Dealing with Immodest Dress in Ulpanot
Q: One of the problems bothering teachers in ulpanot (women’s seminaries) and public religious high schools is how to deal with girls who come to school dressed immodestly. The conventional approach is to deal with the problem through education and explaining. Believing that our generation is an amazing generation, full of wonder, with lofty ideals, we discuss the importance of modesty and its spiritual virtues with the girls, attempting to minimize disciplinary comments which create an unpleasant atmosphere and a sense of remoteness and distrust by the girls of the teachers. The problem is, it usually doesn’t work. The girls repeatedly ask: Why aren’t we allowed to wear these clothes? Why do you always lecture us about tzniyut (modesty)? We’re sick and tired of hearing the same thing all the time! What’s wrong with wearing short sleeves or a short skirt?
How should we answer them?
The Answer Is:Kakha!
A: It appears that the most fitting answer to the question is: Kakha! In other words, this is the halakha, without including any spiritual explanations. Teachers and parents must get used to saying “kakha”.
In the framework of Torah study and emunah (faith), numerous foundations are explained, but faith in God and Torah also includes difficult matters which are hard to understand. The basic premise is that in spite of man’s intelligence, he cannot understand everything. And if he wishes to connect with God, and with eternal values, he is required to say “na’say v’nishma” (first we will do, and then we will listen). This does not make a person less intelligent; on the contrary, he is then able to connect to Divine intellect which deepens his human understanding.
The Power of Halakha
When all the stores in the shopping malls are filled with tons of clothes that do not meet halakhic standards, and it’s hard to find “kosher” clothes that can compete in beauty and style with the immodest clothing, and furthermore, the winds blowing out of the Western fashion centers dictate immodest styles – it is very difficult for a young girl exploring the limits to overcome the temptations. Therefore, the only way to deal with this is through commitment to halakha.
And don’t underestimate the power of halakha. Try persuading a heavy smoker to stop smoking one day a week. Use all the explanations, and see how difficult it is. But when halakha declares it forbidden to smoke on Shabbat – people don’t smoke. And amazingly, even heavy smokers don’t find it that difficult!
Most children and teenagers love playing on the computer, but on Shabbat – miraculously – they don’t! Why? Is it because they were lectured on the importance of Shabbat, and given profound explanations about how playing games on the computer harms the sanctity of Shabbat? No! They don’t play because halakha forbids it. As time goes on, details about the sanctity of Shabbat can also be discussed.
True, when the foundations of emunah are rickety, halakha gradually loses its power. When the heart is weak, blood fails to properly reach the small capillaries. Therefore, a person is constantly required to carefully study emunah and mussar (ethics) as well, and strive to understand Am Yisrael’s mission in the world, and the unique destiny of each and every one of us. This is the role of derashot (sermons).
But when dealing with the temptations of the yetzer (desires), the power of halakha is greater than that of derashot.
The Role of Principals and Teachers in Religious Schools
It is not the job of principals and teachers to chase after the girls once school is out. That is the responsibility of parents and the girls themselves. But during school hours, a religious institution must resolve that the boundaries of halakha are binding, and enforce them vigorously and consistently. Whoever comes to school not dressed according to the rules is sent home. Discipline also carries an important educational message. It expresses commitment to halakha and mussar. Incidentally, dress codes are now customary even in secular high schools, and seeing as the rules are strictly enforced, rarely do incidents of disobedience.
Without any connection to this, the importance of family and modesty should be discussed, just as the values of honesty, kindness, faith and redemption are also discussed.
The Role of Parents
Parents must also set boundaries and uphold them consistently. When this is done, dealing with problems becomes relatively simple. Just as religious people can walk past a non-kosher shwarma stand without buying one, in the same way, they can also refrain from buying “non-kosher” clothes. Independently, it is important to discuss the role of Am Yisrael, the importance of Torah and halakha, the Jewish way to start a family, and the immeasurable advantage of living in a religious framework over a secular one, with regards to marital relationships and true love.