It’s Not About Tzniyus

BY

tzniusSome people have lately expressed the idea that the religious authorities should keep their noses out of matters of tzniyus (modesty). These people feel that when “the rabbis” (as if there’s one collective group) talk about tzniyus, it’s because they have an unhealthy obsession with it. I disagree. Tzniyus is a legitimate area of Jewish thought and Jewish law. It’s as fair game for an educator – of either gender – to talk about as Shabbos or kashrus.1

It’s certainly possible for someone to have an unhealthy obsession with tzniyus. This is the case with any mitzvah – indeed, with anything in life! But even if some individuals have an unhealthy preoccupation with a thing, that does not delegitimize the thing itself.

The Torah is a large and varied palette. Different mitzvos attract different people. Some are really into Shabbos. Others are into various forms of tzedaka (charity) and chesed (acts of kindness). Some people focus on lashon hara (gossip). Others focus on tzniyus. It’s okay if they do. There are lots of mitzvos and it’s to be expected that different people will gravitate towards areas of Judaism that speak to them for whatever reason.

And yes, some individuals can carry things to unhealthy extremes. This is true in any area. One could potentially have an unhealthy fixation on any mitzvah. If you’re up at 2:00 AM bleaching your entire kitchen because you just maybe put something meat on the dairy counter or vice versa, that’s a problem. If you get into fist fights every week because other people are talking in shul, you’re taking things too far. And if you blame typhoons in Singapore on lapses in tzniyus, or if you throw bleach on those who are not dressed according to your standards, that’s obsessive, too. But if a school has a dress code and expects it to be enforced – Jewish or not, that’s just normal. Schools enforce dress codes not because of an obsession with tzniyus but because it’s a school and they have a dress code.

A letter was making the online rounds recently, addressed by a high school student to her Jewish high school. In it, she attacks the school for what she considers an oppressive and antagonistic enforcement policy. I don’t think her arguments hold much water.

One complaint in this letter was that the enforcement of the dress code, which falls mostly on the girls, was sexist. The same week as this letter was being circulated, Tottenville High School in New York gave 200 detentions for dress-code violations, 90% of which were to girls. While some parents are likewise charging that school with sexism for the disparity, the reality is that teenage girls are simply more likely to break dress codes than boys. It was the girls who showed up in short shorts and tank tops in Tottenville, not the boys. Look at any school’s prom pictures – it’s the girls who have exposed skin, not the boys. Similarly, in Jewish schools, it’s the girls whose skirts are too short. I assure you, if a boy showed up in analogously-short pants, he would also be called out for it, but such things are rare if they exist at all.

Another complaint was that if a male teacher feels the need to look at the female students, he shouldn’t be in the school and that the male students should be taught to “lower their gaze.” That argument presupposes that the dress code exists for the sake of others. But dress codes don’t work that way. Single-sex schools with same-sex faculty can have very stringent dress codes. Every institution from a public school to a military academy can have a dress code and expect compliance. The possibility of sexually exciting the staff doesn’t even enter into the thought process.

In truth, this isn’t about tzniyus at all. It’s about school rules. This happens everywhere, not just in Jewish schools. I already mentioned Tottenville High School. About a week earlier, a Florida teen was in the news for a dress code violation. (There, the school made her change into a bright yellow T-shirt and red sweatpants, each marked “Dress Code Violation.” Now that’s arguably an oppressive and antagonistic enforcement policy!)

Here’s the thing: institutions have rules and these rules often include dress codes. If students and their parents voluntarily choose to enroll in a particular school, they enter into a contract to obey these rules. I did not agree with every rule of my children’s schools, but we complied because that’s where we wanted to send our kids. The fault is not with the school for expecting compliance. Parents should teach their children that, whether they agree with a policy or not, they have agreed to it by virtue of their enrollment and people are expected to honor their agreements. If the policy is unacceptable, one can lobby for change while complying, or simply go somewhere else.

Why don’t we allow students to curse in schools? Is it because “the rabbis” are obsessed with the laws of nivul peh (unclean speech)? Of course not. We don’t allow cursing in school because it doesn’t foster the environment we want our schools to have. Non-Jewish schools have the same rule; the overlap between schools’ foul-language rules and the laws of nivul peh is coincidental. Similarly, the dress codes in Jewish schools may be informed by our religious laws but they are ultimately just school dress codes. Students don’t push the boundaries because they disagree with the policy on theological grounds. They do it because they’re teens. Be it in public school, Catholic school, or a Jewish day school, that’s just what teens do.

1 I, myself, have authored a book on tzniyus titled, appropriately enough, The Tzniyus Book. I wrote it because I was working with teens who were being taught the whats of tzniyus but not the whys. For example, they knew that women were expected to wear skirts past the knees but not that the practice was derived from the Talmud based on verses in Shir HaShirim. My book is therefore descriptive (why things are the way they are) rather than prescriptive (telling people what they should do). But I would hardly say that I have a preoccupation with the subject. I don’t presume to tell other people how to dress and, honestly, the subject of tzniyus doesn’t even come up in conversation all that often.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.