Surprise, surprise! Exploring tzniyus generated loads of thoughtful questions and interesting comments
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What do we gain by talking about tzniyus? The same style is completely refined on one person and borderline or even eye-catching on someone else. Analyzing hair length, nail polish, makeup, “tight”/ “loud”/ “colorful”/ words on clothing, “bad” or “good” styles, etc., etc., is missing the point. It doesn’t work, it doesn’t help, it doesn’t accomplish anything.
It could be argued that tzniyus discussions don’t accomplish much. Whatever can be said has already been said, and either you buy in and you’re working on this, or you’re ignoring the matter, drifting wherever fashion pulls, and not too interested in having your party disturbed.
But there’s a silent majority of women and girls who, while they perhaps find the strident tzniyus warrior tone discomfiting, want more and are open to hearing and growing. Those women deserve to have this conversation kept on the front burner.
Your examples sound like excerpts from a tzniyus list, and while I agree that they delineate details that should be addressed, you’re right that micromanaging tzniyus rarely achieves anything substantial. Furthermore, like half a dosage of antibiotics, dealing with the topic ineffectively is bound to cause more harm than help. Tzniyus is a middah, which means there’s no magic switch. If the foundation isn’t solid, whatever is built on top of it will be shaky.
A crucial step is conscious commitment. Let’s allow that yes, tzniyus is important; yes, we have a counter-position to the nutty world we live in; yes, I can be more connected.
Then keep asking yourself some simple questions: “Am I calling attention to myself?” “Can I do a little better?” “Is this what I’d want for my daughters?” and so much will work itself out as you keep plugging and moving forward.
This Isn’t Black and White
I’m a bubby in my mid-fifties. Ninety-five percent of the women in my community dress in expensive designer black, with the other 5 percent going for a daring navy or gray, maybe with a touch of cream. I love color and I’ll share a secret: Even in black, I still don’t look skinny.
I found a beautiful floral print outfit in soft peach that looks right, for a great price. It’s not bright, but I definitely stand out in my crowd. Is there a tzniyus problem here?
There’s no straightforward answer to your question. It’s hard to imagine anyone saying that you can’t do soft-peach floral (this was rabbinically verified). And in most of the frum world, color and prints are back in. But you have reservations. What’s troubling you?
Let’s do some guided imagery.
Pull up a circumstance of physical exposure that causes discomfort. That discomfort is your tzniyus compass. Now, keeping a handle on what that feels like, switch to an image of yourself wearing a sweater, or any other article of clothing, that’s a bit more accentuating or bold than your usual look. You should still be able to access that awkwardness, but at a more subtle place on the spectrum.
Or, let’s say you’re in your kitchen, but not dressed exactly as you normally do. If a woman you respect were to enter, chances are you’d feel some variation of that uneasiness. She’s not male, there’s nothing forbidden, but an intrinsic sense of tzniyus is being tickled.
The floral print example is subjective and makes for great debate. It doesn’t enter the assur or mutar category, but for the woman whose inner sensitivity is alerted, it may not be quite right. If you can feel the dilemma, then you’ve hopefully tapped into something deep and genuine. Make choices from that place.
I feel your article whitewashed facts by making everything sound positive, and as if the gripes about tzniyus are fairly dispersed among all. Let’s be real. Women are unfairly pressured about tzniyus, and all the responsibility is placed at their door. And that turns me off and sends me in the other direction.
You seem to want men and women to share responsibility for society’s standards — and they do. You feel more pressure should be put on men, and that’s well taken. But sharing responsibility doesn’t translate into throwing ours to the side.
A woman’s tzniyus interfaces with the tripod of Yiddishkeit: inner character growth, how we connect with our Creator, and kindness to others. There’s the dignity demanded by our intrinsic self-worth, the modest behavior that’s engendered by an awareness that our Creator sees us at all times, and finally, considerate behavior and boundaries between men and women. That’s all-encompassing, and yes, women have a serious mission.
