Tag Archives: modesty

A spiritual activist takes on the tznius (modesty) police

10 Oct

Time to get back on my soap box and start blogging again (after a long summer spent relaxing back in the old country).

So in Monsey, about an hour north of New York City, a town with a large population of frum Jews (many of whom are Hasidic, or devoutly Orthodox), it is a fairly common occurrence to see posters adorning lampposts, notice boards, and random walls across town proclaiming that in order for G-d to be/remain in our midst, or to avoid divine retribution,  women have to, for example: –

– Wear looser clothing, so as not to attract the wrong kind of attention;

– Refrain from wearing beautiful, human-hair sheitels (wigs) that could send out the ‘wrong message’ (Orthodox Jewish women have to cover their hair, and many do so with wigs, but some branches of Hasidic Jews proscribe the use of wigs and authorise only cloth hair coverings, such as shpitzels, or snoods);

– Wear skirts of a certain length only (Orthodox Jewish women are prohibited from wearing trousers, and must wear skirts instead, which should extend below the knee).

This last item forms the topic of interest today. Recently, in Monsey, a new ruling was promulgated on posters across town stating that women must wear skirts “that extend exactly four inches below the knee“. Not three inches, not five inches, but four inches. Women who wear skirts either longer or shorter than this length, the proclamation went on to proclaim, are causing the shechinah (G-d’s divine presence) to depart from our midst.

(How the proclaimers know of this direct causal relationship between the length of local women’s skirts and the presence or absence of the shechinah therein remains a source of great mystery to those not in the know.)

In the event, a young, Orthodox Jewish spiritual activist who lives in Monsey – my niece by marriage, Rochel Kind – decided to take on the proclaimers at their own game. She went round town and everywhere she found a poster of said proclamation, stuck up next to it her own carefully formulated response, showing how the directive is quite out of line with the halachot (Jewish laws) governing modesty. Using the appropriate terminology and jargon as well as using reasoning based on the Jewish legal traditions, she responded in kind to the modesty police. Here is her inspired response (glossary of Hebrew terms below):

Related blog posts:

Honey, I’m just popping down to the garage to pick up some cholent

What, didn’t you know Jewish women aren’t allowed to drive?

Muslims and Jews united in…banning women from driving

Reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s ‘Nomad’

heads, shoulders, knees and toes


hidur: extra ‘beautification’ of a Jewish law, but not a requirement

halacha / halachos: laws / religious instructions

makor: a textual source from the Talmud or other Jewish legal texts

Gemara: the Talmud

Beis Hamikdash: the Temple in Jerusalem

sinas chinam: baseless hatred / intolerance

ahavas chinam: baseless love / tolerance

Klal Yisroel: the Jewish people

ahavas yisroel: love of fellow Jews

b’kedusha: holy

Hashem: G-d

mechalel Shabbos v’yom tov: breaking the laws of Sabbath and holy festival days.

heads, shoulders, knees and toes

21 Jul

The latest installment in the “extreme modesty” saga  is that girls three years old and above must now wear tights all year round when they attend kindergarten (pre-school).

This from a contact of mine whose family live in Stamford Hill, a hasidic community in London, where parents clothe their baby girls in tights from the tender age of three, and where kindergarten rules dictate this same vestimentary requirement. From doing some Googling, I understand that this is already the norm in some hasidic communities in Israel too.

Three-year-olds forced to wear tights the whole year round? I’ve had enough.

I accept – even if I don’t quite adhere to – the reality in orthodox Judaism that there are well-established halachot relating to a woman’s external modesty. Namely, that her elbows and knees must be covered at all times once she reaches bat mitzvah (coming of age at the age of 12). Within the orthodox community, these are universally accepted halachic requirements.

I’m not going to get into deconstructing these laws by arguing that they are merely the product of a long-gone patriarchal era when such rabbinical rulings reflected societal norms on modesty – although I could.

What I AM going to get my teeth into is the fact that what was once a clearly delineated line between the actual halacha, and the chumras, or stringencies which particularly devout Jews choose to take upon themselves, exists no longer. This line has now been utterly eroded by the religious establishment, so that the ever-increasingly draconian dictates on modesty issued by haredi rabbis are now taken on by their followers with the same vigour with which they observe the actual halacha. As I argued in my previous post becrying the hasidic communities who ban women from driving:

Indeed, it is the spurious conflation of these societal prohibitions or taboos – often involving dubious ways of repressing women in the name of modesty (women not driving, women having to shave their hair when they get married) – with real halachic prohibitions (such as not keeping Shabbat or kosher) that is the problem here. The women – and men – in these communities are not even taught the difference between real Torah prohibitions and community-specific interdictions. Thus, they grow into adulthood fully believing that if a woman learns to drive a car, she’s well-nigh breaking a Torah commandment.

So when you ask me what bothers me in this whole sorry story, it’s not just the feminist in me that protests (although believe you me, she’s raging mad), it’s also the Jew/person of religion in me that cries out against this insidious and entirely disingenuous slide within the orthodox Jewish world – and invariably in other faith communities too – that is allowing community leaders to create ever-more dazzling structures of power, control and prohibition under the guise of religious leadership.

Time to call time out perhaps? Hasn’t this gone just too far? These modesty ‘norms’ have reached immodest proportions. This business of swaddling every inch of a three-year-old baby girl’s  body – from her collar bone down to her feet – under the guise of a modesty ‘norm’, is not halacha, it is simply an abuse of her human rights.

This is what one woman wrote in the comments section on an Israeli blog posting entitled Hyper-Tzniut Fashions for Young Girls:

My girls (4 of them) have worn tights all year round since the age of three. If you start at this age, they get used to it, and you don’t have to battle with them at age 10+ to cover their legs.

All I can say is the time has come to blow my own cultural relativism quandary right out of the water. It is morally wrong to argue that we should accept these women’s religious choices. What we need to do is speak up against the religious establishment which is going about creating such oppressive norms.

I am nothing but depressed by this woman’s wholly dubious argument justifying her restrictive dress-code on her four daughters from the age of three.

What, so, following her logic, should we start covering a three-year-old girl’s hair too so she’ll get used to and won’t kick up a fuss later on when the time comes for her to get married? And while we’re at it, why don’t we force all three-year-olds to start fasting Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av too so they get used to deprivation from food and drink and won’t protest at Bar/Bat Mitzva age that they don’t want to fast?

(Or maybe my argument doesn’t even work here, seeing as what she’s priming her young daughters for – wearing tights – is not even a halachic requirement like fasting Yom Kippur.)

When and where will this madness end?

I propose a return to modesty and moderation on the part of the religious leadership of the orthodox Jewish community. Let’s stop this ever-increasing spiral into an Iran-style police state, where women – and baby girls’ – modesty is constantly scrutinized, and let’s get back to basics. Let orthodox women keep the halachot on modesty which are required and let’s all get on modestly with our own modest lives.

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