Ben Rothke

Book review: Reclaiming Dignity, A Guide to Tzniut for Men and Women

One of the most incredible shots in the history of golf was by Vijay Singh at the 2009 Masters Tournament. The ball skipped a few times over a pond, went into the middle of the putting green, and made an improbable U-turn on its own, before slowly sinking into the hole. It’s a literal one-in-a-million shot. And as great and historic as the shot was, it didn’t count, as it was done during a Masters Tournament practice round.

I think that shot is an accurate analogy to an absolutely fantastic new book Reclaiming Dignity, A Guide to Tzniut for Men and Women (Mosaica Press) by Bracha Poliakoff and Rabbi Anthony Manning. As to why that is, stand by.

The book is comprised of two parts. Part 1, edited by Poliakoff, contains twenty-six essays by some of the most insightful minds of today. These well-thought-out essays are from Rabbanit Oriya Mevorach, Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, Rebbetzin Esti Hamilton, Rifka Wein Harris, and others.

In her essay, Dr. Leslie Ginsparg Klein, Academic Dean of Women’s Institute of Torah Seminary & College, shows she has her pulse on the situation when she observed that frequently tznius is taught by women who are not into fashion and do not understand the struggle their students face. For many wonderful girls and women, tznius isn’t easy and is, in fact, a huge struggle. Having them taught on the topic by those who don’t relate to it only exacerbates the problem.

Another vital point Klein makes is to separate dress code and tznius. Schools can have a dress code, but breaking dress-code rules, as girls are wont to do, should be treated as breaking a rule, not a moral failing. Too many girls are made to feel that they are bad Jews for breaking these dress code rules. It damages their self-esteem and affects their ability to develop as a bas Torah.

As to the notion of struggle being closely associated with tznius, one of the essays is by Beatie Deutsch and aptly titled The Struggle. She writes that every struggle she has had only deepened her understanding and connection with the mitzva of tznius and has made keeping it even more rewarding.

The part 1 essays lay the ground for the books tour de force, where Rabbi Manning in part 2, provides a masterful and encyclopedic overview of the halachos of tznius. Manning covers (no pun intended) every aspect of tznius, from head to toe.

The elephant in the room, which Manning politely deals with, is the prevalent and influential book on tznius Oz Vehadar Levusha – Modesty: An Adornment for Life by the late Rabbi Pesach Eliyahu Falk. First published in 1998, the book has been as influential as it is popular.  While never stated explicitly, the dignity the book attempts to reclaim, are those of the perceived indignities of Oz Vehadar Levusha.

Emmanuel Bloch writes in Immodest Modesty: The Emergence of Halakhic Dress Codes that the book became the ultimate reference for the laws of modesty almost overnight. He also observed though, that the book was condemned for its extremism and fanaticism, tendency to standardize tznius and dismiss local customs, excessive stringency, and mingling ideological considerations in legal matters.

One of those most strongly against the book was Rabbi Yehuda Henkin, in his Understanding Tzniut: Modern Controversies in the Jewish. He observed that books such as Oz Vehadar Levusha are as much about ideology and outlook as they are about halacha. Henkin forcefully writes that books such as Oz Vehadar Levusha continue the process of standardization of halacha at the expense of local custom, which began with the Mishna Brura and has continued in earnest since the Holocaust.

Henkin writes that tznius is a particularly ill-suited topic for such standardization, and what is suitable for kiddush cups and mitzvos, may not be suitable for the amount of a woman’s hair showing, if any. There is a danger here of losing sight of the fundamentals of modesty – not to mention being so concerned about not thinking about women that one can think of nothing else. And that is precisely the conundrum Reclaiming Dignity attempts to address.

But the real roadblock to Manning’s approach in Reclaiming Dignity faces is not that Oz Vehadar Levusha is a powerful incumbent text; it is the influence of Hasidism and mysticism. Hasidim have gone from a ragtag group of survivors a few generations ago, to being the fastest-growing group and most influential group within American orthodoxy today.

I wouldn’t say that Manning tries to minimize the influence of the Zohar, but he sometimes treats it as an outlier. On the other hand, the Hasidic world uses the Zohar as a primary source, and the influence of Hasidic thought and mysticism on Jewish orthodox life has become much more significant over the last few decades. Manning takes a moderate view of Zohar and kabbalah, while the Hasidic world uses it as a foundation. And that is where the book runs into a brick wall.

Take a drive through Beit Shemesh Bais, or write a letter to the editor of Mishpacha magazine explaining how Reclaiming Dignity refocuses what modesty is about. I can’t wait to hear the reply.

Most schools have their mission, which renders them somewhat static. And while that’s not a bad thing, it can lead to a situation where curricula and staff members can sometimes overwhelmingly be conventional and unimaginative. Shul rabbis, Rebbes, Bais Yaakov teachers, and principals are often drawn from the same families, attended the same schools, and are cut from the same mold. This is why alternative viewpoints like Reclaiming Dignity are quite valuable for those for whom conventional approaches have not resonated.

But this leads to the situation that you won’t find Reclaiming Dignity in Hasidic schools and Bais Yakov’s anytime soon. But it does have an extraordinarily important role – and that is for the individual who reads it as a redemptive and validating text.

I think there are two key demographics for this book. The first is modern orthodox girls who are sincere about tznius and want a serious, yet evenhanded approach to the topic. And the general readership who want a comprehensively researched reference.

One of the most powerful scenes in modern cinema is in Good Will Hunting, where Robin Williams, playing a therapist, repeats the line “it’s not your fault” to the titular character Will Hunting, who suffered severe, long-term abuse as a child. Williams progressively repeats, “it’s not your fault,” until Will allows the meaning of the words to penetrate his heart. The scene demonstrates what trauma can do to a person. And for those who endured the trauma, to know it’s not their fault.

Many girls have been traumatized by their teachers over tznius. These are good, sincere girls for whom tznius is a struggle. The book shows them that the trauma they endured, often in the name of the very strictest interpretation of halacha, which was not appropriate for them, is, in fact, erroneous. And the trauma they suffered, is not their fault.

My friend David Hojda felt that part of the book’s value is acknowledging and validating these struggles. Readers will find a more comfortable and less judgmental message. Manning’s approach to daas yehudis validates that having differing standards in tznius does not necessarily indicate different standards in yiras shamayim. There are, of course, halachic boundaries not to be breached. But this book is invaluable in helping readers better understand those boundaries.

As co-director of Midreshet Tehillah, a seminary in Jerusalem, Manning knows his audience well. As to his overall halachic approach and analysis, he’s a student of Rav Yitzchak Berkovits (who wrote the foreword), one of the most sensitive and practical poskim today.

Finally, Reclaiming Dignity shows parenthetically that the condemnation of books like Peshuto shel Mikra and those from Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin was politically and ideologically based. For those looking to ban a book, Reclaiming Dignity, with its brilliant originality, certainly has enough to fan the flames of a ban. Yet the book has been received with universal praise.

Modesty, when dealt with exaggerated religious zeal, leads to the situation where women will wear burkas, rightwing magazines and newspapers will print a picture of Mahmoud Abbas, but not Sarah Schenirer, or where an Orthodox organization will have to send an apology for the trespass of sending a kosher cookbook to donors that included pictures of the very modest female authors.

Manning deals with this in the section of picture of women, and area where there has historically never been an issue.  It’s the same issue Shoshanna Keats-Jaskoll of Chochmat Nashim has long advocated against. She has long spoken about that the Jewish community is sliding towards extremism which is unhealthy for all of us. Yet there are no indicators that the slide will abate any time soon.

It’s not just dignity this brilliant book reclaims, but common sense also. Notwithstanding, trends in orthodox society today are, for the most part moving away from the very foundation the book attempts to establish.

About the Author
I’m a senior information security and risk management professional, based in New York City. I speak at industry conferences, and write on information security, social media, privacy and technology. My book reviews are on information security, privacy, technology, and risk management. My reviews for the Times of Israel focus on Judaism, Talmud, religion and philosophy.
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