Modesty is among the most basic values of the Haredi education system. In educating toward the modest ideal, two basis approaches are possible. One sees a woman’s body as something dangerous, and seeks above all to neutralize its toxicity. It detects a threat in every interaction between the sexes, and neutralizing the threat is achieved by downplaying femininity. A second approach focuses on the internal world of women. It sees modesty as the soulful means by which a woman connects with her body, and the spiritually inspired way in which she expresses her femininity in the public sphere. The first model is liable to cause profound alienation between a woman and her body. The other develops awareness of the body and of the feminine impulse. It softens the person and develops a gentle sensitivity to the other standing before her.
In the present article I wish to dwell on the second model. For purposes of clarity, however, I will also highlight the difference between the two models, and the potential pitfalls of the first.
Considering our relationship with our own bodies, I am reminded of a sense of confusion I experienced at the beginning of my professional path as a counsellor. From the outselt, I encountered personal challenges to my own sense of modesty, which were raised as I encountered case after case of the worst and lowest our society offered.
I recall turning to a rabbi I knew and trusted, and asking if such exposure might not be dangerous to the soul and the spirit. Should I really be wallowing in the most murky areas of my own society? He opened up the Yom Kippur machzor, and asked me to look up the Torah reading before Mincha of Yom Kippur, read just an hour before Ne’ilah at a time when we are at our purest. The reading does not deal with any Divine vision or revelation, but rather provides a long and detailed list of sexual sins and prohibitions. What does it have to do with the white-robed penitents at the holiest hour in the year? “Perhaps,” the Rabbi said, “He who knows our thoughts on the Day of Judgment, knows our inclination better than we do, and requests of us, individuals and community alike, not to fool ourselves. Precisely at the purest of moments, a person must give a personal and public reckoning even of the strong tendencies within us that are far from holy.”
Alas, the precept of modesty, meant to make each man and woman dear in each other’s eyes, sometimes devalues a part of our own humanity, reducing people to dangerous biological objects of desire.
Yes, we all have bodies, and the consequence of thinking otherwise can be dire. Consider a short letter written by Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe to a groom who was filled with trepidation. The student was in constant fear of the sin of illicit thoughts: How could they not fail to dominate before a deeper spousal relationship fully develops? That more sublime relationship cannot be instantly created, but requires time and nurturing. Rabbi Wolbe answered:
My friend, regarding encounters with the bride, I do not understand why one must come to illicit thoughts. Is this not an error in approach to the bride and the wedding? One should strive to see the bride as a person and focus on matters that are worthy of sharing between two people.
In the words of Rabbi Wolbe one can discern both assurance and rebuke. Assurance: Do not fear the encounter with the bride, who is still unknown to you. She is just like you! She may seem foreign, but do not fear: the beginning of a meaningful relationship will be immediate and instantaneous. The rebuke: That “creature” which is making you fearful and cautious is human just like you, a “person.” Why would you see a human being who was created in your image, your form as a helpmeet, as something terrifying, tempting you to sin? It can only be that you have on some level incorporated the concept of a woman as a tool for satisfying inclinations, rather than a wife, a friend, a sister.
Rabbi Wolbe’s words should serve as a foundation for any discussion of modesty and intimacy in the Haredi community. Alas, the concept of modesty, which ought to make each man and woman dear in one another’s eyes, can sometimes devalue a part of our own humanity, reducing people to threatning biological objects of desire.
A few months ago, as I travelled on a typically crowded Jerusalem bus, a woman caring for young children stepped up through the back door. Struggling to keep her children close and safe, the woman asked a modest and friendly girl to validate her card with the driver. The card thus embarked on an arduous journey to the front of the vehicle. The shy girl gave it to her friend, who gave it to the girl standing in front of them. From there, the yellow-green rectangle made its slow path to the front of the bus, until it encountered a stone wall of strange creatures—men. All those who stood near the driver were distinguished bnei torah in black and white clothing, hats adorning their heads. None of them noticed the good deed heading in their direction, and no woman dared an attempt at catching their attention in a polite manner, if only to ask: “Can you move this card along?” For the moment, the card, together with its owner, were in an awkward state of perplexity.
I followed this drama from a distance, detecting both positive and negative elements. The positive was the modesty, the gentleness, the soft moderation […] The negative was the fact that other than modesty, I also discerned weakness and terrifying anxiety towards the other sex, a distance wrought not of dignity and empathy but of shame and terror
I followed this drama from a distance, detecting both positive and negative elements. The positive was the modesty, the gentleness, the soft moderation so rare in an aggressive and vulgar world. The negative was the fact that other than modesty, I also discerned weakness and terrifying anxiety towards the other sex, a distance wrought not of dignity and empathy but of shame and terror.