Your main difficulty seems to be the unappealing way in which tzniyus has been communicated. You blame others for turning you off, but it’s more precise to say that you allowed yourself to get turned off rather than examine tzniyus on its own merits.
Blaming society sounds a bit like a 50-year-old man who isn’t frum because his bunk Gimmel counselor forgot to give him his learning prize at the end of first trip. If this is a value to be reckoned with, and if you’re a serious person, sign up. And if there’s specific history that hinders you to the point of emotional blindness, find the people who can help you work through it so you can move on.
The Mane Idea
At a vort I wished the kallah mazel tov. She struck me as a bit older than the chassan and it was only later that I realized that the “girl” I’d congratulated was actually the kallah’s mother. What’s the point of wearing a sheitel if even I, a born and bred New York Bais Yaakov grad, couldn’t tell?
That’s definitely unsettling. And in truth, to many people, the whole concept of hair on hair seems strange.
Is a head covering there to show marital status, is the issue that a married woman’s hair is ervah and has to be covered (similar to other ervah), or is it something else? This is a complex halachic topic deserving of a Talmudic treatise in a halachic journal, so we’ll all put our hands down, ladies, because we don’t get a vote.
Wearing a sheitel is predicated on the halachic approach that the central issue is covering a married woman’s hair, which is ervah, and what matters is what’s covered above anything else. The wig discussion, and subsequent customs, stretches much further back than my great-grandfather importing Parisienne wigs to Poland for his wife and daughters, and your Yerushalmi elterer zeide horrified at anything but a shpitzel.
Rav Moshe Feinstein, based on his understanding of the Rema, Pri Megadim, Magen Avraham, and the Semag, which are the poskim most of us rely on for establishing halachah in all areas, allows wigs, despite the fact that it looks like real hair, providing that other women can tell the difference (Igros Moshe, Even Ha’ezer II:12). Meaning, once it’s covered, wigs are not an ervah issue, because nothing forbidden is exposed. Rather, there’s a potential a maaris ayin issue: Will it look as if this woman is not keeping the mitzvah of hair covering? Rav Dovid Feinstein explains Rav Moshe’s position as referring to sheitels that regular frum women (not only sharp-eyed in-towners) would have difficulty discerning as such; they are not okay.
So nice wigs are fine, according to these poskim, and the fact that some can’t be pegged as wigs doesn’t ruin it for everyone else. However, that doesn’t mean that is-it-or-isn’t-it wigs aren’t a serious problem It’s easy to insist that “all women can always tell,” but as long as kerotined 17-year-olds wearing nice jewelry are consistently asked their maiden names, we can assume we aren’t as astute as we think we are.
The Jews of Mitzrayim are chastised for not having a bris milah, but in truth, they did technically have a bris. They just pulled a little trick to make themselves seem as if they didn’t have one, in order to appear Egyptian. The lack of appreciation and pride was offensive, and on a conceptual level, trying to hide their mitzvah is considered as if they hadn’t done it at all. A provocative sheitel is certainly an abuse of the mitzvah. There’s mental and social distance when it’s clear who is and isn’t married. Erasing that invites trouble, even if one is officially toeing the letter of the law.
Why does everyone start up with sheitels but doesn’t say a word when it comes to other types of showy head covering?
Clothing has to cover, but come on, you know it doesn’t end there. All apparel, including any wig or mitpachat, has to satisfy a more fundamental criteria than ervah: tzniyus, which means not drawing attention. So head-turning, statement-making anything should be reevaluated.
But while hair is not intrinsically provocative — as can be seen by the fact that not-yet-married women walk around with their hair showing — it sure can be. Hair is called out in halachah as deserving special “tone-me-down” consideration, and married women are supposed to be less conspicuous than their single counterparts.
I’m told the suggestive, hair-raising sheitel ads floating around cyberspace would turn you gray. Some bigwig manufacturers seem to be hairsplitting in their understanding of Birchas Hatorah: “Eilu devarim she’ein lahem shiur: hapei’ah — These are things that have no limits: the ‘pei’ah’ (corner of the field, also ‘wig’).”
