Policing Tznius

The halachic definition surrounding the limits of Tznius are the discussion of many a book and Responsa in Halacha, let alone Shulchan Aruch. In general, though, these tend to focus on the female aspect of Tzniyus. A good recent fundamental discussion of the issues (although it is technical and deep) is that of R’ Yehuda Herzl Henkin, author of שו’’ת בני בנים who is a grandson of the great Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin ז’ל, and who undertook shimush with his grandfather.

There are a range of views in the arena of female Tzniyus. Some relate to more fundamental aspects, and other relate to what we term Minhag HaMakom (the custom in a given place). I am certain that if someone lived in the New Square, or Williamsburg enclaves, there are strict minhagim of those micro Makomos. That does not mean that anybody from outside such communities needs to follow their dictates. It’s a free world, bound by Halacha.

It is well-known, that the Orthodox world accepted the lenient definition of Shok (section of the leg) as enunciated by the Mishna B’rura, and, as such, defined it as “over the knees” in a sitting situation (if the knees are visible while sitting then one would need to make sure they always stood?). Others, such as various Chassidim, Chardal and more are stricter and only accept skirts which are extended to the calf area. In general, none expect that the skirt should be “skin-tight” to the extent that it advertises the outline of the anatomy. Each to their own Rav HamuvHak, and one should not blithely condemn anyone for following an acceptable Psak. To do so, is the antithesis of the halachic process and an insult to the honour of respected Poskim who established their criteria with the permission of the Torah (even if we arguably no longer have Smicha today).

Other areas of the anatomy are always a matter of Minhag. I’m not aware of a Minhag that a female has to wear gloves. Her hands from the wrist bone to the tips of her fingers are never considered Erva by any opinion I have come across. If a reader knows of one, please tell. On the other hand, from the ankle down, is a matter of rather strange contention, with some saying that unlike hands, the foot area is a matter of Tzniyus, while other say it is a matter of the Minhag of the place, and others stating that since there is generally no accepted minhag in a larger city, one may follow any minhag. Some are careful on this matter on Shabbos, but not during the week. That is usually a matter of being elegantly dressed or a function of the heat in a particular place. Each to their own. To criticise someone for clearly halachically valid views is not effective and according to most Acharonim, even when a practice is halachically invalid, a stranger would have no liability to admonish, as their words would not be listened to, and we have lost the “art” of admonishment. Certainly, the Satmar Rebbe, who was extreme in all matters, and who one does not have to accept as the yardstick Rabbinic authority, specified a curious view of stockings, in particular:

“The rebbe taught that even 70-denier stockings should not be worn. The numerical value of sod (secret) is 70, so the secret is out that this [stocking] is also transparent.” There then follows a lengthy account of Teitelbaum’s creation, with the help of a Brooklyn businessman named Lipa Brach, of an exclusive line of fully opaque women’s hosiery:

Money in hand, Reb Lipa Brach began to work on the project. He went to several hosiery manufacturers, collected samples, and brought all of them to the rebbe to inspect. The rebbe was very pleased with the progress, and he tested each sample by pulling it over his own arm. If his hair showed, it was no good…. The new stockings were given the brand name, “Palm,” the English translation of the Rebbe’s surname…. To this day every Satmar woman and girl wears Palm stockings.

Fast forward to schools and acceptable Tzniyus practices as recently described here. This is not only applicable to Schools, but also to camps (where I have a reliable source to confirm that often girls have to put on socks as soon as they emerge from a women-only pool, and cannot even walk to the bunk house in any other fashion).

I do think that it is critical that Schools (and Camps) enunciate what is acceptable, and anyone who enrols their child in a school should not complain about that level. They do have a choice. They might wish to send their children to another school if views on Tzniyus are considered too right-wing. Often Schools are either inconsistent and/or lax. This can be constant or may reach a crescendo, from time to time. In such a case, the question is how one now educates existing girls about the need to adhere to the standards in the shadow of inconsistent practices of enforcement.

I am opposed to the approach of having non-Jewish (or even Jewish) Tznius “police” casting their eyes up and down girls as they enter the gates and either expelling or calling them out if they breach an aspect. If the school had been inconsistent in the past, then it needs to take a far more sophisticated and educative approach than simply policing with halachic batons. Such policing will simply turn people off, possibly forever, and make them respect no Tznius Police style people or their comments.

What would I do? For a start, I wouldn’t try to single girls out especially publicly. I would take silent note of what the issues are, and away from the school gaze, enunciate the views of the school and source these in a halachically mature and respectful way. That way should not disqualify other approaches but should contextualize the varied approach(es) adopted. It may be necessary to have a weekend seminar, and bring in thoughtful and soft people who are knowledgeable both about the halacha and mind-set of those who sometimes get excited only by these issues. Failure to do that (and there may be other solutions) are likely to be doomed and disenfranchise and cause more underlying dissension than had existed before.

Once a consistent standard has been in place for a few years, a different approach can be adopted, but, again, I’d try not to shame someone in front of their peers.

There are halachic views, as I recall, mentioned by Chacham Ovadia Yosef stating that if the approach in a Xtian country is for a unmarried girl to wear a hat to Church as a matter of modesty and respect, that a Jewish girl should do so no less!  It cannot be that the אומות העולם grab the high ground. At the same time, there are limits. Burkas and the like are not within the confines of reasonable halachic parameters (although we see demented people in Yerushalayim and Beit Shemesh following such antithetical and condemned practices).

Women may well argue, and do argue, that there is a degree of misogyny on display. Why is it that the focus appears to be largely on females and not males? This is a good question. I recall in Malaysia and Indonesia where I often saw a poor (hot) female dressed from top to toe (inclusive) in a gown that allowed only her eyes to peak out. Her husband and kids were walking along in tow. The often bearded husband ironically wore shorts, a singlet and flip flops! That is, the type of clothing many people wear in hot weather. I couldn’t understand why Islam seemed to have two standards. Does Judaism have the same attitude? It could be argued that a man wearing floppy shorts, a t-shirt and flip flops isn’t technically breaking any law of Tzniyus, save a possibly “Minhag HaMakom” where “Makom” doesn’t purely exist, such as in places like Melbourne, where a multiplicity of views is extant. Sure, during davening, men have dicta, some of which are relativistic, but it seems that the female folk are the ones who are getting all the attention. There is a level of existentialism in this, although some may argue.

Is the approach taken by a school and others that “yells” and “calls out” right? Is it fruitful? More importantly, is the shouting, embarrassing, policing style approach likely to achieve anything positive?

I think not. Most attitudes are formed at home. That is the place for education, and it needs to start early.

Author: pitputim

I'm a computer science professor in Melbourne, Australia although my views have nought to do with my employer. I skylark as the band leader/singer for the Schnapps Band. My high schooling was in Chabad and I continued at Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh in Israel.

3 thoughts on “Policing Tznius”

  1. At a seminary given by Machon Puah in Israel (January 2012) that campaigns against abortions, the organizer announced that by order of the Rabbonim, a woman should not speak to an audience, therefore we have no female Doctors among the speakers.

    What is surprising is the following from
    ספר חסידים (מרגליות) סימן תריד.
    “מכל מה שכתוב בשיר השירים צריך להיזהר שלא ישמע קול אישה והוא הדין שלא תשמע [האישה] קול איש, שמכל שהאיש מוזהר האישה מוזהרת.”

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    1. There are Acharonim who say that Sefer Chasidim was written for HIS family only. We just happened to accept some of the advice in Ashkenaz. I remember the Machon Puah business but can’t recall which Poskim were involved. Unless my memory is faulty I think they relented in the end?

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