The Friendly Atheist has a great new post addressing the teaching of modesty in Beit Yaakov, an Orthodox Jewish school in Lakewood, New York. It illustrates perfectly the disjuncture between the modesty doctrine (fear and shame-based covering of the female body) and the more expansive virtue called modesty, which is basically synonymous with humility.
A concerned parent shared a story that a Beit Yaakov teacher used as an illustration for her curriculum on tznius (modesty). The story tells of traveling men encountering an apparition in a field. Inside a house, a mother was boiling clothes in a cauldron and applying them to her screaming daughter’s body. The travelers deduced that they had seen a vision of the afterlife and that the mother had been condemned to torture her daughter forever as punishment for failing to teach her tznius:
In theory, tzniut is an all-encompassing concept surrounding the commandment, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” It means that one should not boast or brag, or show off one’s personal life unnecessarily. It means that validation comes from inside, not from the compliments or attention of others.
Not everyone agrees with such a philosophy. But, at its best, it attempts to validate the importance of the human spirit and give all people the tools to have a strong ethical core that is not easily swayed by popular pressure.
That this positive message, which is just as important to the practice of tzniut as one’s outfit, is totally lost in the rendering of the story above, is extremely sad. Fearmongering is for the small-minded and weak of heart. If Beit Yaakov schools believe that their teachings lead to a better life for their adherents, they should stand by that belief by preaching the rewards of tzniut and a religious lifestyle, not by threatening pain and suffering. If they hold that women are worthy because they have a unique position in relation to god, that is what they should teach — not that girls whose clothing is the slightest bit wrong are doomed to torture regardless of their good acts through life.
(Note: the image above is a poster from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, 2008. From tabletmag.com.)