Last month, there was a news story in which an Orthodox Jewish woman sued her gym for refusing to allow her to work out in a skirt. Yosefa Jalal of Crown Heights sued Lucille Roberts (a women’s-only gym franchise) for violating federal, state and city religious discrimination statutes. I saw this posted and re-posted on Facebook with a general sentiment of “You go, girl!” but I was not so convinced that Ms. Jalal was correct.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m definitely sensitive to the issues of tzniyus (modesty) at play and I’m a huge proponent of religious freedom. If a public school with a dress code that included slacks didn’t permit Orthodox Jewish girls an option to wear a skirt, I’d be at the forefront of the battle. The same is true for Jewish men’s yarmulkes and tzitzis, a Sikh’s turban, a Muslimah’s hijab, and facial hair for anyone whose faith requires it. I don’t care if they’re students, police officers, soldiers, even prisoners—I would fight “the man” on this issue.
But there are some limits.
Gyms have dress codes for a reason. Propriety is part of it but safety is also a huge piece of the equation. Hats and jeans, for example, are typically verboten in gyms as inappropriate clothing. Proper footwear is a huge safety issue—show up at your gym in Crocs or flip flops and see how well it goes over.
Lucille Roberts, of course, is not Judenrein. They don’t have a “No Jews Allowed” policy. They maintain that their refusal to allow Ms. Jalal to wear a skirt is strictly because it’s a safety issue. They might be acting overly-cautiously but, realistically, it’s also a liability issue. If Ms. Jalal’s skirt gets caught in the elliptical machine, what do you think is going to happen? If she’s injured, Lucille Roberts are the ones on the hook. So I’m a little forgiving with their inflexibility when it comes to this policy.
I thought about writing something last month while this was news but it wasn’t too pressing and I let it slide. Then I saw something on Jew in the City about a 12-year-old-girl who does gymnastics in a skirt. My initial reaction was, “No. Nonononono.”
I love Jew in the City. I write for Jew in the City. Allison Josephs (the titular Jew in the City) and I are generally quite likeminded on matters of hashkafah (Jewish philosophy). But when I read this:
“I can’t do this!” she sputtered. “It’s just not going to work! They told me it’s not safe to do gymnastics in a skirt!”
My reaction was: “If it’s not safe, why is this article about a 12-year-old-girl who does gymnastics in a skirt?”
Happily, the article took a turn I could agree with, as the girl’s mother explained:
“I headed into the gym and spoke to Maureen, the owner…and shockingly I was so pleased with our conversation! … She… explained that actually only one of the activities would be unsafe in a skirt, and I suggested that when it was time for that activity, my daughter could assess if there were men in the room, and if not, take her skirt off and participate.”
That’s how you do it!
This got me curious, so I contacted a few coaches and trainers about the advisability of women working out in skirts. They were surprisingly okay with it, albeit with a few caveats.
Certain activities would be easier to do in a skirt than others. Boxing would be okay; lunges would be “difficult.” One trainer said he would allow women to try classes in a skirt so they could evaluate whether or not the activities were doable safely.
There were also restrictions as to the type of skirt. One trainer (a woman, who presumably knows a little bit more about such things than men) said she would want the skirt to be all cotton and loose fitting. Everyone I spoke with drew the line at knee-length.
So it seems there’s some leeway for working out in a skirt. Some activities, like yoga and Zumba, might be relatively easy to do in a skirt (or at least no more difficult than usual). Other activities might be more challenging. Some things may require workarounds. For example, I would not recommend swimming in a regular skirt, but there are modest swimsuits designed for that purpose. The same is true for skiing. (I am aware that Orthodox girls have been skiing in skirts for decades; I’m not convinced that it’s such a great idea.) Skirts are not recommended for skydiving.
The most important thing is safety first. This is actually something we learn from our foremother Rivka. Eliezer brought Rivka back as a wife for Yitzchak. Genesis 24:64-65 tells us that when she saw Yitzchak, Rivka jumped down from the camel and covered herself with a veil. The Rashbam explains that Rivka jumped down out of modesty, so that Yitzchak should not see her straddling the camel. But Rivka had just returned from a long journey with Eliezer and other men—why was she riding immodestly in the first place?
Because it’s not safe to ride a camel side-saddle. Rivka had three choices: stay home, ride modestly, or ride safely. Safety trumps tzniyus when necessary.
A modern-day application of this principle would be the shoulder harness of seatbelts, which tend to make things more “form fitting” than is normally considered appropriate. Some women therefore don’t use the harness, moving it over their shoulders to be behind them. This is a spectacularly bad idea when traveling 60 miles per hour in a 3,600-lb. mass of glass and steel. Not only could one get a ticket (in New York City, at least), one could get killed. Wear your seatbelt or stay home.
Getting back to exercise, Rav Moshe Feinstein ztz”l permitted women to swim with a male lifeguard (if necessary) because he’s there in a life-saving capacity, not to ogle the women (Iggros Moshe Even Ha’Ezer IV:62a). While Rav Moshe did say that G-d-fearing women should refrain, the basic law is that it is permitted. (This fact is also reflected in the Jew in the City article, where the young gymnast’s father, a rabbi, told her that the male instructors were not a problem, as they were there in a professional capacity. The problem was other girls’ fathers.)
After looking into this issue, here’s my takeaway:
- More activities can be done safely in a skirt than I would have thought. Women should talk to their coaches and trainers about working out in modest clothes – they just might surprise you;
- If they’re not receptive to altering the normal dress code, they’re not necessarily discriminating against you. They could honestly believe it’s a hazard, or perhaps their insurance won’t permit it;
- If an activity cannot be done safely in a skirt, you have three options: do it immodestly, do it unsafely, or don’t do it. I can’t tell you what to do but I urge you not to do it unsafely;
- Always wear your safety belt.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, editor of OU Torah, is the author of five books including The Tzniyus Book.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.
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