Sisterhood Blog

Initiating a Conversation About Modesty

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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The New York Times reports that the upshot of a recent freewheeling panel discussion is that the judiciary wants its members to be more, well, judicious in their dress. There is a move afoot, apparently, to have lawyers be more appropriately shod and dressed during courtroom proceedings than they have recently been.

Should there be a similar freewheeling discussion in the Jewish community? I’d love to see it.

What defines modesty for us, if we don’t ascribe to the Satmar look for women (non-clingy tops buttoned to the neck, skirts grazing the ankles, hair covered not just by a wig, but also by a hat)? What about modesty for men?

I felt a bit shocked the time I saw a Muslim woman in my neighborhood totally veiled in black, her face covered, alongside men I took to be her family members, who were clad in shorts and tank tops.

What does modesty mean for us as Jews? Do we define it as Wendy Shalit did in her 2000 book “A Return to Modesty?” Or as Rabbi Shmuley Boteach does here?

Sure, most schools — including Jewish day — schools have dress codes. At the one my kids attend, no shorts too short or lingerie, i.e. camisoles, masquerading as streetwear, are permitted.

Then there are the posters that have appeared on streetlight posts building walls in Crown Heights in the past several months, warning women that they should be dressing more modestly. Given the sartorial trend toward downright sexiness there, I can understand it. No more dowdy long “seminary skirts” for these young women, especially the married ones. Instead, curve-hugging skirts hitting just below or at the knee — sometimes with a slit and high-heeled shoes — make for what the rabbis regard as an “un-tznius” appearance.

No one among us non-frummies would advocate that women give up driving cars, as they have in Kiryas Yoel, near Monsey, because their rabbis have decided that it’s “not modest.” That sounds more like Saudi Arabia than the world in which I live.

But there are legitimate differences of opinion even among we more liberal folk. Two summers ago I taught writing at a Reform movement summer camp for teenagers. When I commented to my friend K, who also worked at the camp, that I thought some of those 17-year-old girls were dressing too revealingly, she took issue with my view.

I find myself uncomfortable, sometimes, with my 10-year-old daughter wearing tank tops, but struggling to articulate to her why it is no longer appropriate when it is super-hot outside and no sleeves is truthfully the coolest garb to have on.

Modesty, inside and out. Let’s take up the discussion.



Comments
SBriz Fri. May 29, 2009

I think you can have your daughter wear short sleeves; when it's hot, wearing linens and light materials always works. That will allow her to be cool and for you to bring across your views on modesty.

I sometimes (though rarely) wear sleeveless tops, but often try my best to buy light clothing or keep to short-sleeved tops. No one says women have to go to the extremes exhibited by Muslims, but there is much to be said about being modest - it not only brings respect to a person but also from others.

And if girls/women don't think so, just ask men. While many will gawk and stare at women who are scantily dressed, ask them who their idea is for a partner or look to whom many date and often marry - your girl next door with natural looks who isn't into showing herself off to others.

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