Tzniyus Is A Matter

Of Halachah

Dear Editor,

First, I would like to commend Rabbi Hoffman for his sensitive handling of a growing concern in our community the other week in his article titled “The Gym and the Carpool” (November 8). It is obvious that its scholarly approach and unassailable logic touched a raw nerve in some quarters.

The first letters commenting on the article, in the November 15 issue, made it very clear that there was no argument with his facts, since none of the three letters printed disagreed with the substance of his presentation. On the contrary, Tamar Tabachnik conceded “that frum women are perhaps pushing the envelope with what they otherwise never would have worn in public a decade ago.” Her main criticism was that men, too, have issues and “Yet no rabbanim are blaming world catastrophes on men’s tzniyus or seem to be raising the issue publicly.” It appears that she wants “equal opportunity in gender focus.”

Malky Mendel, on the other hand, claims that “the so-called frum world is missing the bigger picture. We are so focused on the little details, that we miss the general idea of what it means to be a frum Jew,” and that with articles like Rabbi Hoffman’s, the editors are adding to the risk of children being “[led] off the derech.”

“Wouldn’t it be more pertinent,” she writes, “for a publication such as yours, which reaches so many readers in our community and others, to print an article focusing on ways to add enjoyment to our Shabbos?” Again she admits that she is “not attempting to argue the halachos; I don’t know if it’s allowed or not.” Her main complaint about the halachic explication by Rabbi Hoffman was that “Firstly, if this was intended to be mussar about tzniyus, it should really come from a woman. It’s offensive to hear a man saying things like ‘the shape and form of the thigh’ and such. But my main point is, tzniyus is not only about the clothes we wear. Tzniyus is also about the way we act.”

Then there was Elana Kleinman, who railed against the entire discussion in a public forum. That “it hardly seems ‘tzniyus’ to me to discuss, in a public forum . . . the shapeliness of women’s legs and the threat of the tantalizing pencil skirt . . . that discussions of tzniyus are very often not really about what they claim.” She incredulously accused Rabbi Hoffman and his ilk of just “being able to openly discuss risqué topics, if only under the pretext of Jewish Law.” She is concerned that this is an anti-woman attempt of “dominance and control” by, I have to suppose rabbis, to publicly condemn “women following a certain fashion trend of modesty.” She continues that tzniyus is really “meant to softly color the way we think, speak, and act. That discussions of modesty have become hyperfocused on women’s bodies and hypercritical of women’s dress is a deeply unnerving development.”

Since all three writers were seemingly espousing what they believed were true Jewish halacha and values, I am troubled by the fact that halachic sources seemed to be missing from all of the letters.

Rabbi Hoffman, on the other hand, quoted extensively from the halachic sources of our greatest sages to make his point, including “Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt’l (Minchas Shlomo Vol. III 103:15), Rav Elyashiv, zt’l, and others (cited in Halichos Bas Yisroel page 71). The Kuntrus Malbushei Nashim (page 11) cites numerous poskim to this effect as well, as does the former chief rabbi of Tel Aviv in Assei Lecha Rav (Vol. VII p. 247).”

Let’s try to deal directly with the issues. For at least the last five years, we have been inundated with articles and speeches dealing with the scourge and disaster of men and the Internet, culminating with the gathering at Citi Field last year of 40,000 men who came to recognize the problem and not sweep it under the rug with arguments like “Why are we so focused on men and pornography; there are much greater issues?” Not once, with all of its advertising and press coverage over the last five years, did any man write a letter to the editor decrying the emphasis. “Why not have an asifa to discuss women instead? Are we the only ones affected?” Not once! Yet one small halachic presentation presented with the horrible descriptions of legs in a newspaper that has pictures of women every week elicits comments that falsely accuse the rabbis of not dealing with men’s faults and not being sensitive to Jewish modesty. Absolutely amazing!

