| Adviceline |

Family Tznius Differences

As much your sister-in-law seems to stick out in your social circle, you may be the only one actually bothered by it.

My husband comes from a slightly more modern background, but got into learning in high school, and is now in his tenth year in kollel. In contrast, his sister became even more modern than the family. She comes to visit wearing low necklines and miniskirts.

Every time we have a simchah or gathering in our home, I have a dilemma. I’m uncomfortable having her arrive dressed as is since my husband’s friends are fellow bnei Torah, and at a small house event there won’t be any structural mechitzah.

There are some events I have to invite her to (like a bris), but how do I handle the somewhat optional ones (like a chanukas habayis/siyum/Chanukah party)? Should I say something to her about her dress? Simply not invite her (nor any of her sisters)? Invite her despite the fact that she’ll really stick out in our crowd?

Any advice on how to handle this sensitive issue would be appreciated.

Rabbi Ron Hassid

Your situation is a common one today, with so many young people departing from their secular upbringing and finding their way to Torah-true Judaism. Also frighteningly common today — and much more distressing — is the phenomenon of young people from beautiful frum families who reject their Jewish education and look for fulfillment elsewhere.

Not so long ago you would never see such youngsters because they’d usually be ostracized and banished from their homes. Present-day wisdom recommends that, on the contrary, one should show them unconditional love and warmth and always make them feel welcome. With one proviso: that the wayward child doesn’t corrupt his siblings or have a negative influence on them. The same approach would apply in the case of your husband’s sister.

From the way you phrase your question, though, it seems that your biggest concern is the embarrassment of having such a person in your family — and the worry about her “sticking out” in your crowd.

My guess is that as much your sister-in-law seems to stick out in your social circle, you may be the only one actually bothered by it. Due to the commonality of such a situation, your husband’s friends will see nothing out of the ordinary; they’ll fully understand your situation without needing explanations, and they’ll take it in stride.

Of course, if you feel that you can achieve something by speaking to her — either about the importance of dressing modestly or the importance of respecting the norms in your community — then that’s definitely the way to go. To soften it, you can blame it on yourselves, saying something like, “I know we may seem a bit extreme, but these are the standards we’re used to. It would mean a lot to us if you’d dress according to these standards when we spend time together.”

The success of such a discussion usually depends upon how you approach her. And remember, it’s always more difficult with family members. And it’s even more difficult when you’re dealing with someone who knows the concept and halachos of tzniyus, and is choosing not to keep them.

Above all, remember that this is your husband’s sister. Whatever you do is going to affect your marital relationship, which is of paramount importance. Keep this in mind as you navigate this delicate situation.

Rabbi Ron Hassid is the chief rabbi of the Jewish community in Gibraltar. Among his many responsibilities is the sage counsel he offers his constituents in the area of shalom bayis.

Rabbi Efraim Stauber

Honestly, I’m having trouble relating to your approach on this sensitive issue. So much so, that after rereading your letter several times, I’m convinced your true intent wasn’t conveyed by the words you chose. Therefore, I’ll first respond to the question as it appears, then to what I believe you must have meant.

You claim a dilemma, yet don’t present one. Your underlying issue, as per your elaboration, seems to pit your discomfort with an awkward situation versus your obligation to a family member. You describe no ethical paradox. You merely wonder how much can you “get away” with in regard to ignoring your sister-in-law so you can minimize your hostess discomfort.

There’s no lack of moral conflict in this situation, yet you seem blissfully unaware of it. Perhaps your true intent was to ask something as follows:

I have a dilemma. On one hand: a) I love my sister-in-law and want her to be part of our lives. After all, she’s my husband’s sister! b) We must treat her — and every Jew — with respect, dignity, and love; c) I wish I could help her find the beauty and meaning in a holy Torah lifestyle; d) I want to make a kiddush Hashem; e) I want to be sensitive to her feelings. Therefore, I need to invite her to all our simchahs.

On the other hand, how can I: a) compromise these same Torah values by enabling what I consider to be a breach of kedushah in my own home? b) disrespect the avreichim who are our guests by placing them in the proximity of pritzus, which I know is antithetical to them? c) protect my impressionable children from influences counter to Torah morals?

I feel stuck. What is the higher moral choice? Is there a way to get both somehow? What does Hashem want me to do here?

That is an amazing question and I’d be honored to share my thoughts on the subject. To begin, there’s nothing to fear here other than your own insecurities. To the extent that you and your husband are confident in a) your life choices and in b) your love for his sister, this will be easy.

According to your description, your sister-in-law hasn’t rebelled against her upbringing any more than your husband. Both came from the same “modernish” background and have changed. Assuming all else to be equal (a big assumption, I know) both these adults should be capable of mutual respect, and acceptance of the other one’s right to use their bechirah to make lifestyle choices.

Once your husband feels this respect, it will be easy for him to have a mature conversation with his sister about the situation. It’s only when you feel insecure, challenged, or judgmental that a simple conversation gets complicated. (I recommend your husband have this conversation, as love and respect might flow more naturally from him toward his sister.)

