Monday, June 06, 2011

Dressing Provocatively Within Halacha?

As a man I do not relish the idea of writing about how Orthodox women should dress. But at the same time how women dress impacts men greatly. I read somewhere that men are very visual – much more so than women. It is the visual image that can provoke indecent thoughts in men. Yes that means women are objectified to a certain extent. But like it or not that is the nature of the male. But I didn’t need to read this anywhere. As a man I know it innately. The Torah and Chazal too recognized this and it is why there is so much focus in Halacha about how women should dress.

The decent men among us try to minimize the visual and see a woman for who she is rather than how she looks. That is the ideal. But it is not always achieved.

Tznius is therefore one of the most discussed topics of our day. And achieving it as a religious community is an elusive goal – no matter what segment of Orthodoxy one is from. A recent article in the form of 3 letters in the Jewish Press brings this point home in stark relief.

The first letter which I assume was written by a woman is a scathing attack on the way some Orthodox women dress. She writes in vivid detail the manner in which the spirit (if not the letter) of the modesty laws are breached in the extreme –even in Yeshivishe circles. While I may not agree with all of her complaints, her point is well taken. Many modern Orthodox, Charedi, and even Chasidic women will dress in the most provocative of ways. I have seen daughters of Roshei Yeshiva who dress in the manner described by this letter-writer.

The second letter says pretty much the same thing.

The third letter is from a man’s perspective. He says the following:

I want to bring up a topic that I believe many frum married men have a problem with: while the woman we marry may be baalbatish (refined), highly intelligent, a great cook and homemaker, and excellent mother, she is not a good wife - meaning she doesn't satisfy her husband and fails to give him what he really wants.

While the 3rd letter does not address dressing modesty it does highlight the fact that the male libido (sex drive) is an important factor in marriage. And since the male libido is tied to the visual I think all 3 letters paint a picture about the importance images have to married men and women.

These letters are illustrative of the temptations of living in the modern world. This is no less true of Orthodox Jews than it is of secular or non Jews. It cuts across all Hashkafic lines. No matter how insular any given segment might be these problems exist. There is a Yiddish expression - ‘Azoi Vie SeChrisiltzach – Yiddeltzach. While not an exact translation it means: The way in which the world behaves is ultimately the way we Jews will behave. This is an idea that did not originate yesterday. If I am not mistaken it originates in the Gemarah – although I do not recall where.

We are all subject to the influences of the culture. The male libido has been around since the beginning of time. And it interacts and responds to the cultural cues of society.

Bearing all this in mind we can get a better perspective about why many of even the most religious women who attended the most religious of schools feel the need to dress in the provocative ways described by the first letter writer.

I could be way off base here but this is the way I see it. There are several possible reasons. In some cases women want to be provocative and enjoy the kind of attention it gets them. In other cases women simply want to look as good as they can and do not necessarily look for that kind of attention. But in some cases they do it for their husbands.

In all cases women can justify it by making the legitimate claim that it is the obligation of men to not gaze at women. True. But in a society like ours where we are constantly bombarded with provocative and sometimes even erotic images – and when the average secular woman in the street is anything but modestly dressed (especially in the summer) avoiding a gaze is a near impossibility. So it helps when a woman is sensitive to that by not adding to the provocation in their manner of dress.

Does that mean that married women should dress down as much as possible? I don’t think that is a real answer either. It isn’t just about married women who want to show how attractive they are. There may actually be a legitimate reason that married women want to dress attractively in public. They do it for their husbands – who enjoy seeing their wives looking good in public.

But it’s even more than that. Orthodox men who go into the workplace every day encounter secular women in all manner of provocative dress, and when they come home to their non working wives, who have the ability to look just as good, nonetheless cannot do so on an everyday basis. One cannot dress glamorously in order to change diapers, or cook. One does not put on their $3000 wig to go to the grocery store.

So you have a situation where even the most devoted of husbands cannot help but make at least subliminal comparisons between what they have encountered all day and what they come home to. Most husbands realize that and overcome those visuals. But let’s not fool ourselves. Those provocative visuals are there day after day and sometimes all day long. This is how the modern American woman in America dresses in the workplace these days.

A married Frum woman has to compete with that. Which might explain why they dress up in some of the provocative ways described by the first letter writer whenever they go out in public. They follow the letter of the law, but they otherwise dress as attractively as they can for their husbands. Which is seen by people like the first letter writer as worthy of a stint in hell.

So it isn’t as simple as saying that women should dress modestly in both the letter and spirit of the law. Telling husbands to just get over it, doesn’t always work. Especially when the ‘best Bachurim in Lakewood’ (You know – the kind with big price tags on their heads) refuse to date any woman who wears a dress size larger than 2. (Yes – they’re dating dress sizes now.)

Women may then have a justifiable claim to dress in ways that will be attractive to their husbands. And being attractive is more than looking baalebatish. And yet sometimes this may cross the kind of lines that so greatly upsets the first letter writer.

I have no answers here. These are just some of my own personal observations. As I said the first letter writer’s point is well taken. But one should not ignore the implications of the 3rd letter writer either. One thing I will say however is that the tone and sheer vehemence of her condemnation shows that she has absolutely no understanding of the issue at all.