What is Modesty?

I’ve been wondering about this lately, (while not wasting time posting about the bathroom at work and coffee). This is not meant as a chabura, and there are certainly sources that I am neglecting, perhaps even germane ones. If I do, please add them in the comments. This is meant as a conversation starter, not as an end-piece. And by no means to I mean disrespect to anyone or anything with this. This is meant as a serious inspection of an idea.

Is modesty an inherently Torah concept, or one determined by societal and social norms that’s been expanded and overwrought by religious fundamentalists (Christian, Jewish and Muslim)?

“Modesty” is a very nebulous concept. There are several forms of modesty, not only physical modesty. And that may be part of the confusion. See, when the Torah says “v’hatzneya lechet im elokecha,” (and you shall go with your God modestly) does it mean with your skin covered or with more of an internal, emotional and spiritual bent? Is this a rule that women must keep their elbows covered, or is it a direction that as a mere mortal human, with flaws of character, you should always know your place in front of God. Never hold your head too high. The opposite of modesty isn’t provocative, it’s haughty. I really believe that.

So the question is, then, how does the concept of modesty evolve? There are examples in other places in the Torah that lead to a conclusion that dress is involved. For instance, the concept of a ramp on the altar, instead of steps, is expressly based on not showing your nakedness to the altar. Maybe without that, we don’t have the concept of “private parts.” After Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad (note the name, it’s not Eitz HaDa’at, it’s Eitz HaDa’at Tov Vara), they come to know that they are naked, and they suddenly become ashamed. The concept of nakedness exists in Torah, without a doubt. But there is a large difference between covering up someone’s “nakedness,” a euphamism for sexual organs, and covering a woman’s collarbone.

The gemara expands the concept. It states “tephach b’isha erva.” Note the lack of punctuation. I once heard R’ Willig give a shiur where he discussed the varying interpretations of the statement, based simply on where the comment is. Does it refer to a tephach on a woman who is one of the arayos, and therefore not on other women (tephach, b’isha erva) or does it say that a tephach on a woman is considered nakedness (tephach b’isha, erva). It’s an interesting question, with practical halachic implications. But let’s assume it refers to all women. A tepach (handbreadth) where? From Heel to toe? From wrist to fingertip? Must all women wear gloves? Maybe from ear to nose, never allowing cheek be shown (like women in Afghanistan). Modern yeshivish norms say above the elbow and the knee. But that seems awfully arbitrary, doesn’t it? Why is the collarbone a line of demarcation? We have no way of knowing exactly what was covered by the Fig leaves and subsequent leather garments that Adam and Eve wore, but certainly, a modern-day Rosh Yeshiva will insist that the Chava’s skirt didn’t have a slit. And she wore tights. With a seam.

Which kind of brings me to my first question. Even if modesty of dress is a Torah concept, and I don’t doubt that it is, to what extent and by whose judgment? Are the most right-wing of us to decide? Does everyone decide for themselves? Is there an objective standard, disregarding societal norms?

Take a woman from Boro Park today, slitless skirt, tights, sheitel and pill-box hat all going. Full-on. Then stick her in front of Moshe Rabbenu and ask him if she’s dressed appropriately. Now, because she pretty much has every surface of her body covered except her hands and face, he almost certainly will say yes (unless, of course, the concept of a sheitl freaks him out, and he wonders where in the Good Book we came up with that one, but that’s for later).

But does that mean that the way she’s dressed is the basic minimum? Not at all. Would Moshe object to a short sleeve? Would he object to a cap sleeve? Would he object to sleeveless? All questions that are unanswerable, in my opinion.

I guess the question is, though, are those questions even important. Because if society dictates, then Moshe’s norms wouldn’t matter.

But then the question shifts? If society’s norms shift in a direction towards more revealing, as opposed to less, is that OK? Certainly, secular American society has shifted in that direction? So, are 3/4 sleeves still Torah-True? Or, in light of the Torah’s stance, can a woman, observant to a T in 2005 America wear short sleeve and sleeveless shirts? Why is sleeveless inherently bad (other than the elbow thing, which makes short sleeves as bad, which many woman don’t see, when they wear short sleeves, but not sleeveless)?

I really don’t know where I’ve gone with this, if anywhere at all. But I would really like to hear some insightful thought on this from other people.


11 responses to “What is Modesty?

  1. First of all, just in response to something you said, a former girlfriend of mine once said that she thought the collarbone was the sexiest part of a woman’s body.

    I’ve always agreed with what you’re saying – that, to a certain extent, our definition of modesty is defined by our culture. On the one hand, seeing a woman’s uncovered ankles is not sending any 14-year olds running behind the bushes (South Park fans will hopefully understand this). We don’t consider that revealing, and few people would find it to be a turn on. But, on the other hand, it’s also true that most of what our culture wears today, even those clothes that are considered modest, is about sexual liberation, and is intended to be at least somewhat sexually suggestive. So clearly the religious limit would come somewhere on the more modest side of what society currently accepts.