I keep the letter of the law, but honestly, I don’t connect to tzniyus. This causes me to dress in a way that even I know is provocative. But I don’t have the inner fire to change. What’s blocking me?
An awesome group of high school girls agreed to collaborate with Family First on your question. They voted the top four tzniyus hindrances as being negative peer pressure, poor self-esteem, not being spiritually connected, and lack of in-depth information. Following is their expanded advice on those points and more (with some additional input):
Misdirected: Pinpoint and then re-channel the core personality traits that are leading you to places you aren’t proud of. If you’re creative, have satisfying outlets so that you don’t need dramatic clothing to express your artsiness. A drive for excellence might come through as being exceptional rather than looking exceptional. Perhaps you’re an independent thinker. Do something profoundly different and actually important instead of displaying individuality in an empty surface way. Is there residual rebelliousness from your younger years, and you never met a rule you didn’t hate? Tzniyus will be tough. But if you find yourself a good cause, you might be able to wean yourself off the rise from jaw-drops or raised eyebrows.
Know your value: Tzniyus equals humility, but ironically, being low-key takes confidence. Poor self-esteem — needing external validation and approval — is often why people embarrass themselves with showiness. Human greatness disdains cheap expression, and G-d tells us that we’re “a kingdom of aristocrats and a holy nation” (Shemos 19:6). Family First’s new advisory panel suggested making sure you appreciate what dignity is, and actively learning to identify what it feels like. Then you can discern, and be bothered, when it’s being squelched.
Not About Me: You know how to pull off that flawless look and love the look-at-me energy that comes from out-dressing the crowd. If so, and we say this with love, you’re coming across as a bit shallow. Our experts were unanimous that becoming acquainted with your soul and connecting to your Creator is key to beating the ego and superficiality that can knock tzniyus off your radar. They caution that the opposite extreme, the spiritual “I love Hashem” type, can also be somewhat self-centered and prone to immodest singing, expression, and dress. So proceed with care.
Healing: Super-sharp and flawless is sometimes a way for a woman to feel in control when the rest of her life is unstable. Being hung up with your outside can stem from social anxiety. A woman who never received acceptance from her father can act out in a way that seeks male interest. Serious tzniyus challenges, whether in-your-face dress or extreme covering up, can be a clue that someone has been seriously hurt or abused. Tzniyus drama at all ages can be expressing anger or pain at something or someone connected to Yiddishkeit. If something bigger is at the core of your dressing as you do, please get the help you need.
Jew in the house, woman in the street: “I can tell you’re Orthodox” is a compliment, but if you’re Jewishly insecure, a frum look might make you edgy. Aiming for a human-who-could-be-from-anywhere style can have tzniyus risks. The antidote? Work on your Jewish pride, because we are different, we dress different — and that’s amazing.
Ownership: Following an inventory of boxes to check off without feeling or warmth is doomed to mediocrity at best. A more comprehensive understanding and a deeper appreciation of the beauty, meaning and blessing within tzniyus will help your brain decide wisely. “A simpleton doesn’t fear transgression and an ignoramus isn’t righteous (Avos 2:5).”
Choose Your Crowd: It’s hard to be more motivated than your friends. Hang with people who can carry you with their enthusiasm, and before you know it, you’ll be reciprocating.
Eye on the Future: Dress as the person you want to be, for real, and your heart will get pulled along. Basically, if you’re waiting for some elusive zap of inspiration, “be your own lightbulb and plug yourself in.”
Mrs. Batya Weinberg has been involved in numerous aspects of Jewish education for over 30 years. She’s a senior lecturer in many seminaries and a noted student advisor.
Have questions about this topic? Another hashkafic issue you’ve always wondered about? A dilemma for which you’re seeking the Torah approach? Let’s touch base. Send your question to email@example.com.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 806)
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