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.