Sisterhood Blog

Growing Strictures on Religious Women's Comportment – and Their Silent Complicity

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

  • Print
  • Share Share

I love a good frum wedding. No one knows how to party, in the best possible way, like religious Jews at a wedding. Last Sunday, we went to the wedding of the daughter of a couple to whom we’re related by marriage and with whom we’ve become friends. It was a beautiful affair that took place in an elegant wedding hall in Boro Park.

The bride’s parents are both extremely religious and very worldly. They have earned my admiration for doing incredible chesed, collecting food and clothing from myriad sources and re-distributing it to more than 1,000 poor people each week throughout Brooklyn. There is barely room to walk through their basement because it is packed high with pallets of donated potatoes, sugar, canned goods and other foods. When food does not meet stringent kosher guidelines, for one reason or another, it is given to food pantries that feed non-Jews, mostly through local black churches.

The affair was beautiful. And make no mistake about it, this was a Boro Park wedding. There were streimels galore, and a parade of distinguished, elderly rebbes came by, with entourages of younger followers at their heels. I see a new take on the HBO show “Entourage.” Instead of a young Hollywood star and his cronies hanging out poolside at glamorous hotels and watching tushes, our new show would feature big-time rebbes and their followers hanging out at tisches.

In the wedding hall lobby were photocopied leaflets with the words “For Women” handwritten at the top, titled “Wouldn’t It Be Wonderful If:” with a 15-item checklist:

• My skirts cover at least 4 inches below my knee.
• I would sew up all the slits: at the sides, front and back of my dresses, robes and skirts.
• My snood/turban completely covers my hair at all times and my crocheted snoods would be fully lined in the proper way.
• I wouldn’t walk outside with a long robe on Shabbat, even at night.
• I would apply perfume in extreme moderation, so that a person walking by will not notice it.
• I would walk in a quiet, natural and pleasant manner which does not catch the eye or attract undue attention (Loud Footsteps).
• My straight skirts are not tight fitting. They should have at least 3 to 4 inches space wider than my thighs.
• My sleeves will always cover my elbows and cannot be mistakenly seen when casually raising my hands. (Wide Sleeves).
• I would cancel subscriptions to all a) Secular magazines (also refrain from looking at them in the Doctor’s office) b) Women’s wear catalogs.
• I wouldn’t speak on a cellular phone while walking on the street.
• I would remove one unrefined phrase or word from my vocabulary.
• The neckline of my clothing would be fully covered using the necklace guideline.
• I would be careful when I meet my friend/relative on the street, to move aside and converse in a quiet, modest manner.
• I would take care to purchase tops that don’t fall into the category of fitted-ribbed/fitted Lycra tops.
• It is obvious that my sheitel [wig] portrays the look of an Eshet Eish and my sheitel would be shortened a bit.

Just reading this list makes me feel like I’m being shoved in a box and all the air is being sucked out. The skirt length “suggestions” don’t surprise me, but I wonder: Why are the self-appointed defenders of modesty distributing this list so disturbed by women speaking on cell phones on the street and greeting their friends in public?

Do they really need to tell women how they may walk? These men are apparently disturbed by women’s very presence, very being, outside the male-permitted domains of kitchen, dining room, bedroom and supermarket – the places needed to provide for men’s needs.

The haredi women I count among my friends and family members are every bit as smart, lively and strong as the non-haredi women in my life. At least in private.

But women in this community have been so long trained to be silent in the face of male opinion that they do not object to these increasing demands on the way they comport themselves. They do not rise up and say “this is not halacha,” or Jewish law, or that “this is going too far.”

Instead, by their very silence, they are complicit.

At the chuppah Sunday night outside the wedding hall, when each of the wedding’s blessings were said, all of the many, many women present were silent. Not because they may not say “Amen,” but because they have been taught that their “Amen” is not necessary and they have been so acculturated to be silent.

I worry about this silence, and the price that my haredi sisters will ultimately pay for it. I hope that one day soon, some great woman, or women, from within the community will stand up and tell these men that they should be focusing their attention on their own behavior and middot, or ethics.

To that I would say a VERY loud “Amen.”

