Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Modest Dress in Orthodoxy

Modesty – or Tznius - in clothing is always going to be a controversial issue. Any discussion about it usually brings about lots of emotional reaction from all sides. I don’t often discuss these issues but in light of a letter that appeared in Yeshiva World I thought I would mention a few of my thoughts on the issue. Nothing profound or Halachic here. Just some personal thoughts on the issue that drives Tznius in women’s clothing: Arayos – technically translated as skin but used in Halachos dealing with sexual matters. And Ervah – exposure of the skin!

For the most part Tznius in women’s clothing is based on what is or is not erotic to men. To that extent men are prohibited from gazing at women at all for immoral purposes. Chazal also devised a standard of dress for women that will help prevent them from thinking immoral thoughts when encountering a woman.

That standard according to most opinions is covering the body from the knee (including the knee) to above the collar bone - and covering the arms above the elbow (including the elbow). It does not include covering any part of the face or hair (Except for married women).

The bottom line in avoiding erotic thoughts in men – is to prevent sinful behavior.

This brings me to two issues: Pants and tight clothing.

As I understand it Rav Moshe Feinstein Paskins that pants designed for women do not violate the Issur of Beged Ish – the Halacha in the Torah which forbids women from wearing men’s clothing. But It does not satisfy the problem of Pisuk Raglayim – literally ‘the split of the legs’. Since pants do not cover that area they are considered to be erotic in nature and forbidden. However if one wears a top that extends over that area – pants are Halachicly permissible even according to Rav Moshe.

First let me state that I do not wish to argue with Rav Moshe on this issue. Not only am I not anywhere near his level of Torah knowledge - I am not in any way a Posek. The following is just my own perception of the reality of what is or isn’t erotic.

To me erotica isn’t about pants or a dress. It is about what kind of pants or dress. Skin tight blue jeans are erotic. A beautiful woman wearing them will elicit erotic thoughts in men. The same is true for a skin tight dress. There is absolutely no difference between them in my view. They should both be forbidden on those grounds. But loose fitting slacks are no different than a loose fitting dress. Neither of those will elicit erotic thoughts in men. I do not think that in our day the idea of a woman wearing pants like that should be a problem.

But in our world today no Charedi or Chasidic women would ever dream of wearing even the loosest fitting pants. But when it comes to dresses – it’s another story. I recently saw the daughter of a Rosh yeshiva at a wedding wearing a gown so tight she could barely sit down. And she wasn’t the only one wearing tight clothes - albeit fully covering all the areas of the body that are supposed to be covered. I see it all the time in both Yeshivishe and Chasidic circles as well as modern Orthodox circles. It doesn’t matter.

I know that many of their Gedolim and Chasidic Rebbes have come out with strong warnings about such clothing. But it seems to be falling on deaf ears in some cases. These women seem to feel that the letter of the law is being honored by covering up all the right areas. But by wearing such tight clothes they defeat the purpose of Tznius clothing.

There is much criticism by the right about modern Orthodox women who wear slacks and are otherwise not dressed properly. I’m sure that is true in many cases. But there are many modern Orthodox women who wear slacks who are very Tznius and would never wear anything tight.

Is it fair to say that Charedi women dress in more Tznius clothing than modern Orthodox women? I think the answer to that question is no. It is unfair to judge them on whether they are Tznius based on whether they are Charedi or modern Orthodox. There are all kinds of people in both segments that are Tznius and not Tznius. Modesty is a characteristic that has no Hashkafa.