Let’s make one thing abundantly clear. While Rabbi Hoffman spent time trying to finesse the rationale of proper conduct for Jewish women, the requirement to dress appropriately is an absolute requirement for women, halachically. Even if every man was so very righteous and above temptation, women would still have the halachic responsibility to dress properly. Sure, there are other issues that need to be addressed, but, given the response to Rabbi Hoffman’s article, it seems that this one needs to be spoken about more, not less. We are not a two-dimensional people. If there is one small article on a very serious problem of lashon harah, do people get upset that the article doesn’t deal with honesty in business? Of course there are other issues, but to accuse an article aimed at adults, highlighting actual halachic violations, as the cause of children going off the derech begs at reason.

Why is it that if one is teaching halachos of Shabbos, kashrus, or brachos one is teaching halachah but when one is discussing halachos of Jewish modesty one is accused of that horrible sin of giving mussar? I don’t get it.

Let’s take a moment to discuss “the continual scapegoating of women as ‘bringing down the team.’” In Judaism, we follow Hashem’s rules and if we are to be accused of scapegoating you will need to take that complaint back to Him.

The Gemara discusses the three reasons that the first Beis HaMikdash was destroyed. I’m sure we all know that. What most people don’t seem to know is that the source is Yoma 9b. There, the Gemara says that besides murder and idolatry, immorality caused its destruction. While I know that in English this is often translated as adultery, it is not a correct translation. It was immoral behavior. The Gemara questions the source for this and quotes from the Navi Yeshayahu 3:16.

“Immorality [prevailed] as it is written: Moreover Hashem said: Because the daughters of Zion are haughty, and walk with stretched-forth necks and wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go, and make a tinkling with their feet. ‘Because the daughters of Zion are haughty,’ i.e., they used to walk with proud carriage. ‘And wanton eyes,’ i.e., they filled their eyes with kohl. ‘Walking and mincing as they go,’ i.e. they used to walk with the heel touching the toe. ‘And make a tinkling with their feet,’ R. Isaac said: They would take myrrh and balsam and place it in their shoes and when they came near the young men of Israel they would kick, causing the balsam to squirt at them and would thus cause the evil desire to enter them like an adder’s poison.”

It is clearly a very great error to believe that we are discussing the most serious violations of adultery. It is abundantly evident that the Navi was faulting women who walked through the streets bringing attention to themselves. In the arena of moral interpersonal Jewish behavior, Hashem, through his Navi Yeshayahu, is sending us a very clear message. We, finite people, men or women, don’t set the priorities, Hashem does.

Tzniyus issues for men are admittedly a problem if they exist. Yet let’s not obfuscate the bigger issue. They are nowhere near the same. This may even be as important as going to the park with your kids on Shabbos. “Tzniyus is not only about the clothes we wear,” but it’s also about the clothes that we wear–and very seriously so. Yes, let’s focus on bain adom l’chaveiro, but that is not an excuse to sweep halachos that are trampled on en masse under the rug. This is not a recent issue whose “ideas [that] have insidiously made their way into our collective thought process.” They’ve been there for millennia and we obviously still suffer from them.

If I sound, possibly, a little strident I do not mean to be. My intention is to be emphatic. Emphatic about the eminence of our authorities. Emphatic about the truth of the Torah. Emphatic about the need for honest introspection into our non-observance of those areas that bring true sanctity to our people.

Shabbos represents the sanctity of time while the Beis HaMikdash represents the sanctity of space but without the sanctity of self, the sanctity of Klal Yisrael, they are both meaningless. If this is not a “real issue” then nothing is.

Due to the vigilance and piety of righteous women we were redeemed from Egypt. It was through our righteous women that we were saved on Purim and Chanukah, and may it be Hashem’s will that, through the sanctity and holiness brought to our homes and streets through the righteous women of our generation, we will be redeemed once more.


Rabbi Yitzchok D. Frankel

Agudath Israel of the Five Towns


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