The observant community, like the rest of the Jewish world, is part of the Jewish mosaic that is often referred to as עם הספר (the People of the Book). Sefarim are its natural resource; almost daily a new work is added to the Jewish library. Not all books, however, are created equal. Due to their high volume, more often than not, new books achieve only limited exposure. Few people know about them and even fewer read them. Occasionally, however, there are exceptions. A new book will hit the bookseller’s bookshelf, and the sound of its thud will ricochet far and wide, inspiring a diverse cross-section of people to acquire, read, and, most importantly, passionately debate its thesis or proposition.
Reclaiming Dignity, written by Rabbi Anthony Manning and edited by Ms. Bracha Poliakoff, is such a book. Since its publication earlier this year, it has been selling well and, even more impressively, has generated robust debate in public forums (generating several reviews) and on social media.
To briefly describe the book: in its own words, Reclaiming Dignity is a “guide to tzniut for men and women,” which consists of two sections. Both sections address tzniut, one looking at it from a philosophical perspective (in colloquial terms: hashkafic), and the other exploring the actual halakhot.
The first section, “Defining Tzniut,” consists of essays by a variety of authors, the majority of whom are women, who make up a cross-section of professions: rebbetzins, educators, rabbis, lawyers, influencers, and others. Edited by Ms. Poliakoff, this section is superb. While not all essays are created equal, the overwhelming majority of them challenge our thinking about the subject, either by problematizing some of the tzniut particulars or by going so far as to reframe some of tzniut’s foundational first-principles, suggesting completely new perspectives. For the most part, the essays are insightful and creative, some of them even quite audacious.
Then there is a second section.
Written by Rabbi Manning, part two is a comprehensive presentation of the halakhot of tzniut. The tremendous effort Rabbi Manning put into this project is noticeable on every page. It has everything a good halakha sefer needs. It is thorough, comprehensive, copiously footnoted, and written in a clear and concise manner. Reading it is a real intellectual and spiritual pleasure. Rabbi Manning perfectly accomplished what he set out to do – with flying colors.
As for the actual content: there is no denying that Rabbi Manning and Ms. Poliakoff have revolutionized the observant community’s discourse on tzniut. The book is permeated by a sense of kedusha, tzniut, and sensitivity. The authors handle this extremely complicated topic with utmost care, assiduously avoiding many of the pitfalls that have entrapped some of their predecessors, other rabbis and educators who have written on the topic. To name just a few of the virtues that distinguish this book from those that came before them: the authors bend over backwards in order to avoid language of objectification or sin. Their belief in the importance of tzniut is not driven by an understanding that the woman is an object of sin who needs to be obscured. Nor is their impetus for promoting proper adherence to norms of tzniut driven by a desire to protect fragile men who, seemingly, have limited agency over their actions or desires.
Given all this, looked at from a traditional and classical perspective, the book is a great success.
If, however, you are looking for not just a new presentation of old material, but a rehabilitating approach to tzniut, because you believe that the contemporary discourse on the topic is broken and requires dismantling and reconstruction, Reclaiming Dignity is not the book for you.
Being among those who are hungry for a completely NEW discourse on tzniut, we devoured the sefer from cover to cover. Sadly, we were left unsatisfied halakhically, conceptually, and sociologically, particularly by the second part, which was a disappointing follow-up to the promising first section.
In the first section, more than a few authors acknowledge that the current approach to tzniut is problematic and that, therefore, something has to change fundamentally. The issue requires a complete overhaul, starting from the ground up. The foundational infrastructure needs retooling, and only once that is complete can we move on to renovate the rest of the tzniut edifice.
Yet Rabbi Manning does not do that. If we may borrow a tech analogy, Rabbi Manning comprehensively rewrites the software, but he leaves classical tzniut’s hardware intact and untouched.
In other words, he does not change or modify the extreme tzniut strictures imposed on women over the years. He believes that they, for the most part, remain operative. He merely changes the software by providing a different language to talk about these strictures. Granted, the new discourse he provides does remove some of the emotional sting these halakhot inflict, but the actual restrictions remain unchanged. Contemporary tzniut norms are enormous, laden with limitations for women. Yet Rabbi Manning does not believe that there is anything in that towering pile of stringencies that is incorrectly assumed to be assur and should therefore be discarded.
The frustration regarding the book’s restrained ethos is exacerbated by the fact that the tool for achieving a foundational rewrite of this problematic topic is embedded in this very sefer.
Tucked away on page 316, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, z”l, is quoted as saying (paraphrasing here) that being too tzanua is no less problematic than not being tzanua enough. This claim is not mere wordplay. It is a clarion call to write psak on this issue with this paradigm in mind.
Once one decides to write a tzniut guide that embraces Rav Soloveitchik’s first-principle thesis as axiomatic, their tzniut dos and don’ts will look different from the dos and don’ts of their predecessors. They will discard some of the stringencies in order to avoid the transgression of being too tzanua.
In contrast, Rabbi Manning does almost none of that. He does not do away with the many established stringencies, leaving almost all of them in place. The way they are talked about is different from the way the topic has been discussed in the recent past, but the framework (i.e., the requirements) has not been modified that much.
Thus the sefer, while acknowledging Rav Soloveitchik’s paradigmatic framing of hilkhot tzniut, does not pay heed to it.