Joe Feld Wed. Nov 4, 2009

I have several comments. Most of the above guidelines are widely considered normal in frum areas here in London, whether Hasidish, Litvish, Yekkish or Sephardish. What I find surprising is that you can have long sleeves, long skirt, high neckline and still be 'flash' or immodest. Modesty is a state of mind, aside from specific guidelines, it's natural elegance without a hint of ostentation. On the occasions I attend non-frum weddings I am disappointed how far some Jewish women have departed from our tradition of modesty. Even some of our Bat Mitzvah girls seem unaware that dressing modestly applies even outside the synagogue. Modesty, of course, also applies to making a simcha such as a wedding. In days of old Kehillohs had published guidelines for avoiding extravagance at weddings. Some have now renewed these guidelines to take financial pressure off parents of bride and groom.

RHF Thu. Nov 5, 2009

How do we know these pamphlets were written by men?

Yehoshua Thu. Nov 5, 2009

when each of the wedding’s blessings were said, all of the many, many women present were silent. Not because they may not say “Amen,” but because they have been taught that their “Amen” is not necessary and they have been so acculturated to be silent.

"ALL"?? I find it hard to believe that ALL the women were silent.

"taught that their “Amen” is not necessary"

Clearly you are misinformed. No Amen is "necessary" - for anything - other than for the hearer to acknowledge via their amen their own personal affirmation of the blessing being made. As such - there is no distinction between man or woman - as both are equally obligated. The blessing being made is valid even if no one answers and the Chassan (for whom the blessing are actually being made) fulfills his obligation - even if he himself does NOT answer amen.

You have made an erroneous assumption and condemned based on it. Also about the "modesty" of stepping aside. Clearly the potential *mind distraction* / effect of a woman navigating down the street around two men in general is nil. Not so the opposite for a man.

Perhaps you err too about who wrote the pamphlet? And if you do then your hope of "one day soon, some great woman, or women, from within the community will stand up and tell these men that they should be focusing their attention on their own behavior and middot, or ethics" . . might have already arrived! Short of wearing blindfolds in the street and at mixed affairs - these laws of modesty are the only real practical solution for men to focus on their behavior - that is - with the help of the great women in Klal Yisroel - ALL OF THEM! Bu being as modest as they can be - to help the men be as great as THEY can be.

And yes - we men still have a lot of areas to work on too in our behavior and modesty and midot - but that doesn't change the validity of the above.

Charles P. Cohen Thu. Nov 5, 2009

Wouldn't life be simpler if Jewish women all wore hijab and burkas?

We could write the requirements into "modesty laws", and have them enforced by "modesty police".


Josh Thu. Nov 5, 2009

A Tzaddik is someone who avoids situations where he may be tempted. Someone who can stare temptation in the face without being swayed is called a Malach!

dg Thu. Nov 5, 2009

I see two things here: The writer's observation in general is a fair one but I would not see it as having anything to do with gender. I believe this is one instance of people trying to be more "pious" - men or women - and looking for details with which to express that leaning. It should be seen as part of a broader pattern and not as about putting women "in a box" per se. That does not make it any more OK. The other thing I see, for whatever it's worth, is that this document was clearly written by a woman, as some commentors suggested. It may be under the influence of men or she may have (probably) sought approval of a rabbi before distributing it but as something of an insider, I can say that no man would have presented this sort of message and certainly not in this manner.

esthermiriam Thu. Nov 5, 2009

From Naomi Ragenm, novelist, writing from Israel: As you might have heard, last week myself and other plaintiffs who filed against the practice of forcibly putting women in the back of Israeli buses as part of a religious "mehadrin" line for so-called modesty, went back to the Supreme Court. The lawyers representing us at the Center for Jewish Pluralism of the Reform Movement did a wonderful job in keeping our struggle for women's rights and dignity at the forefront of Israeli policy, and we were delighted to finally read the recommendations of the Ministry of Transportation's special committee on this subject which backed us completely. There is no way, the committee agreed, to run sex segregated public buses without going against human rights and freedom. Yay! Now the Minister of Transportation has to adopt these recommendations and outlaw the buses.

