Modestly Empowered

It is a sad commentary on the fragile state of women’s identity that a book detailing the halachot of modesty can be perceived as a control tool in the hands of oppressive rabbis.

After several decades of brainwashing, radical feminism has succeeded in indoctrinating us with the notion of competing gender interests to the extent that we apply this thinking to the mitzvot, instead of viewing the Torah as what it is – the source of clarity that charts a path of synergy between men and women.

There is a good reason why books such as the one decried by Bahtya Minkin have made an appearance of late. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein once lamented that a few generations ago a Jew may not have been proficient in the halachot of borer , but he certainly knew what Shabbos was supposed to look and feel like. Today, on the other hand, many Jews have a detailed grasp of halacha and little appreciation for the unique spirit of Shabbos.

Rapid secularization and the brake in the chain of generations in the Holocaust are not the only ones to blame. Unlike our grandparents, we process all information intellectually rather than experientially. My kids’ European-educated doctor is probably one of the last people to diagnose a strep throat based on color and smell. Somehow, previous generations managed to raise kids without user manuals, whereas modern parents are obsessed with parenting instructions. And in the past women cooked and baked without measuring cups, while for us even following a recipe can prove to be a challenge.

Perusal of any Judaica store is a study in sub-sub-sub-compartmentalization of halacha. Entire treatises are devoted to miniscule aspects. One 500-page book I came across recently offers Technicolor 1:1 ratio photos of a kezayit (minimum amount of food necessary to make a blessing after eating) of various foods. One is left wondering how Jews throughout the ages succeeded to bench without this handy tool. And for that matter, how could our ancestors in the alter heim of Poland, Morocco, and Iraq keep Shabbos by relying on their sense of touch to figure out if water was hot enough to meet the halachic definition of “scalding” without knowing that yad soledet bo is 43 degrees Centigrade.

A hundred years ago, there were no books on tzniut simply because they were not necessary. Women, both Jewish and non-Jewish, knew if an outfit was modest or provocative and made their choices accordingly. But walk through many an observant neighborhood today and you are certain to meet some women who dress to the letter of the law, but completely miss its spirit.

Anybody who denies the uphill battle fought by many men and women set on preserving a shred of dignity in a society that has lost its shame, is in denial. It is not polite for men to discuss their challenges in this area, but many (including those who are not observant) feel distracted. Ironically, statements such as “why can’t men just control themselves” usually come either from women or from men who eschew Torah observance and are unconcerned with guarding their thoughts.

From young age, girls are bombarded with the message that attractive equals provocative. Women struggle to develop a style that is dignified and presentable, when the fashion industry urges us to flaunt. Just finding appropriate clothes can takes hours of searching.

Unable to maintain proper balance, some people have chosen to go for the extreme. The latest burka trend and the calls for women to sit in the back of the bus are a backlash by those who have thrown in the towel and no longer trust themselves to fight. On the other hand, the prevalent attitude in some communities that tzniut is passé is a sign of capitulation.

It is in this environment that minute details of halacha need to be addressed as the only way to illustrate what Jewish life should look like to a generation that lacks a mental image. Yet somehow, we do not feel threatened by descriptions of the kezayit, while the halachot of dress leave us reeling. Could it be that as women we are so unsure of our position that we feel an urge to fight tooth and nail at any perceived threat to our autonomy, even when none is intended?

I sure hope not.

About the Author
Leah Aharoni is the Founder/CEO of SHEvuk, a business consulting firm, which helps companies grow by effectively marketing and selling great services to women. Drawing on her training in Organizational Psychology and extensive background in entrepreneurship, education, and international communications, she also channels her passion for women's empowerment into coaching women to succeed in business and personal goals. When not working or spending time with her feisty sabra kids, Leah enjoys learning and teaching self-development Torah, as brought down in chassidic sources. Find out more at
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