Thursday, May 16, 2013

Dress Codes and Losing One's Autonomy

Anoymous, Brooklyn, NY, 2013. Click to enlarge.
     R' Moshe  (Rabbi Moshe Feinstein) was  considered to be one of orthodoxy's leading rabbis on Jewish law in the 20th century. Prior to World War Two, he was already setting up orthodox learning in America. He is well respected by many kiruv organizations, including, but not limited to Ohr Somayach and Aish HaTorah. This sign (see picture), found in Brooklyn and subsequently posted on a message board that I read, shows his words used in order to emphasize the ultra-orthodox community's importance on how women dress. While this sign is not something that would normally be shown to those first learning about orthodox Judaism and certainly wouldn't show up on college campuses, I felt that sharing it on this blog gives a bit of insight into the ultra-orthodox community--those who support, sponsor, and lead kiruv/outreach efforts. The point of the sign is that women must strictly follow the laws of tznius [modesty] otherwise they will be "severely punished." This particular sign states that the "urge for pritzus [immodesty/sluttiness] has found its way even into homes of shomrei Torah, [Torah observant Jews] luring them into wearing short garments." Further down, it is mentioned that even the shape of a bas yisroel's [Jewish woman] knee is forbidden to be seen, whether walking or sitting, and that it is her husband's duty to supervise her to make sure that she is in line with the laws of modesty.
     This is not to say that there is anything inherently wrong with dress codes of a particular community. After all, schools, sports teams, and businesses often have some degree of enforceable guidelines for dress. We expect that when the Devils are out on the ice, they are wearing the appropriate uniform. However, it's doubtful that Marty Brodeur wears his uniform out of fear. While I can understand that in order to be a part of the ultra-orthodox community, one must follow certain guidelines, I find this poster to be disturbing on several levels.
  1. Through the use of fear and coercion, women are forced to dress in a way that conforms to the community's strict standards. Telling women that they will be "severely punished" if a lone knee is viewed is a deplorable way to enforce orthodox interpretation of Jewish law. Stating that "in the merit of tznius [modesty]... may we soon merit the redemption" implies that any woman not conforming is keeping moshiach [the messiah] from coming. This sets the stage for community reinforcement of this "rule," by not only men, but women, who then begin to police each other as part of a modesty squad.
  2. Men are suddenly saddled with the responsibility of determining whether women are dressing in accordance with the community's standards. The individual woman's autonomy, even in determining what she wears, is removed, in favor of placing all women in a heteronomous state.
  3. The very bottom of the poster states that "lengthened clothing results in lengthened years." The threat of death, or a life prematurely cut short, is used to coerce women into following these guidelines for dressing. 
  4. The very first statement implies that women cannot control their "urges" to dress immodestly.  
     When researching outreach organizations that approach non-orthodox Jews, not only is it important to understand their motives, but it is important to understand how their teachings can be later used to wield power over those who ultimately join these communities.


  1. You just know this guy would be stoning those immodest harlots if he could get away with it

  2. > it is mentioned that even the shape of a bas yisroel's [Jewish woman] knee is forbidden to be seen,

    Here’s a prime example of what happens when a halacha is divorced from the reasoning behind it. As I understand it, the rule that a woman’s skirt should reach her knee started as a pragmatic guideline: if you’re going to define acceptable length, the knee makes a convenient marker. It wasn’t that there’s anything particularly erotic about the knee. Unfortunately now (and for a long time now), when halachos are assumed to have mystical, unfathomable reasons, such a mundane explanation doesn’t cut it. No, it must be that the sight of a woman’s knee will inevitably cause a man to sin.

    Incidentally, I don’t think that Chareidim really believe that the sight of a woman’s knee (or other parts of her body) will cause uncontrollable lust in men that will lead to wanton promiscuity. At their most rational, they fear that at some point, the memory of the “immodest” women will cause a man who saw her to become aroused and masturbate, a (or from what is taught in boys’ yeshivas, the) terrible sin. At worst, there is a belief that the slightest hint of arousal in a man, even if it’s merely a guy noticing that a woman is attractive, is itself a sin.

    > The very first statement implies that women cannot control their "urges" to dress immodestly.

    That’s bad, it’s true, but the alternative is worse: that women are deliberately and maliciously dressing immodestly in order to cause men to sin.

  3. I just found your blog today and am seeing your posts for the first time. This is the first one that's moved me to offer a comment, so I'll just say this: this sign is quoting a man who's been dead for 28 years.

    Why that rather shtark observation? Because we do not, and perhaps cannot, know what moved R' Moshe to write those words. I can't enlarge the image and cannot tell whether this poster also reproduces the Hebrew original, or whether it leaves the reader to fend for themselves having an English translation already settled for them, but chances are extremely good that he was not talking about a worldwide situation but rather something he observed, or that people he trusted observed, within their own communities. A lot of what gets quoted from R' Moshe is from Igros Moshe, which is a collection of private teshuvos and teshuvos from various community leaders for their communities, rather than rulings for the Orthodox community at large.

    But either way, R' Moshe is talking about a specific situation from, at bare minimum, over a generation ago. He's not addressing something from the modern world, which thus puzzles me as to why some tznius-observance organization would be posting this on the streets, instead of getting a statement from, say, Rav Salomon or someone of similar stature from, say, Lakewood or even Israel. Apparently that is only done when faced with issues that were unknown to R' Moshe, such as internet-enabled mobile devices. (Which sounds sarcastic but isn't.)


Your respectful comments are welcome.