Her article, "Moving Backwards," was posted here --

chana Thu. Nov 5, 2009

If it felt suffocating- then it was suffocating. True spirituality is not suffocating. We need a leader to show us how to connect to HASHEM in a pleasant and uplifting way for all. I highly doubt that this is what HASHEM wants. myself am a frum Jew who talks to HASHEM all day long. These laws just don't feel right. I myself would not have the chutzpah to tell someone else that my views are correct. That in itself feels wrong to me. I would not feel adequate enough

Shalom Thu. Nov 5, 2009

To Yehoshua:

Yehoshua to author: "taught that their “Amen” is not necessary"

Clearly you are misinformed. No Amen is "necessary" - for anything - other than for the hearer to acknowledge via their amen their own personal affirmation of the blessing being made…\

Shalom to Yehushua: You seem to be willfully unwilling to see the forest for the trees. While the ‘Amen’ may be halachically unnecessary, the author is clearly talking about what the normative response is among observant Jews. Don’t you say ‘amen’ when hearing a bracha as an affirmation of ‘Ani Ma’amin’? Clearly the author is saying that while the men in the hall felt it appropriate to say Amen, the women did not. And the fact that you felt the need to speculate that perhaps one or two said Amen, as if that negates the larger point, is laughable.

Yehoshua to author: “Short of wearing blindfolds in the street and at mixed affairs - these laws of modesty are the only real practical solution for men to focus on their behavior”.

Shalom to Yehoshua: Short of stapling your lips together, repeating the guideline that G-d gave us TWO ears and ONE mouth for a good reason on a daily basis may be the only practical solution for not creating a chillul Hashem by your public statements.

Sarah Thu. Nov 5, 2009


So many, many comments flying through my head.

Also, questions. Like, how did these pamphlets get there? Are they condoned/requested/required by the wedding hall? By those in charge of the kosher supervision? By the parents of the bride? Parents of the groom? The bride and/or groom? Friends? A friend? Some random person with a [misguided] sense of mission? Whoever put them there - what did other people think? Is this an accepted sort of thing at Boro Park weddings?

I can understand your reaction of feeling suffocated. May I share just two of my reactions to the "guidelines"?

1. head-shaking amusement I'm sorry, but I find it hard to take anyone seriously who capitalizes Doctor when it's not part of a proper name, or feels the need to clarify parenthetically - also Capitalized - "Loud Footsteps" and "Wide Sleeves." And yet, despite these helpful clarifications, I am left at a loss as to how that 3-4 inches should be measured, or what exactly the "necklace guideline" is and how to apply it. Really, I can't take anyone seriously who would put any of this in writing at all. Rather than getting upset by it - I admit that my first reaction was to laugh at it. And dismiss it.

2. Sadness - at the injustice of it all... Not at the injustice of imposing these strictures; honestly, I think they're silly, but not unjust if not forced. What makes me really sad is the thought that here is one more piece of "evidence" that might contribute to an apparently widespread misconception of Orthodoxy - of MY life, MY world - as imprisoning women. I'M NOT IMPRISONED!! I'm not stifled, I'm not oppressed, I'm not silenced. (In fact, I really like to argue.) And I find it incredibly unfair that everybody who identifies as Orthodox so often gets lumped together. We are all individuals! Even our groups are individuals. Please, Rest of the World, don't make assumptions about me based on what some other random Orthodox person, or group, says or does.

And a couple of reactions to Debra's analysis, if I may...

"by their very silence, they are complicit" - complicit in what? In deciding how they want to define modesty? Faced with a list of rules like the one in these pamphlets, I worry not so much that women are being forced to follow them (maybe I'm naive, but I like to think that's rare), but that women who choose to follow them are going to be pitied or even villified. To imply that there is something inherently wrong with a woman, or many women, going along with these rules - that, I think, negates women's free choice (freedom of opinion, freedom to speak up) at least as much as the rules themselves.

I remember being sickened a few years ago to read about Moslem girls in France who were not allowed to come to school in a veil, or Jewish boys who couldn't wear a yarmulke. All in the name of freedom and equality. But where is the freedom for each person to choose his or her own views/practices, even if others would choose differently?

The real problem, I think, is when women who want to attach themselves to certain religious/social circles for other reasons are dragged into this sort of mess of having to measure their skirts because some guy (or woman) with a photocopy machine told them to. But as with any individual who wants to associate with any group, such a woman must make her choices: is it worth putting up with the silliness (laugh at it, even) for the sake of the aspects of the group I love? Do I care enough about both the good elements and the silliness that I will try to maintain my position in the group while simultaneously challenging the things I find silly? Should I chuck the group and look for, or build, one that fits my perspectives more closely in more areas?

Life is about choices. Even when you're Orthodox. Even when you're a woman.