Here’s a sample conversation (grossly simplified due to space constraints):

“Hey, Sis, can we talk?”


“You know that I’ve chosen a very specific lifestyle. We’ve never discussed this, but I need to ask you. Can you respect my right to make this choice?

“I guess so. Uh, why this now?”

“Thank you — that respect is mutual. Right now, I need to ask you a favor. When you join my family for events and the like, can you please respect how we do things? You know, tzniyus and all that? It’s shocking for my friends to see someone dressed in a miniskirt, it’s antithetical to what we believe in. I don’t want to get into philosophy, our relationship is above that, but I have a problem here. You’re important to me, and I also want to protect the life I’ve built. Can you help me out here?”

“Yes, of course.”

This is the best-case scenario. It’s possible that once your husband mentions tzniyus your sister-in-law will react negatively. She may say something along the lines of, “I don’t tell you what to do; don’t tell me what to do.”

If he responds to her anger by getting upset in kind, things can quickly sour. It’s crucial for him to stay confident, respectful, and loving. He can say something like, “Hold it, Sis. I was asking for some help and you seem very upset. What’s going on for you?” His request is reasonable. If she can’t fulfill it, then it’s important to have a frank discussion with her to understand what’s blocking her fulfilling it.

If she firmly maintains an approach of “This is who I am – take it or leave it,” your husband may want to tell her that he’d like to keep up the relationship, and he’d love to go out for lunch with her occasionally, but he won’t be able to have her at his family events if she’s disrupting his way of life.

Keep in mind what Avraham, the paradigm of chesed and the original “kiruv expert,” told his nephew Lot: “I love you like a brother and that’s why some distance is important. I don’t know how to love you up close when you insist on immoral behavior [stealing pastureland].” Avraham still genuinely loved Lot — he risked his life to battle four mighty kings to rescue him. Yet he couldn’t live near him.

This isn’t about technique — it’s about the relationship. A healthy relationship involves knowing what you need and being able to state those needs. If you do that, while conveying your genuine love and respect, the other person senses it, and will usually reciprocate.

Rabbi Efraim Stauber is the rosh kollel of The Torah Center in Yerushalayim, an organization providing Torah education and community support for young re-inspired couples. He’s an accomplished teacher and lecturer — his classic Shabbos series is on TorahAnytime.com — and he’s the founder of Bitachon Bootcamp, the online seminar for avodah shebalev at www.JusTorah.com  He also has a private therapy practice for men’s and couple’s counseling.

Mrs. Miriam Russi Perr

To answer a question, the first thing we need to know is: what’s the goal? When considering your situation, I only see two worthwhile goals. Are you trying to protect your husband’s purity? Or are you trying to be mekarev your sister-in-law? Those are the only two possible positive goals I can see in this situation. Protecting our reputation and avoiding feelings of discomfort aren’t appropriate goals.

What exactly is your concern about having your sister-in-law in your home when she’s dressed inappropriately? Even if the house isn’t large and there’s no mechitzah, the men should be able to keep some distance from the women. If the genders will be mingling, then the setup is inappropriate for everyone.

There are many great men who have not-yet-frum women at their Shabbos tables. They make sure not to face them when they make Kiddush or say brachos, and often ensure that they aren’t seated directly across from them, but they welcome them into their homes. They’re cognizant of the importance of kiruv and know that feeling respected and accepted by others makes someone far more likely to want to emulate them.

If you really feel like you can’t have your husband’s friends over together with your sister-in-law, then don’t invite the friends. You don’t need to have the friends — but how can you shun a relative? And if you do want to have both, then you can have your husband give his friends a heads-up that there may be people there not dressed appropriately so they can plan accordingly.

You didn’t mention any impressionable children, so it seems that (at least now) you’re not worried about your sister-in-law influencing anyone else. If that is an issue, keep in mind this important rule in lifeguarding: if someone is drowning, and panicked and flailing, trying to go out to them may endanger you. What you should do is extend something they can grab onto, and then pull them to you. When someone is drowning spiritually, don’t go out to them — bring them to you.

Eating together with someone leads to connection. Allow your sister-in-law to enjoy meals and events in your homes. This will bring her closer to you and she may eventually want to emulate you. Look at what Avraham Avinu did — even when he was dealing with idol worshippers, he brought them in, cared for them, fed them delicacies, and then slowly taught them about Hashem.

Missing in your question is respect for your sister-in-law in her place of struggle. You have no idea how hard it is for her to dress appropriately, nor what an effort it may have been for her to reach or maintain the level she’s currently on. She should get a feeling from you that you believe that she’s doing her best and that you admire her for where she’s at. When a person’s present reality is respected, they’re more likely to want you to be part of their future growth.

Mrs. Miriam Russi Perr is a high school mechaneches in Brooklyn and Far Rockaway, and has been teaching for over 25 years. She gives lectures and teacher training workshops, and is also a kallah teacher.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 518)

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