Finally resolving to take the matter into my own hands, I took the card myself and asked in a loud voice: “Can anybody here do a good deed for a Jewish woman?” Several male passengers immediately volunteered to act as emissaries for a mitzvah, and the card made its way there and back in peace.
Is this the ideal picture of modesty? Is this the manner in which our girls are supposed to understand their essence and manage their affairs? Some will answer in the affirmative: it is precisely this (large and looming) distance that will preserve the innocence of our girls and protect them from the crude vulgarities of the world. But in my mind this scene broadcasts not strength but frailty, and a detachment of girls from themselves as well as from the world.
Shrinking and Expansive Modesty
As noted above, education to modesty can proceed along several paths. I learned the differences between them from studies conducted by observant women who do not belong to our Haredi community. As momentary guests, they are able to look in from the outside, and to decipher the different ways in which we teach and implement the notion that “the King’s daughter is all glorious within” (kevoda bas melech penima).
The first study was conducted by media researcher Dr. Rivka Neryah Ben-Shahar. She surveyed many hundreds of women’s sections published between 1960 and 1989 in the partisan Hamodia and Yated Neeman. As she understood it, the messages of modesty published in the papers were intended to fortify the walls of Haredi society that keep it isolated from the atmosphere of anarchy and promiscuity prevailing outside. Common to the many messages were motifs of scare tactics (immodesty leading to moral downfall) and obedience to the ultimate authority of the Rabbis.
The second study was conducted by Dr. Lia Ziler. She received permission from a prestigious seminary principal in Jerusalem to participate in modesty classes for an entire year as a student, where she listened to the messages delivered to the girls. In addition, she interviewed dozens of Beis Yaakov girls about the experience of modesty in their lives. Her findings are fundamentally different than those of Ben-Shahar. She discovered that modesty classes were full of feminine creativity, and that the modesty discourse was transferred from the separating social axis—them and us, men and women, secular and Haredi—to the personal axis: an individual woman standing before God. Ziler observed that a sense of modesty was linked by many of the students to the internal self, to character development (middos), and to living a significant and valuable existence. She describes with no small sense of admiration the creative manner in which teachers employed classical sources to stimulate discussion and answer students’ questions.
It seems to me that these two studies characterize the dominant forms of discourse in our community. The first type, which Ben-Shahar identified in Haredi newspaper supplements, is a discourse that sees a woman’s body as a powerful object that must be guarded, covered, hidden so that it does not cause damage and sin. This discourse, which is often backed by ostensible support from “high up” (rabbinic or political leadership), may unfortunately be quite harmful. It can lead a girl to detachment from her own body, and it can develop the kind of blind obedience to figures of authority, such that they become easy prey for predators. Such education leads to what I call a “shrinking modesty.”
We women should be sure to convey a modesty with a message, a modesty with meaning, to our daughters. Let it be an “expansive modesty,” rather than the “shrinking modesty” that leaves them permanently terrified of their own bodies and wary of any interaction between the sexes
The discourse which Ziler speaks of is soft and open. It is primarily occupied with the inner self, and not with the danger of the sin-causing body. It does not detach the girl from her body, but rather challenges the human involvement with her inclinations, striving to bring them to a place of standing before God.
Psychological research shows that girls in tradition-preserving societies get higher marks in tests of self-image relative to girls the same age in more permissive groups. The latter are burdened with pressure-filled demands based on obsessive and externalized interest in the body. In a world that glorifies the imagined and the superficial, directing modesty awareness inward is a powerful and valuable message.
We women should be sure to convey a modesty with a message, a modesty with meaning, to our daughters. Let it be an “expansive modesty,” rather than the “shrinking modesty” that leaves them permanently terrified of their own bodies and wary of any interaction between the sexes.
Modesty is Awareness
“Modesty is awareness.” This slogan, developed by a professional colleague, asserts that only a woman who is aware of herself at all levels—physical and psychological, spiritual and social—can conduct herself properly in interpersonal relations. She will know how and when to firmly say “no,” and will be empowered to establish strong personal boundaries that can ward off attempts to desecrate or invade. Modesty education is not repression or nullification of a woman’s body and femininity, but rather a honed awareness thereof, allowing her to understand her femininity and the influence she wields on herself and her surroundings. But sometimes I wonder: Is the discourse of modesty in our community the sort that promotes this sort of awareness, or rather one that forms a fissure between the body, the soul, and the spirit?