    I’ve always wondered about bathing suits. On the one hand, a woman wearing only underwear would be seem to be dressing a little scantily. On the other hand, a bathing suit in the right context seems perfectly fine and nobody thinks twice. That’s the perfect culture vs. religion question right there as far as dress codes are concerned.

  2. Funny – Erica also has stated that she thinks the collarbone is an attractive and somewhat sexy feature on a woman.

    You gotta question the fact that it seems to be only women expressing this opinion.

    As Jerry Seinfeld might say – “why would a be a collarbone guy? I have a collarbone!”

  3. Deborah Shaya

    There is No codified Halacha that a married woman must cover her hair totally and constantly whenever she steps out of her house.

    The Halachah has been MISinterpreted. When the Halachah refers to “Covering hair,” it does not mean “Cover your hair with hair!” and “constantly for life.” The Halachah is that:

    A married woman is required to cover her hair when:
    (1) she lights the candles to welcome in Shabbat and Yom Tov – lechavod Shabbat ve Yom Tov, and

    (2) when she goes to the Synagogue, because that is the place of Kedusha.

    The Halacha does not require anything more from married women. This is the true interpretation of the Halacha.

    The misinterpretation of the Torah is completely Assur, and a twisting of the Torah.The Torah must remain straight.

  4. Deborah Shaya

    In ancient times, a woman would only cover her hair upon entering the Beit HaMikdash. Similarly for the Sotah-otherwise she would not be required to cover her hair ordinarily, day to day.

    It is very important for people to know and realise that when a married woman covers her hair with ‘Real Hair’ the woman is covering herself with 100% Tumah. This is totally against the Torah.

    Nothing could be more nonsensical than for a Jewish woman to cover her hair with someone else’s hair -who was not Jewish as well! She can never fully be sure that this ‘hair’ has not come from meitim-despite any guarantee by the seller.This ‘real hair’ is doubly and in some circumstances, triply Tumah.

    1.It will contain the leftover dead hair cells from another person – however much it has been treated, the tumah is still there.

    2.This other person (likely to be a non-Jew who most likely was involved in some kind of Avodah Zarah) may have eaten bacon, ham, lobster etc, all of which are totally forbidden as unclean and non-kosher foods in Halacha.

    3.If the woman happens to be the wife of a COHEN, then she is bringing her husband into close contact and proximity with meitim and Tumah Every day, and throughout their married life. This is clearly strictly against the Torah.

  5. Deborah Shaya

    There is nothing more degrading and demeaning to a woman than to make her cover her hair FOR LIFE upon marriage. It is an abhorrent practice.

    Any man who makes such a ridiculous demand on his wife, or wife-to-be, should similarly also be required by his wife to wear: long white stockings, even in the summer; a fur streimel; grow a long beard; wear a black hat and coat constantly, and cover his face when he speaks to his wife. Wigs -“la perruque”- were merely a fashion item in the time of Louis XIV-they are not for the Jewish woman!

    Rabbi Menachem Schneerson tz”l, known as the, “Lubavitcher Rebbe” gave the directive that a married woman must cover her head with a “sheitel.” This needs to be corrected. Rabbi Schneersohn a”h, was a Tzaddik, – but on this – he was, unfortunately not correct.

  6. Deborah Shaya

    It is extremely unhealthy and unhygienic for a woman to cover her hair constantly.

    1. The hair needs oxygen to breathe, as well as some exposure to sunlight.

    2. Her hair will turn one shade darker, and will become dull and matt.

    3. A woman will lose the natural bounce and shine of her hair.

    4. Scalp problems may develop, and some of a woman’s hair may fall out.

    5. She may get headaches, and suffer with itchiness and sweat.

    6. The woman may end up cutting her hair short like a man, when she always wore it long – in order not to have too much discomfort from her hair covering.

    Do you think that HaKadosh Baruch Hu commanded this of women? I can assure you that He did not. It is not a mitzvah for a woman to sweat and suffer. That is not Torah.

    The commmandments are not meant to make a woman feel so oppressed and repressed. In addition, when a woman “loses” her hair through a permanent hair covering, she may become very sad. This sadness may cause a certain depression in her, which are negative states to be avoided.

    We are commanded to serve Hashem with joy: “Ivdu et Hashem beSimcha!” (Tehillim: 100:2)

    The women are very holy. They are much more holy than the men.

    And the Shechinah is suffering with the women. Every day.

    Whatever happened to a woman’s intuition? Hashem gave the woman a very, high level of intuition – over and above the man.

    Was Chava created with a wig? Of course not! Did she start wearing a wig? Of course not!

