Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Slippery Slope of Tznius

My post (10/16) "Sexy Sheitls" with all the comments was reprinted on a charedi women’s site, The only difference that I can tell is that instead of my ‘sexy’ they wrote 's-xy', and they refused to use an upper case S even when appropriate. There were many comments on that site by serious and intelligent women that I found fascinating and very worthwhile. (Who knew the acronym DH is used for DARLING HUSBAND?) There is also an interesting discussion of sheitels on the much needed right of center blog Mishmar The following discussion is partially my way of trying to understand the various comments.

There are three concepts under the general heading of tznius or modesty that are different and as a result causing some confusion. The common rubric is the maxim ‘if you got it, don’t flaunt it’. The first involves the topic of the sexual relationship between a husband and wife. A tzniusdig (modest) woman never ever discusses what goes on sexually between her and her husband, not even to her best friends. It’s out and out untzniusdig to talk about marital sexual relations and by extension about sex in general. Some people obviously feel that even writing /saying the word ‘sex’ and its cognates ‘sexy’, ‘sexual’ is immodest because it refers ultimately to having sex, and that is verboten as a topic of discussion. It is important to understand that this voluntary inhibition does not show or indicate anything one way or the other about the nature of actual sexual relations, or the degree of intimacy and free discussions between husband and wife. It is a restraint on public discourse.

The second concept involves dressing provocatively. It is spelled out in detail and widely recognized. Long sleeves, skirt over the knees, hair covered etc. The point is that a woman should not act in such a way that is provocative to men. It doesn’t depend on a women’s demeanor or actual men’s reactions. It is defined by external standards, not by the subjective reactions of men. Even if 95% of men would not be aroused by a blouse that is only a centimeter over the elbow it is still not tzniusdig.

Having satisfied the first two constraints it is still possible for a woman to dress provocatively. Here are some examples: 1) belted skirts and tight fitting clothes that accentuate the female shape.2) Sheitlech that are very difficult to differentiate from normal hair and are done up so they look sexy. 3) Stylish clothes, very high heels, overly made up faces, and obviously- seductive looks and flirty demeanors. 4) ‘Carrying oneself’ in an undignified and unrefined way and ‘giving out un-tznius’ vibes. I assume this last concept is defined ostensively by pointing to relevant examples, since I know of no rabbinic pronouncements or videos on how a woman is to carry herself. There are more than enough Orthodox women who wear skirts over the knees, long sleeves and yet dress provocatively in one or other of the ways outlined in this paragraph. The issue whether this is permitted is an important part of the debate.

Assuming for a moment that a woman does not dress provocatively in any of the ways outlined above, there is still a third sense of tznius that is operative that must be satisfied according to some people. Tznius is now understood as not calling attention to oneself. Green sheitels not tznius, very trendy clothing not tzniusdig, black lipstick, multicolored fingernails, red dresses, pierced, punk and goth clothes all no good because all draw attention to the woman. Dresses that drag along the floor, dresses from a different century, grungey clothes, frumpy, dirty or unkempt are unacceptable. Modesty requires not drawing attention to oneself.

I assume that a woman is permitted to draw attention to her mind. A female consultant, doctor or lawyer is permitted to say something intelligent or even brilliant. It is the attention that is directed to a woman’s body and by association with her dress and makeup that is frowned upon, not the attention directed to her person. Similarly it is the marginal attention that comes from doing something that causes one to stand out that is prohibited. A woman who’s beauty is so ‘outstanding’ she can do virtually nothing to ‘mask’ it is not required to stay at home, or at least I hope not. I also think that if a ‘woman does not stand out’ she need not consider the attention of very sensitive or easily aroused men or else burkas are next.

I think the big problem for this view of tznius is how to go about not calling attention to oneself. One issue is that if one prohibits attractive or all sheitels you can end up drawing even more attention. Here are examples. Older women tend to have sagging jowls. Short hair compensates for this effect of aging in a way that is impossible for a kerchief or snood. Women whose eyes are located higher on the forehead, women with larger noses, women with no chin can all use specific hair styles to create a more appealing look. By ruling out these ‘tricks’ one causes these women to draw even more attention in a particularly painful way. Their physical faults are accentuated. The chumrah (more strict ruling) has the opposite effect. There is a reason why women with long sheitels don’t wear their hair in a pony tail or bun.