In service of Rabbi Manning’s goal to offer a new set of tzniut software, to change the way we TALK about tzniut, he introduces two new conceptual terms, “lifnei Hashem” and “nichbadut.” He thoroughly fleshes out those terms, but in brief they mean as follows: “Lifnei Hashem” means that the reason one has to be tzanua is that we are constantly in the presence of Hashem, an idea that in and of itself is pretty common and universal. In addition, we are also introduced to a completely new trope, the concept of “nichabadut.” In a lengthy footnote (p. 288 fn 24), nichbadut is defined as “[coming] from the root k-v-d, denoting dignity, honor, and respect. Kavod also carries a connotation of responsibility, related to kaved–something that is heavy… [thus] nichbadut brings with it a responsibility to live in a dignified manner appropriate to one’s age, personality, and status.”
This is no doubt one of the major achievements of the book. It gets rid of the conventional, damaging lexicon of tzniut, replacing it with terms that do not smack of objectification and hypersexualization. What is missing, though, is substantiation. An idea that undergirds an edifice as elaborate as all of hilkhot tzniut needs to be substantiated and sourced.
One cannot, in the 21st century, introduce a completely new halakhic premise without properly sourcing the idea, showing its origin, use, and application. The classical discourse on tzniut goes back many centuries. In all those years, NOBODY used “nichbadut” as the conceptual foundation for the idea. Such an absence is noteworthy and cannot be ignored. The inevitable inference is that nobody saw that term as applicable to the conversation they were having. If someone then comes along and argues otherwise, they are up against a very high burden of proof.
To be clear: this is not a mere semantic critique, challenging the use of a word.
True,“nichbadut” is merely a word, but in Reclaiming Dignity, it functions as a foundational principle that guides the entire project. “Nichbadut” is tzniut’s framework. Whatever behavior conforms with this concept is permitted, and whatever is in conflict with it is prohibited. It is a boundary marker, making any behavior that encroaches on that boundary illegitimate.
For a term to attain such incredible halakhic power, it requires a deep and long-standing provenance. It needs to have the power accrued by receiving the imprimatur of Chazal, Rishonim, and Achronim. Absent that, the premise is arbitrary and rickety, lacking a sufficient degree of authority or meaning.
Finally, we have two concerns about the book that are sociological – one by commission and one by omission.
One: Dat Yehudit is another foundational trope in Rabbi Manning’s understanding of tzniut (in addition to “lifnei Hashem” and “nichbadut”); it is one of the key barometers of what is permitted and what is prohibited. Reclaiming Dignity’s definition of dat Yehudit is seemingly quite progressive. As explained by the author, the premise connotes something that “one cannot look up in a book, and may not even be possible to ask the local rabbi. Rabbis do not create dat Yehudit, women do!” A little later he explains that “most importantly, the norms and sensitivities of dat Yehudit should, ultimately, be determined by the women in that community who are halakhically committed and mindful of tzniut.”
Once again, on the surface this is a very attractive interpretation. It allows those most impacted by the laws of tzniut to have a voice in setting its standards and determining its definitions. The problem is that the premise is incompatible with Orthodoxy’s social reality. The indisputable fact is that rabbis and poskim determine “the norms and sensitivities of what is considered dat Yehudit,” not, as Rabbi Manning asserts, the women. As far as we know, none of the poskim who have contributed to contemporary tzniut’s elaborate and intricate edifice ever consulted the women in their community, nor were the women given a say in any of the poskim’s deliberations. To attribute the parameters of dat Yehudit to women is therefore a misrepresentation. Women never had any agency whatsoever in designing those boundaries. Only men were involved in its construction.
Two: The book is oblivious to the LGBTQ reality of our time, particularly to the L (lesbians) and the G (gays).
It is an indisputable fact that our understanding of sexual attraction has changed drastically over the past few decades. Irrespective of one’s position on the question of Orthodoxy’s response to the LGBTQ phenomenon, there is no denying that it exists. There are people who have an involuntary sexual response to a sensuous interaction with a person of the same sex. Such a reality throws much of the tzniut assumptions into relief.
Conventional tzniut operates on the foundational assumption that attraction happens only between people of the opposite sex, and as such those are the interactions that require regulation. Two people of the same sex could NEVER experience sensual intimacy and thus do not have to be cognizant about whether they are creating an unduly or inappropriately sexual atmosphere.
We now know that that is not true, and halakha needs to adjust accordingly. Poskim, in conjunction with members of the LGBTQ community, need to figure out how tzniut is applied in a world where sexual tension can occur in contexts that are exclusively same-sex, where only men or only women are present.
The challenge is twofold: a) We impose stringencies in situations where they are irrelevant and unnecessary, because we always assume that there is potential for sexual attraction between any two people of the opposite sex. Halakha doesn’t take into account that some men and women are not attracted to those of the opposite sex. b) A scenario that requires tzniut norms in a same-sex encounter is often impossible to identify. We don’t always know whether a person of the same sex who we are with is sexually attracted to someone of the opposite sex or responds sexually to someone of the same sex. This leaves us with a sense of halakhic paralysis.
Not to be hyperbolic, but this reality throws a wrench into our tzniut discourse. It makes it impossible to properly apply the norms and behaviors of tzniut without first figuring out how to incorporate the reality of people who experience same-sex attraction into the way tzniut norms are applied.
In short, for those who are content with embracing tzniut’s current infrastructure but who nevertheless are looking for a revamped lexicon for thinking and speaking about it, Reclaiming Dignity will satisfy that search. However, those who believe that our current tzniut edifice has been overwhelmed with much that is superfluous and unsubstantiated, which in turn has contaminated the entire discourse and therefore requires a wholesale overhaul, will have to continue waiting for such a sefer to be written.
The above was co-authored by Dr. Sharon Flatto.