While Orthodox girls obsess about skirt length and hosiery choices, are we overlooking Judaism’s most important lessons about modesty?
Her stories reminded me of my own teachers, including one who had quoted the Talmud on bestiality and then added in half-jest, “Now, you may say that bestiality is irrelevant today, but I’m not sure, looking at the way Western society is today … it might just be the next big thing.”
Looking back, I wondered at the hold this education and lifestyle had over me, the fearful guilt with which everything had been infused. The second I had secretly questioned a stringency or attitude, I would rush to hush my doubts. This is your evil inclination speaking. They are clearly right, they are clearly holier, you know nothing because your family isn’t religious.
It disturbs me that a shred of this irrational guilt still remains, no matter how modern and progressive I claim to be.
It plagued me last summer in Israel. My first day in Jerusalem, I stepped out of the Western Wall plaza, half-dizzy from elation, and was immediately approached by an old, pious-looking woman. She was shaking her finger, screeching, “Erva!” and pointing to my hair, which was partially covered with a scarf. “Nakedness! How dare you not dress as a daughter of Israel, in the holiest of places? Where is the respect? How dare you not respect your husband, and the holiness of this place?” I was at such a loss for words that I didn’t know how to explain that I’m not even married, I’m not required to cover my hair—and I wondered why I’ve grown defensive. Why did I feel a need to explain myself to this woman? Where was the respect from her end?
There were other moments. Like being shoved into the back of a bus leaving from the Kotel on Saturday night. Women to the back! Young men (boys! children!) hooted and sneered into megaphones by the bus stop that there ought to be a separation of seating. And at first, I accepted it, without thought—of course, this is where a woman belongs.
Even during a Shabbat spent in a Jerusalem suburb with a Chardal (Zionist ultra-Orthodox) family. In front of her guests, my hostess scolded her 16-year-old daughter, “I see your collarbone, Leah. If you wear that shirt one more time, I swear I’ll take it away from you.” The hostess then turned to me, glanced at my coincidentally floor-length skirt, and commented, “You see Avital’s skirt? Girls, you should wear something like that. It’s so tznius.”
I wish I could have shown her the shorter and tighter pencil skirts that I left behind in my closet. Instead I quipped, “Yes, have you seen the Ramat Bet Shemesh women? They’ve taken to wearing burqas. Now, those are really tznius.”
My sarcasm went undetected. “Yes, indeed,” the hostess said, taking her glasses off with a sigh. “Those women are so modest. We can’t judge them, they’re on a much higher level than we are.”
It was just like the world of my high-school days, a world where so much is fueled by guilt—but also by exhibitionism, where it’s fashionable to publicize one’s piety, determined by the denier count of one’s stockings and the looseness of one’s sweater. Mention a restaurant you ate at yesterday, and the girl sitting next to you might raise her eyebrows and say, “Really? You eat there? Because I’m not sure about that kashrus certification. It’s not so reliable.” Your classmate might come into school one day, holding a tube of sewing glue, and whisper in your ear, “It’s for the slit in the back of your skirt. I can see the back of your knee.”
So much, it seemed, depended on covering ourselves—and in some circles, it still does. One young woman recently apologized to me that her husband doesn’t know any modern Orthodox young men to introduce me to, and that perhaps if I wore tights it would be a different situation. Soon afterward, I found out that she’s having an extramarital affair with a yeshiva student and is pregnant with his child. “Well,” I thought, “at least she wears tights.”
Back in high school, when we girls would ask our teachers for the source of the laws of modesty, the classic answer was to turn to Micah 6:8. Yet now it dawns on me that the same text has been misread, poorly taught. When Micah enjoins Israel to “do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk modestly with thy God,” his final verb is to walk with God. Modestly is simply the adverb.
He essentially is asking that our piety, our walks with God, be done modestly—he’s not asking us to hide our women. Nor to confine them to specific streets, nor to the back of the bus.
Perhaps, rather, he is asking us to keep our piety modest. No one needs to know how many pages of Talmud you’ve learned today, what kosher certification you don’t trust, how intensely you sway during prayer—or how thick your tights are.
Although Rabbi Helga Newmark survived the horrors of the Holocaust, a childhood slight—from Anne Frank—stayed with her for the rest of her life