The way a woman doesn’t stand out is not easy to predict, and is something of a tricky business. Consider the typical chasidish outfit. Hat on some shetelette, dark, heavy nylons, sensible lace up klutzy shoes, heavy fabrics year around are a guarantee to draw attention anywhere other than in a chasidic community. Not drawing attention, blending into the background requires the outfit not be much brighter or darker than the day; darker grey outfits on rainy days, lighter pastels and white on sunny days. Not too modern, not too old fashioned, not too out of the ordinary, not too elegant …just the right sort of Goldilocks plain. When everyone wears a string of pearls, not to wear one means standing out; when no one wears a string of pearls and you do wear pearls you stand out like a sore thumb.

I’ll close with general concern. The ideal of tznius has correlates all over Jewish life. Vulgar bimbos are frowned upon everywhere. What makes tznius special is the energy and concern that is spent in refining and maintaining the ideal. Over time concerns about tznius tend to the obsessive. The problem, as with all obsessive behavior is that it doesn’t stop. Obsessions keep on spreading. The rules become stricter and more confining. A man who washes his hands ten times a day will over time keep on increasing the number. The recent developments in Israel are an indication the quest for tznius is about to go to a new never heard of level of stringency.


At 3:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In my community, there is talk of the color red being banned for women... this is insane!!!!!

At 12:17 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What irks me so much is why women have to assume so much responsibility to for male arousal. This is insulting to me; they are not animals who have no self-control. In fact, I think all of this repression of sexuality can actually cause problems for people in the area of sexuality.

At 3:57 AM, Blogger Jak Black said...

Hi EJ,

My old blog is defunct (I'm part of Mishmar now) but you might be interested to see the fairly large post of mine still up about tznius. Basically goes into the meaning behind the idea. You can find it at

At 11:57 AM, Anonymous Larry Rabinovich said...

FYI anonymous 3:13 pm

The issue of red clothing comes from the Gemara, so it was not made up out of whole cloth ( so to speak). I suspect that many frum women who are aware of the Gemara , directly or indirectly, already refrain from red, by and large. I do not know whether contemporary poskim have addressed the issue

At 7:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

most contemporary poskim don't think the issue of red applies today, or so it was in the past.

At 3:00 PM, Blogger Bari said...

most contemporary poskim don't think the issue of red applies today, or so it was in the past.

Sources? B/c Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach certainly held that it does, and I have heard prominent Poskim mention it as well.

At 10:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Sources? B/c Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach certainly held that it does, and I have heard prominent Poskim mention it as well."

I've heard it orally from a few people.
The main issue is chukas hagoyim. We follow the Rema/Meharik who holds that chukas hagoyim applies only to minhag A"Z or shtus, unless a minhag yisrael is more tzanua than the minhag of goyim. The canonical example as per the Maharik and Shach is red clothing. Reb Yitzchak Elchanan said that all depends on time and place, and that so long as there is not a specific minhag among goyim to wear red, but it only one color among many they wear, it's not chukas hagoyim to wear red, even if it is an inherently a less tzanua color. This applies to men too.
Separately (or perhaps not) there is brachos 20a, which is presumably the gemara LR is referring to. Depending how one reads that gemara, there could have been a specific problem with pritzus of the clothing. As I understand it, they hold that this applied when there was a specific color associated with promiscuity or immorality, or worn by women of ill repute, then there would be an issue with wearing red. Today, red is one color among many, and not associated with immorality in the same way.

I don't know what RSZA says but there is a minhag in the yishuv hayoshon not to wear red (at least this is the practice in the beis yaakov hayoshon) and there may be a specific minhag in other communities.

My grandmother told me that poskim in Galicia had said it was mutar in her youth too.

In the 80s, red was very fashionable (think Nancy Reagan) and afaik all the litvishe beis yaakovs allowed it, and said the poskim held it doesn't apply nowadays.

At 1:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anyone understand it?
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