Who Cares What Women Wear (Or Don't Wear)?
Modesty is one of the most fundamental of Jewish values, but is widely misunderstood and frequently dismissed as provincial, old-fashioned, outmoded, or chauvinistic. Modesty is the art of directing focus away from oneself. Its relevance to our lives has not faded, but in our culture's celebration of individuality this art is usually unpopular: What could be more significant than having our individuality acknowledged and acclaimed? We want to be admired for good looks, stylish dress, fancy cars, and lavish homes, not for the depth of our intellect, the quality of our characters, or the nobility of our deeds.
This is where modesty matters. When men and women dress modestly -- and behave accordingly -- they emphasize both to themselves and to others that libidinal attraction is not a goal. Those who dress modestly strive to affect the world through the wisdom they have acquired and the deeds they have performed, not through anatomical endowments that they have received from nature and for which they can claim little or no credit.
Rabbi Joshua Maroof
Magen David Sephardic Congregation
I adore my mother; she should be well. She is wise, and wisdom breeds modesty. The clothes we wear are garments for our bodies; our thoughts, speech, and actions are garments for our souls. Garments are borders, like skin, to keep the outside out and the inside in. Dressing immodestly is a sign of weak borders.
We reveal something of ourselves by our words and our deeds, but our true character is etched in the wisdom of words not said. My siblings and I have gained much from my mother's words, but her unspoken wisdom has sculpted our personalities and behavior. Although my mother has never said so, we know that every violation of traditional borders pains her heart and hurts her eyes. If anything keeps me trying to be a mensch, it's my mother's modesty. What I have neither seen nor heard is as real to me as life itself.
Rabbi Manis Friedman
Dean, Bais Chana Institute of Jewish Studies
St. Paul, MN
Modesty is rooted in ethical communication and is the expression of relationship. The deeper the friendship, the more I reveal and share verbally. So it is with the body. "Letting it all hang out" may arouse a physical response, but it violates the ratio between relationship and revelation. In traditional halachic language, this behavior is called "uncovering that which is normally covered."
Modesty demands that one should speak and show the body based on the context of the relationship and social setting. This observation implies that dress for the beach is legitimately more uncovered than dress for the office or the synagogue.
Modesty is not a matter of inches covered or related only to women. In a society that separates genders (like Muslim or Haredi communities), uncovering may be considered more invasive than in a gender-mixed society. In most traditional settings, modesty has metastasized into prudery, shame of the body, and beliefs that women should be less visible and avoid public roles. A coed culture has a better chance to achieve normal social interaction and is thus less likely to turn females into objects of sexual exploitation.
In either type of culture, the goal should be to set a tone of equality and reciprocal modesty that honors the other. A properly applied principle of modesty dynamically adjusts and nurtures human relationships; that is the Jewish ideal.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg
New York, NY
My opinion on modesty is still evolving. I understand that the custom of wearing long skirts and sleeves is a social norm rather than a law. If girls believe that their long skirts and sleeves help people value them for their brains and personalities, not their bodies, then I admire and support them. However, if they are taught that the body is somehow shameful or dirty, or if they are compensating for thoughts that some men might have about them, then I worry about an excessive preoccupation with women as potential sex objects. I quip, "If men have the problem, why don't they wear blinders?"
Rabbi Miriam Berkowitz
Boca Raton, FL
I love the wildly inventive fashions on the TV show Project Runway, but the show What Not To Wear addresses the question before us. Created in the image of God, we have a sacred responsibility to clothe the body that houses our divine spirit sensibly, sensitively, and joyfully. Young or not so young, at the beach or on the bima, tziniut, or modest dress, can guide us. A contemporary recasting might also inspire us to consider what we put in our bodies and how to promote health within.
I was ordained more than 25 years ago, a time when there were barely fifty women rabbis. Curiosity abounded about what we would do, say and, indeed, wear! I wanted to be taken seriously, but as a young woman, I also wanted to develop my style.
Although few of us are designers or fashion models, our Project Runway is called life. On our runway, we can use color, texture, and design to robe ourselves with modesty and flair, dignity and honor.
Rabbi Deborah Zecher
Hevreh of Southern Berkshire
Great Barrington, MA