Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Modesty, Culture, and Dress Codes

Mini-skirted protesters that were blocked from the Keneset (Forward)
Are modesty standards relative to the culture? Well, yes and no. Read on. 

Yes, modesty is an issue in Judaism. Unfortunately when the word modesty is used in the media, it usually refers to the way a woman should dress. Meaning that women should not dress in ways that are sexually provocative. While that is one facet of modesty, it is certainly not the only one. Modesty in the way we dress also means not wearing showy clothing that brings attention to oneself even if they are not sexually provocative. Modesty in dress applies to men as well.

One must not only dress modestly but act modestly. One must be modest in all ways; the way we dress; the way we act; and the way we speak.

Interacting with our fellow human beings ought to be done with respect and dignity even when there is strong disagreement between us. In this sense blogs and their comment sections often fail. Far too many of us – myself included – fall short. But in my case, and in those of others that identify themselves with our real names, there is some degree of reticence to say things that would reflect poorly on our character. We try and behave in ways that would not bring shame upon ourselves and our families. 

Those that use aliases on the other hand have free reign to say whatever they wish  throwing modesty to the wind!  Some of the comments are so insulting that if uttered by someone whose identity is known - they might end up being shunned by peers, friends, neighbors, and perhaps even family! Which is why I am sometimes tempted to require people use their real names. That would prevent some of the terrible insults one sometimes sees here.

Although that is one of the downsides of a comment forum that allows for anonymity - it isn’t really what I wanted to address today. It is modesty the way it is commonly thought of; dressing in sexually provocative ways.

Obviously that issue is very subjective depending on the culture in which one lives. In societies where all women wear Burkas, exposing any part of the body that is not commonly seen in public can be provocative and is immodest. On the other hand there are cultures where women normally walk around topless. (I’m sure those of us that are old enough can remember those kinds of images in National Geographic.)

What about in cultures that have a variety of different demographics each with their own sense of what is and isn’t modest? Surely the United States and Israel are two such societies (as are many other societies in Western culture). In the US we have women wearing Burkas and women who – when on mixed beaches wear bikinis that are so skimpy they are practically naked!

In the American (and Israeli) street in the summer, one will encounter all manner of dress with various levels of skin exposure, most of which does not comply with any Orthodox modesty standards. In some cases - by far! Truth is that we are surrounded by immodesty all year long. On billboards, magazines newspapers, TV and movies. Even the business world that used to have stricter dress codes have given way to dress codes that – not too many years ago - would have raised eyebrows – but today hardly register a blip on anyone’s modesty ‘radar screen’.

How does this affect Orthodox Jews? Those of us that are not isolated from the culture – and I include most Charedim – have learned to live with it – whether we like it or not. If someone has a job where women are present, invariably one will find themselves encountering women dressed in ways so provocative that virtually all Orthodox sectors do not consider modest in anyway. Especially in the white collar working world. 

Even if you purposely try to avoid such encounters by isolating yourself in the cocoon of your community – as is the case in places like Kiryas Joel or New Square, you will still encounter people who dress provocatively when the need arises to leave that cocoon. Which happens quite often albeit not as much than those of that do not live isolated lives.

Which brings me to what happened in the Keneset recently. Apparently they now have a dress code for women working or entering there that is in compliance with Halacha. Meaning a woman may not work there in a miniskirt. I’m not sure who is responsible for these new rules, but I have no doubt that it was the religious parties. They are the most sensitive to these issues. Apparently most Keneset members were on board with this.

A few days ago, '2 women were either turned away or delayed at the Knesset by guards because of what they were wearing'. As reported in the Forward, this did not sit well with a group of women who felt this was discrimination. They all showed up at the Keneset one day dressed in miniskirts. I suppose they might have felt that they were dressed the way most women dress in Israel where short skirt lengths are hardly an issue. Most religious Jews go on with their lives as they pass these people in the street without saying anything (most of the time). 

I am reminded of the time R’ Shlomo Zalman Auerbach was sitting in a bus when a woman  who was clearly not dressed modestly by Orthodox standards sat down next to him. Without comment, he stood up and exited the bus at the next stop as though it was his stop. It wasn’t. He got off a couple of stops early in order not to embarrass the woman. He realized that societal standards were not Halachic standards and he was not going to make an issue out of it by embarrassing someone.

Even though the protesters were dressed modestly by most standards - making sure to barely violate the dress code, they were wrong to do this. A reasonable dress code passed by a majority of the Keneset that is stricter than that of the street is a right that they have and ought not be protested. It ought to instead be complied with by everyone.

Decorum in a place like the Keneset matters. Where religious Jews sit and are offended by immodest dress the decorum is clearly interrupted. It doesn’t really matter that most people consider such dress modest enough by societal standards. Or what they are used to seeing on the outside. Dress codes of any institution are determined by the people who run them -  not by the culture of the street.

If for example a restaurant requires a jacket to be worn by men, they have the right to ask you to leave if you aren’t wearing one. By the same token if the Keneset establishes a reasonable dress code in order to accommodate its religious members - they have the right turn away those that do not comply.  Miniskirts are no different than shoes in this respect.  If the Keneset dress code requires wearing shoes and someone comes in barefoot, the Keneset has every right to deny them entry. Same thing with miniskirts. Simple as that.

Which in my view makes a fool out of Zionist Union lawmaker Manuel Trajtenberg who stripped down to an undershirt in solidarity with the women. Really? Is stripping down to your shirt in compliance with the decorum one should expect in that august body? Not in my book. He was immodest in the truest sense of the word.