Malka Simkovich
Malka Simkovich
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Modest living: Why treating appearance as a religious category needs to go out of style

Separate how you dress from your Orthodox Jewish identity and reap the benefits of both your attire and your Judaism

When I was a masters student back in 2005, I took a Spring seminar called, “The Bible and Politics.” There were about 35 students in an un-air conditioned room that got hotter by the week. By May, everyone in the room was physically uncomfortable, as we crowded into a room that was designed to hold half the number of students, and participated in two hours of loaded discussion. I remember most days feeling like class was a stressful dance of wanting to express frustration about something happening in the world and not wanting to offend others (perhaps not much has changed). The war in Iraq was going badly, President Bush’s popularity had long nose-dived, and there was a feeling of helplessness and anger. As someone who leans conservative politically, I was on high alert in that classroom. But for the most part, people were too hot and miserable to bother being mean to each other.

One day, towards the end of the semester, my professor was lecturing when he stopped speaking mid-sentence. He surveyed the room from his left to his right. Then he looked at the wall at the back of the room for a few seconds. This was a long time ago so I don’t remember what he said word for word. But if I had to paraphrase it, I’d say that his speech went like this: “I’m going to say something that many of you may not want to hear. You are graduate students doing intensive intellectual work. You come in here every day, supposedly prepared to think hard and to exchange ideas. To do your best here, you need to have integrity. The way you are dressing threatens your integrity. I cannot do my best as a professor, and you cannot do your best as students, in an environment in which some of you are not fully dressed. The next time I walk into this classroom, I need to see that all of your choices, from the way you converse to the way you dress, reflect the degree to which you take yourselves seriously. And I do hope you take yourselves seriously.”

Once he stopped speaking, silence fell upon the room. And I noticed what I hadn’t before: most of the women were wearing shorts and tank tops, while the men were somewhat more covered. The women looked surprised by what the professor had just said, but not offended (I wonder if it would be different had this happened today). I’m not interested in surveying the merits of whether my professor’s choice to chew out students was or was not the right thing to do. But I can assure you that during the next class, and the ones that followed it, people covered up.

I often mention this story to friends and colleagues to make the point that teaching about modesty is most effective when it is taught as something that is intuitive, something that all people, in some form or another, should take on: first, as an internal value concerning one’s state of mind, and second, as a means of choosing how to dress to reflect this state of mind. I wonder whether, had the professor made a religious argument about why students should cover up, he would have had similar success in getting his way. Somehow, I doubt it.

In the context of Orthodox Jewish education, teaching girls about modesty as a religious category is absolutely a lose-lose scenario. If a girl or young woman observes modesty as a religious commandment, she will often approach her dress as the foreground, the source of foundational expression, of her Jewish observance. The primary form of religious expression for these girls often becomes an external one. Yet in the Orthodox world, a young woman’s choice to reject traditional modest dress is also damaging: if a girl, or young woman, neglects to observe the laws of modesty, others who have been brought up to think about modesty as a halakhic category may associate her sins with others’ punishments. We have all seen or heard of the posters in Me’ah Shearim linking the abandonment of modesty with horrendous human suffering.

Talking about how Orthodox Jewish women should dress not only engenders eye-rolling for most of us in the Orthodox community; it’s also boring. I’m bored of it, because discussions about modesty are circular. My interlocutors and I usually begin our talks by agreeing that modesty is important. But then we acknowledge that if we make modesty too important, we are enabling and perpetuating a materialist community that favors the internal, intellectual growth of boys and the external, material presentation of girls. Here’s where the conflict occurs: some feel that if we deny the importance of modest dress, our religious integrity is called into question in the broadest sense.

Many of my adult female friends complain that, while they see the value of dressing modestly, the issue becomes so loaded for young girls that my friends hesitate to emphasize modest dress to their daughters because they are worried that their girls will begin to associate their Jewish identity with their sexuality. This will lead (and has led, over and over again) young women to believe that their Jewishness begins and ends with the amount to which they effectively conceal their sexuality and protect their chastity. Surely, this cannot be the right way to educate our girls.

This point, about the hypersexualization of girls that comes with teaching about modesty, has already been said many times and in many ways. But educators, especially those who teach in Modern Orthodox yeshiva high schools, still struggle with how to enforce modest dress among young women without making them feel ashamed, or worse, without making them feel that they are simply “stumbling blocks” to the boys around them. The latter approach implies that boys bear a higher currency than girls when it comes to education and spiritual growth.

I’d like to offer a simple proposal that I think can change the way we think and teach about modesty. While modesty is a halakhic issue in the sense that there are rabbinic sources that support and detail the nature of its observance, I believe that pedagogically, it is profoundly damaging to teach about modesty as a halakhic topic. The goal of “Winning” by effectively getting girls to dress modestly as “bnot yisrael” can too often lead to a self-identity that is based not only on external modest dress, but on external appearance in general. This is why, sometimes, the most modestly dressed women are also the most carefully curated; they have been brought up to think that above all, clothes and looks matter.  And this is best case scenario. The worst case scenario is that girls and women associate their Judaism with their sexuality, and their sexuality with shame.

I suggest that all regulations pertaining to modesty and dress, especially when it comes to girls, should be taught outside of the confines of religion altogether. Just as the injunction not to murder is a halakha that is stated in the Torah, but is looked upon today as an injunction that all people should intuit, so too should we educate our boys and girls to observe modesty because it’s a logical way to enforce a life of integrity and self-possession. Discussion regarding the ins and outs of the length of a sleeve or a skirt should come only after children, especially girls, are taught to internalize that modest dress is but one of many aspects of Jewish observance, and that their identities are tied to dress in the same way (or even a lesser way) that their identities are tied to the observance of kashrut and Shabbat.

About the Author
Malka Simkovich has a Ph.D from Brandeis University in Second Temple Judaism. She earned an MA degree in Hebrew Bible from Harvard University and a BA in Bible Studies and Music Theory from Stern College of Yeshiva University. Her research focuses on universalist Jewish literature that emerged from Egypt under the Roman empire.
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