If we desire a modesty education that empowers our daughters, rather than cast a shadow over them and turn their femininity into a threat, we must convey a healthy awareness of their bodies and their femininity
If we desire a modesty education that empowers our daughters, rather than cast a shadow over them and turn their femininity into a threat, we must convey a healthy awareness of their bodies and their femininity. Modesty education must be integrated into the value system of mitzvos between Man and God and those between Man and Man at the same time. We must implant the understanding that we are all similar, yet we are also different. Yes, each one of us sometimes wants to grab attention, power and status for himself or herself. Precisely at these junctions the Torah teaches us the art of reduction and modesty—not only in the context of sexuality, but in all encounters with the other. The inclination to wield control by causing others to look at that which does not belong to them draws on a lack of awareness of this power, or ignorance of the way a person experiences contact with others.
The purpose of modesty education is to raise girls and women, as well as boys and men, who are charged with respect for others. It urges us to view the body as part of a great human mosaic, within which and from which we are to act, respecting the uniqueness of each person and their needs.
Modesty ought to create a goodly eye (ayin tova), humility, and a deeply ingrained sensitivity to others. Why, then, does it sometimes seem that the word “modesty” is associated only with measuring tapes and seams? Modesty education cannot end with detailed instructions concerning the length of skirts and hair, coupled with pity for vulnerable men incapable of resisting temptation. It must place the sexual drive in a positive and healthy framework, which gives the woman a role and empowers her femininity. It needs to embrace soul, spirit, and value—and not just thoughts of destructive sexuality.
The Body is not a Tool
The Sages teach that “theft and lewdness—a person’s spirit desires them.” The coveting Chazal were so keenly aware of threatens to turn human beings into useful objects rather than seeing them as exalted beings created in His image. This tendency is elusive and wears many masks. It is easy to see it in the subliminal messages of advertisements and in the warped soul of deviants and abusers. It is harder to discern it in its self-righteous form, which reduces a woman to nothing more than her physical dimensions. Modesty is expressed in clothing, movement, and speech; but first and foremost it is an inner motion of the soul, an exalted virtue, a spirit that wafts into the hidden chambers of the heart as well as the pathways of the external world.
Should every citation from traditional sources be read to innocent adolescent girls? Rabbi Waldenberg zt”l was careful to consider the spirit of the time and place in issuing halachic rulings on matters of modesty. Not every statement uttered centuries ago on the recommended ways for daughters of Israel can be copied and pasted, literally and precisely, for our times. The spirit of the words must be preserved, but the manners of expression and discourse should be informed by local language and custom.
Modesty is expressed in clothing, movement, and speech; but first and foremost it is an inner motion of the soul, an exalted virtue, a spirit that wafts into the hidden chambers of the heart as well as the pathways of the external world
In the wake of appalling and repulsive acts that sometimes—regrettably, far too often—surface in our midst, we are accustomed to female educators calling for strengthening the walls of modesty. Of course, I am absolutely in agreement with the need to educate our girls in protecting themselves and their bodies. But this education must be coupled with genuine respect for the femininity of women. The all too prevalent approach whereby a girl’s body is a potential cause and catalyst of sin is liable to cause her to detach from the body, and to experience the vigor of youth as a destructive force. It is precisely this education which can open the door to exploitation by the wicked—manipulation of the chasm dividing matter and spirit, alongside uses of shame and guilt to ensure denial and secrecy.
These two evils—reckless licentiousness on the one hand and detached denial on the other—can both ultimately turn man and woman into mechanized automatons deprived of choice. Modesty is a call to protect the body and respect it, thereby seeing in the other the Divine spark that dwells within. This then becomes the insight on which a relationship termed “holiness” can be founded.
Modesty is a call to protect the body and respect it, thereby seeing in the other the Divine spark that dwells within. This then becomes the insight on which a relationship termed “holiness” can be founded
I am not calling for a discourse released of all restraint, or the cancellation of those regulations (whether institutional or otherwise) necessary for maintaining good order and proper discipline. My request is to expand the boundaries of modesty, and to see involvement therein a mitzvah that means to soften us while developing a sensitivity to the other in our midst. To pave, without hysteria or panic, a secure path to the springs of knowledge and awareness, to the place of which it is written: “and to the modest— wisdom.”