A Modest Beginning

By Blu Greenberg

Tzniut! A large and difficult topic for a small newsletter. But we chose it as our theme because it is a primary concept in Judaism; also a key marker of Orthodoxy’s sub-groups. On matters of tzniut [tznee’oot, modesty] ultras separate from moderns, children outdo parents, and feminists challenge halakha’s gender tilt.

The issues are many: women’s head covering and dress; mixed dancing, swimming, seating and handshaking; new public roles for women; kol isha; negiah (physical expressions of affection during dating); even females shoveling earth over a grave. Each issue further divides: e.g., covering hair — with tichel [scarf], snood, hat or wig; exposing x wisps of one’s own hair; covering when outside of one’s home or inside, as well.

The combinations run like a crazy quilt. Parse this womanstyle: baseball cap [the uniform of young married women), elbow length “tee”, jeans, and a gemara tucked under her arm — the new Jewish woman. Female surgeons who blaze trails heed kol isha. Feminists in women’s tefila observe negiah. Writ large: just as Orthodox women are taking on more public roles, there is movement toward the opposite pole — of enlarging categories of tzniut and putting women back “under wraps”.

Why such paradoxes? Why is tzniut so hard to define? Because in its very nature, tzniut is dialectical: public and private, absolute and relative, halakhically legislated and communally determined. What is absolute for one is culturally relative for another — with halakhic support for each position. This explains why many of us can remember a yesteryear of Young Israel dances, mixed gender song pageants at Y.U. and Bnei Akiva, sleeveless bridesmaids dresses, and mixed seating at wedding ceremonies, all with “hechsher” of esteemed Orthodox rabbis that their generation-later colleagues would reject.

From a feminist perspective are, there principles I can extrapolate by which to make judgments? Can I separate out, say, hair covering as a private decision between husband and wife, but keep kol isha in the communal box, subject to my charge of muzzling voice and spirit? But what right have I to criticize another sub-community, when mine allows women’s song? I know how I bristle when someone scoffs my “excessive, exclusionary” standard of kashrut? On the other hand, if I am respectfully silent, does it mean I condone that which I see as demeaning to women?; and will my own community be next to roll over to a more restrictive stance? Is there a domino effect here, an attitude that spills over into collective perceptions that ultimately affect my life? Where do I draw the line between criticism and respect, between personal choice and anarchy?

These dilemmas suggest two tasks: First — to create an atmosphere of live and let live, mindful that there are many gradations of modesty in Orthodoxy. Halakha is normative, but allows some latitude here for personal packaging. Differences should not be used to delegitimize whole groups or belittle another’s choices.

Secondly, within a climate of mutual respect, we should open a dialogue on tzniut. This will help us to discover where a convergence, if any, lies between public and private, absolutist and relativist positions. We will hear the whole range of halachic views, and become aware of how modern values intersect with the sources. These exchanges might be tough-minded and not likely to alter behavior. But like all good dialogue, they should increase understanding and generate affinity rather than divisiveness.

In these discussions, account will surely be taken of the new contextual modesty emerging in society today, where women and men mix naturally in workplace and academe. The heightened erotic consciousness that comes from separation fades as male and female become used to each other’s presence. Feminine qualities such as voice, body and hair become less the focus, and woman is seen in her fullness as a human being, with a mind, talents and spiritual essence.

Still, tzniut is a great value, high on a list of Jewish traits by which we all want to define our lives. I can think of no lovelier compliment than to describe one as a “hatznea leches” (Micah 5:8), a person who walks with modesty, with God, through life. I grew up in a home of modest parents. I value this quality in my family and friends. Although I can’t easily articulate its attributes, I know that an authentic modesty — past, present and future — goes beyond the length of a sleeve, size of a tichel, or voice of a woman. The real task of tzniut, then, is to focus on the inner core, the whole person. Somehow, all the trappings, this way or that, will fall into place.

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