Rina Copper Fri. Nov 6, 2009

This is the worst one: "• I would cancel subscriptions to all a) Secular magazines (also refrain from looking at them in the Doctor’s office)..."

Jensays Sat. Nov 7, 2009

Kudos to Joe Feld for his comments about Bat Mitzvahs. Last year I went to a Reform Bat Mitzvah and I was shocked by the way the girls were dressed, or should I say, barely dressed. We're talking about 13 year olds in dresses that barely covered their tush when they were standing, low necklines, etc. I'm a mom, and I would have never let my daughter walk out looking like that! It's sending our beautiful Jewish girls the completely wrong message.

Part of the beauty of a woman who observes the essence of tznius isn't just the length of her skirt or sleeves. It's also that she's appreciated for who she is, not as a sexual creature. The latter aspect is intended to be a private act between married people.

I've seen similiar "guidelines" to those in this article in dressings rooms in ladies stores located in frum communities. My hunch is that it was written and distributed by women for women.

sarah Sun. Nov 8, 2009

Clearly, the time to rise up against stuff like this is not at someone's wedding. The drastic nature of some of it would result in laughter and dismissal. I do see the importance of teaching young girls (and young women) that modesty comes from the inside out. Not because men become aroused, but because you're never fully undressed without a smile. (so to speak)

Debra Nussbaum Cohen Sun. Nov 8, 2009

Based on the handwriting, this flier appears to have been written and distributed by a man.

And I wasn't suggesting that women "rise up" at the wedding itself, but rather in the larger sense.

Having recently been on the bar/bat mitzvah circuit and preparing to be on it again in a couple of years, I agree with the comments about the inappropriate dresses some girls wear to parties....I also find it inappropriate and wish these girls' parents would not allow them to buy short dresses with plunging necklines.

I'm glad that commenter Sarah is able to laugh at these "guidelines." But I know far too many people who perhaps do not have her confidence and take these matters quite seriously, and feel pressured to conform.

Yes, of course modesty 'comes from the inside out.' But it is also hard for a woman to be appreciated for who she is -- and hard for a woman to even discover who she really is -- if she has to be worried about how the sound of her footsteps, or how greeting a friend or relative in public, is being viewed by the men around her.

I'm in favor of a middle way -- and wish there were more people speaking up for an ethic of modesty for both men and women, but also for an appreciation of individuality.

Michael Makovi Tue. Nov 10, 2009


"Short of wearing blindfolds in the street and at mixed affairs - these laws of modesty are the only real practical solution for men to focus on their behavior..."

(1) You're wrong. Men can learn to control their impulses. Men can see treif food without eating it, so maybe they can learn not to think about women all the time as well. I'm only 21 years old, so I've got plenty of testosterone in my blood, and in my public high school, I was known as one of the more sexually-minded individuals. So if I can now (as a frum individual) control myself, so can everyone else.

The problem with tzniut today is that the women are taught "You are nothing but a sexual object", and men are taught, "You are also nothing but a sexual object". Men are taught that it is impossible to control the sexual urge, and they are taught that women are sexually-attractive bodies of flesh, and not living human beings with souls. The purpose of tzniut is to emphasize the humanity of women and deemphasize their sexuality, but when men are taught to think about nothing but whether a woman's leg is properly covered, the exact opposite of the intention of tzniut is achieved.

(2) How nice of you to put all the pressure on women due to the sins of men! If the men have a problem, how about the men stay home? There was a rash of rapes in Israel, and it was suggested that women be put under curfew for their safety. Golda Meir replied, "The rapists are men, so let men be put under curfew."

sd Tue. Nov 10, 2009

Women are complicit to all kinds of things that are detrimental to themselves-their children-their world-others. As long as Jewish and all other women rely on men for their self worth, in the most structural and deepest of ways, women will continue to be complicit to/with all sorts of lesser and bigger horrors.

David Mollen Fri. Nov 13, 2009

Question 1: It has always bothered me that women have to sit either behind men or in a balcony because men cannot pray and have a woman near to distract them at the same time. Why don't the men sit in the balcony? It is obviously the men's problem!

Question 2: I am a Jew and so very concerned with morality! (Hard to believe, but there are Jews who think I am annoying about morality!) But is morality primarily concerned with tzniut or with chesed? What obligations to the Orthodox feel toward the disadvantaged around them (which in our current circumstance means the non-Jewish poor)?

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.