    Please Wake Up.

    Use the spark of intelligence that Hakadosh Baruch Hu gave to you and blessed you with.

    And give your wig back to your husband if you wear one.

  7. Deborah Shaya

    1. To all the women who are wondering about the sources:

    We have all been created, “Betselem Elokim” – “in the image of Elokim.”
    This means that we have been given something called “intelligence.” The source is the very first Parsha, Bereishit – 1:27. It is time that people use the spark of intelligence and Kedusha with which Hashem has blessed them.

    If your rabbi will tell you to go and jump into the depths of a glacier, presumably you would do that too – and give me a source for it?

    “According to the Zohar”, I should also be covering my hair with a wig when I have a bath. “According to the Zohar and the Gemara” and all the sources that have misinterpreted the Halachah, and MIStranslated the Zohar, I should also have been born with a WIG on my head.

  8. Deborah Shaya

    These sources and translations are incorrect, as they have deviated very far from the true and correct interpretation, of the Halachah.

    2.Remember that the Jewish women are very, very holy. They are much more holy than the men. Look at the exemplary behaviour of the women at Har Sinai.

    The women never sinned at the Eigel, and so are greatly elevated. Many of the men, unfortunately, ran after a calf made out of a lump of gold – after they had just been given the Torah, and seen the greatest of all Revelations. The women refused to give their gold for the avodah zarah of the men.

    The women were greatly elevated after such a wonderful display of Emunah, and they are regarded very highly in Shamayim.

    That is why women are not even required to pray. They can pray at home on their own. Nor do women have to make up a minyan. That is how holy the Jewish women are. Men have to pray 3 times a day to remind them of their Creator.

    The men are telling the women to put the hair of a non-Jewish woman who may have eaten things like snakes and sharks and alligators, and has worshipped in churches, Buddist temples or Hindu temples : on their own Heads. They had better wake up.

    If the men don’t want to wake up to the truth, and the true interpretation of the Halacha, the women will wake them up – whether they like it or not.

    3. Many righteous women influenced their husbands for the good at the Chet Haeigel and at the time of Korach.

    It was these righteous women who succeeded in bringing their husbands back to their senses.

    And because of these great women, the lives of their husbands were saved. Those men therefore turned away from the madness of avodah zarah, and the rebellion of Korach against Hashem’s choice of Aharon, as Cohen HaGadol.

  9. Deborah Shaya

    4. Look at the Jewish women in history, and remember how holy they are.

    (a) Yaakov, who was the greatest of the Avot, came to marry the 2 daughters of Lavan, Rachel and Leah. Lavan was not exactly a tzaddik. Yaakov went to Lavan, of all people, to marry his 2 daughters – not 1 daughter, but his 2 daughters. Nothing could be greater than that.

    (b) Rut, who came from Moav, became the ancestor of David Hamelech.

    (c ) Batya, the daughter of Paroh, was given eternal life because she rescued Moshe from the river. No one could have been more evil than Paroh.

    (d) Devorah, was a Neviah, and also a Judge.

    Women who came from such adverse backgrounds, were able to become builders of Am Yisrael. That is how holy the women are, and how much more elevated they are than the men.

    This was never the case with men. It never happened the other way round.

    Don’t tell me it is holy for me to wear a WIG! Hair over my own hair? This is ridiculous!

    Similarly, don’t tell me it is holy for me to clamp a permanent head covering on my head for the rest of my life. This is equally vile.

    Please Wake Up.

    Use the spark of intelligence that Hakadosh Baruch Hu gave to you and blessed you with. And your intuition.
    And give your wig back to your husband if you wear one.

    5. Remember: Not a single “dayan” or “rabbi” has the slightest bit of interest in correcting the situation for the women. Therefore, the women will have to correct the situation…………….for ………………themselves.

    When the Halachah is interpreted correctly – by the women themselves – there will be tremendous relief. And Simcha…

    Whether you wish to accept the correction – which is true – is up to you. Are you going to live by the truth? Are you going to use the spark of intelligence that Hashem gave to you and all women? Or are you going to follow rabbis and dayanim who tell you to wear a wig in a Heat Wave – and you thank them for it as well?

  10. Eliyahoo William Dwek

    The next things the ‘rabbis’ will come up with is to tell the woman to wear a CARPET on her head.

    Not a sheitel AND a hat, but a Carpet. Or you could go for 5 shaitels on your heads and a rug.

    And do you know what the Jewish woman will say to her husband?

    ‘Yes, husband! I am now wearing a carpet on my head!’

    You women must either be extremely thick, or petrified.

  11. “And do you know what the Jewish woman will say to her husband?”

    please get me a 5000$, handmade carpet of pure silk.

    Sorry, it’s actually 6000$, since my neighbour already wears the 5000$ model…

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