise, we'd be doing all that. But they don’t immediately understand why.
My next question: Even the strictest of halachic opinions agrees that a woman's hands and face do not require a covering. What might those body parts alone have in common?
They mull this one over, until suddenly, the light dawns, and arms wave eagerly in the air. The face is unique, they tell me. And science has yet to discover two people with identical fingerprints. It isn’t easy to identify people by their arms or legs, but our hands and our faces are in a class by themselves, impossible to confuse with those of any other human being.
The conclusion is inescapable. What Jewish law permits a woman to display are precisely those parts of her that convey her essence – her intellect, her emotions, her individuality. She is forbidden to show that which would present her as anything less.
Tzniut, modesty, is literally G-d's gift to womanhood. It tells us, don't sell yourself short. You are more than the body that houses you. Your uniqueness shines forth from a physical presence that radiates from beyond physicality.
And so, if a Jewish woman happens to attract attention for the length of her skirt or her sleeves, she is conveying the ultimate message of tzniut. For she is presenting a sharp contrast to baser standards that cheapen and use women, insisting on showing herself to the world as a model of womanly pride and self- respect.
As it happened, this particular discussion had a sequel, on the very same day. Many of my students attend college at night, to get a jump-start on their careers. That night, in a sociology class, it seems that a discussion arose regarding the implications of female dress in American culture. After several preliminary sallies, one boy seized the floor, and proceeded to hold forth on the self- evident (to him) degraded state of American womanhood, as proven by current clothing styles.
So contemptuous was he that more than one aspiring feminist stalked out of the class in indignant protest. As he slowly wound down, he ended his tirade with a question. "I mean, what do you expect? Why shouldn't we guys relate to you like animals when you dress the way you do?" To emphasize his point, he swiveled around from his front row seat to present some evidence for his assertion. – only to be stopped dead in his tracks by fifteen yeshiva girls in long skirts and high necklines, smiling delightedly from ear to ear.
"I never thought about in precisely this way," one student confided the next day. "But sometimes it takes an outsider to drive an idea home. It was uncanny how he made the same point as you did, that very same day!" Yes, the rules are sometimes difficult. Certainly, we chafe occasionally at the restrictions they impose. Of course we don't always feel dignified and queenly; sometimes we want to let down our hair, and express other sides of ourselves. The beauty of dedication above all to Jewish religious observance is that one learns to subjugate one’s own inclinations to the Torah – and here, to convey only what you truly are – human, rational, spiritual.
And so, I tell my students, hold your heads high as you wear your skirts long. For you are the truly liberated women.
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Sarah Cohen, part of Am Echad Resources’ writing pool, is a teacher and writer in New York.]