My Dear Rabbi Column for May: Talmudic Advice about Sexuality and Modesty for Women

In My Dear Rabbi Column in the Jewish Standard for May I Give Talmudic Advice about modesty for women.

Dear Rabbi
Your Talmudic Advice Column

Dear Rabbi,

I attend a Yeshiva High School where I must follow a strict dress code and wear a skirt that goes below my knees and long sleeve dresses or blouses.

The teachers and administrators at the school defend this requirement as part of “tznius” -- meaning the religious requirement to dress modestly. I don’t approve of these rules. I like to dress as I see fit and to follow fashions and not be told what to wear.

At times all of this makes me feel miserable. Please don’t tell me that I need to transfer to another school. My parents won’t allow that. And so, what should I do?

Fashionable in Fairlawn

Dear Fashionable,

I empathize with you and I will try to explain to you what I see as the principles behind tznius practices. But I fear that for now knowing that may make matters more difficult for you.

Here is how I see the basics. The idea that a girl or woman must dress in a certain modest way rests on a binary assumption, namely you can be either modest or immodest, and modest is better.

Unfortunately, the belief that modesty is better is not based on some neutral economic notion, such as that a girl should give her money to charity rather than spend it on expensive clothing. It is based on the idea that exposing to view some parts of a woman’s body is always a sexual action that must be avoided.

You may say that this assertion that it is a sexual action to go out in public with a bare arm or a leg bare above the knee seems arbitrary and that this may be confusing to you. You may see other persons in the communities around you who assume that sexual situations are determined not by simple measures of skirt length but by many other intricate aspects of personal and social situations and interactions. And if that is how you see things, then I believe you are right in your perceptions of the complexity of human relations and sexuality.

So no, I do not suggest that you must transfer to another school to resolve your dress code dilemma. For now it is good if you can accept the practices, and without public protest or announcement, you can reject for yourself the shallow premises on which they are based.

After high school you may go off to live and act according to your own more individual, complete and intricate understanding human relations. You then will be freer to express your own preferences for fashions and styles without instantly mistaking one’s manner of dress as a manifestation of a person’s sexuality.

I do hope that you find helpful this brief Talmudic analysis and advice for the day-to-day reality of our contradictory world, where one person's modesty may be another person's misery.

The Dear Rabbi column offers timely advice based on timeless Talmudic wisdom. It aspires to be equally respectful and meaningful to all varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it here on the first Friday of the month. Send your questions to DearRabbi@jewishmediagroup.com

Rabbi Dr. Tzvee Zahavy was ordained at Yeshiva University and earned his Ph.D. in religious studies at Brown University.

No comments: