Dear Rabbi: Bikinis and dating apps

Dear Rabbi,

I’m a young modern Orthodox woman. I like to go to the beach in the summer. Recently some of my friends criticized me for wearing a bikini at the beach. They say their rabbis taught them that it is not in keeping with our religion to wear a bikini because it is clothing that is not modest. I see that the prevalent fashion for young and fit women at the beach or pool is mostly a bikini. What makes your fellow rabbis think that they have the authority to dictate to me and other women what fashions to follow on the beach —or off it?

Two Piece in Teaneck

Dear Two Piece,

I’m one rabbi who does not claim to have women’s fashion expertise. I am relieved that you ask me about rabbinic authority, rather than what is the right fashion for you.

I do know that in the world of fashion you hear often about trends, not standards. I recognize that there is a lot of variety in the choices that women have, on and off the beach.

One day this summer I had the occasion to walk the length of the boardwalk in a Long Island South Shore beach community and could not help but observe that bikinis are a quite common choice for women, young and middle aged, at the beach clubs along the way. And I did notice in the Target ad flyer in the Sunday newspaper that most of the women’s swim suits on sale are bikinis.

Before anyone criticizes me for gazing upon women, let me refer to a story about one of our greatest talmudic rabbis, Rabban Gamaliel. According to the Talmud, when he saw a beautiful woman, Gamaliel recited a blessing, Blessed be He who made beautiful creatures in this world.

I agree with Gamaliel. Beauty is something that God bestowed upon our world. When the appropriate fashion allows for us to admire beauty in a tactful and respectful way, we may do so, and perhaps we should thank God with a blessing.

Now you may wonder, why don’t other Orthodox rabbis agree with Rabban Gamaliel and with me? Why do many religious authorities who happily admit that they have no knowledge or understanding of fashion go ahead and teach and preach that it’s a religious obligation that women must cover up their arms and legs and midriffs?

I don’t know why other rabbis have taken upon themselves the authority to dictate fashion requirements to women. And I find it hard to approve of that.

It seems to me wrong for any man to require women to cover up. Even though there is a long-standing theme in Jewish customs for married women to cover their hair and there are other customs for all women to cover much of their skin, the requirement of long sleeves and long skirts using the category of “modesty” is at best capricious. In the preponderance of contexts it also is out of step with the normal and customary notions of fashion in our general communities.

And one more thing. It is not a stretch for some folk to criticize the cover-up rules in Orthodox circles as yet another means of segregating women and as a way of denying them the freedom to choose and the rights to decide their own fashion options.

The notion that covering up all of your skin on the hot summer beach or at the pool or in the marketplace around town is connected to virtue is patently unfounded. Hence the rules that mandate overdressing are arbitrary annoyances at best.

Yet I’ve been told that there is a new women’s clothing store on Cedar Lane in Teaneck that sells kosher swimsuits made of nylon and polyester, comprising pants under a skirt and elbow length sleeves. I would not be surprised if these bathing costumes have tags on them certifying rabbinical approval.

Truly, I have no idea where my colleagues got the notion that wearing a bikini at the beach is a bad thing. I can’t explain or justify this rabbinic attitude to you. My advice to you is to follow your own notions of comfort and the prevailing styles and fashions of your immediate community.

And if anyone criticizes you, you may answer with a confident and polite reply, Thank you for your opinion. I will wear whatever I deem appropriate.

Dear Rabbi,

My twenty-something daughter told me that she went on a date with a boy she met via a smart phone app called JSwipe. I gather that apps like that are meant to help people find casual hook-ups, and are not intended to lead to a serious relationship. Am I justified to be concerned?

Worried parent in Wyckoff

Dear Worried,

Although many of us have smart phones by now, most of us do not know how an app like JSwipe works. When I got your question, I didn’t. So I loaded the app onto my phone to see how it works. From what I gather reading about the app, it is a knockoff of the much more popular app Tinder. The premise of JSwipe is that it targets a subset of the population — Jewish people.

If you have a Facebook account, you can log in to the app with your ID and password and it pulls in your photos and other information from that site. You answer a few basic questions about your Jewish preferences (e.g., kosher or not, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or a few others). You can be swiping actively through pictures of potential matches with the app in a matter of minutes.

There is no learning curve. You look at a picture of a possible date and swipe left to reject it or right to accept it. If you swipe right and the other person does as well, then you have made a match. You then can chat with your match in the app and possibly make a date.

Several shortcomings of this technology jumped right out at me. When I tried it out, the app did not actually screen who I was. I downloaded it, signed in, set some values, and was ready to swipe. That should worry both young users and their parents. If the new user wants to meet a Jewish date, you should know that the other JSwipe user might not be Jewish even if they say they are. And yes, Jewish or not, there is no way to know if they are stable or reputable people.

Once you get the app on your phone your activity in it is limited mainly to looking at pictures — many of which are the grainy snapshots that people use for their Facebook accounts. A small percentage of users put in additional descriptions of themselves and their interests.

A user can set some preferences — but not many. You can tell JSwipe the age range you want to see and the geographic proximity to potential matches and set a few Jewish preferences.

I certainly hope that people who match through the app and agree to a date will meet in a safe public place, to get a chance to validate somewhat that their match is a suitable person.

Does this system help people find proper matches? I’m no specialist in the sociology of Jewish dating. But I seriously doubt that this type of superficial app produces many fulfilling relationships or even enjoyable dates. To use totally non-analytical terms, at first blush, to me the system seemed simplistic, rude, and creepy.

Should you be worried if you find out that your child uses the app? A little. Most kids have common sense to be cautious about whom they meet and date. So you need not be that worried. But the superficiality of the choice process and lack of vetting of the population using the app are big drawbacks.

Well okay then. Is there anything you can do to help your kids find suitable dates? Parents I spoke to agree that trying to set up your child with a shidduch is not at all welcomed in the more liberal segments of our Jewish community. Apart from the ultra-Orthodox, who deem arranged marriages desirable, it’s common that children will not want your meddling at all into their social lives. Young people spend a great deal of effort to establish their own identities and their independence.

What I recommend, then, is that you help enable your children to find and join communities of like-minded peers, where they will have a better chance of meeting a suitable date or mate in person. Synagogues, community centers, artistic and cultural groups, charity activities, sports activities, and the like are valid starting points.

Try to be patient and let real human processes of meeting and making dates and establishing relationships take their course.

Bottom line, as you can tell, I’m not impressed with a dating methodology based on swiping through tiny pictures on a phone.

About the Author
Tzvee Zahavy earned his PhD from Brown University and rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University.