For a long time in my adolescence and adulthood, I heard older adults in my life complain about how the younger adults are moving to the right. These older adults defined themselves as Orthodox and many of them had grown up that way but many of their adult children were taking on certain things. At that time, I would hear these complaints and think that it’s just the natural resentment of parents whose children chose a different path. I would sometimes answer by saying that it’s better that those adult children are moving to the right and not to the left. But the adults didn’t want to hear that.
Now, however, I’m thinking that the complaints of those older adults had something to them that shouldn’t have been dismissed.
Secular society has become more and more decadent over the years and the temptations are harder and harder to resist. So many communities have responded by trying to raise standards of tzniut in order to protect their children from those temptations. Did it work? From where I stand, no. The temptations and lures of the secular world are still getting in and if anything, more and more Jews are succumbing to those lures.
What’s more, it’s led to a certain hypocrisy. We’re trying to encourage our fellow Jews to come to Torah and become more observant but then, when they do become baalei teshuvah, they’re treated as second-class citizens. In many communities, they have a hard time in the shidduch world. Not to mention geirei tzedek who are not encouraged once they get here.
Another form of hypocrisy involves the proverbial rug. We’re trying to protect ourselves and our children from the secular decadence and so we try to present our world as being a wonderful place. This leads many people to believe that we have to hide anything and everything that might be construed as bad. Instead of acknowledging that we have our share of bad guys, we try to sweep their wrongdoings under the proverbial rug. All this does is lead to more and more people seeing our world as hypocritical and walking away.
A couple of years ago, I heard Judge Ruchie Freier speak. At one point, she talked about her work with at-risk children and she said that these children were victims of the community’s success. The Jewish community wanted to raise its standards and that seemed great but it didn’t account for those children who couldn’t keep up and so they got left behind which was not good.
I don’t think the problem is that we raised standards. I think the problem is that we focused too much on the most visible things and we ignored the less-visible things that truly count the most. And that too led to a certain hypocrisy. We raised our visible standards and then used them to show off how much more machmir we were. This is most obvious in the realm of tzniut. We raised our standards of tzniut and then used it as an excuse to show off how much more tzniut we were. This is not tzniut by any means.
Recently, I’ve heard a few people in different forums talk about women being less conspicuous and even hiding as being a “higher standard of tzniut.” WRONG. Quite the opposite. True tzniut does not allow us to hide. It’s true that some women prefer to be less conspicuous and that’s more tzniut for them. But others have a role to play that’s more front-and-center and that’s equally tzniut. Plus, tzniut is just as incumbent on men as it is on women and yet we don’t even consider the possibility that even some of the men won’t want to be seen in photographs. Again, this is hypocrisy and it’s anything BUT tzniut.
So what do we do?
The solution is to raise two standards.
First, we need to increase opportunities for learning about Halacha. We’ve been so busy piling on the chumrot that we’ve forgotten what the halacha actually is. That’s bad because it’s the wrong order. We shouldn’t be adding chumrot without a full understanding of the halacha itself. And we need to increase opportunities for EVERYONE, especially women. We keep halacha too so why shouldn’t we have the opportunity to understand it better?
Just recently, we celebrated the Siyum HaShas. In today’s times, with Jew hatred rearing its ugly head, this event was tremendously heartening. I myself found it even more heartening knowing that women were participating and seeing photos. Even more heartening than that was seeing pictures of the women’s Siyum HaShas in Eretz Yisrael. Learning Torah is a huge mitzvah and it’s so important for EVERYONE to be able to take part.
Second, even more important, we need to raise standards of Seichel, Derech Eretz, and Middot Tovot. We need to remember how to behave like mentschen and treat each other that way. Mitzvot are not supposed to leave us feeling holier-than-thou and if they do, we’re doing something wrong.
Raising standards is not a bad thing as long as it leads to good things. If we raise standards in the right areas, it’s much more likely to lead to better things.