Is Dressing Modestly For Women Like Torah Learning For Men

  • Smaller Small Medium Big Bigger
  • Default Helvetica Segoe Georgia Times

Rabbi Ari Wasserman interviews Rabbi Anthony Manning, Co-Director of Midreshet Tehillah. Rabbi Manning is a Senior Lecturer at Midreshet Rachel V’Chaya College for Women and gives a regular weekly shiur at the OU Israel Center in Jerusalem. Rabbi Manning co-authored Reclaiming Dignity – A Guide to Tzniut for Men and Women with Bracha Poliakoff (Mosaica Press).

We hear the phrase that t'zniut, dressing modestly for women, is just like learning Torah for men. Is that correct?

The idea of talmud Torah is absolutely fundamental to our world. Therefore, whenever you compare anything to the mitzvah of  talmud Torah, you are making a massive statement. Some women may relate to this statement and find it empowering. Others find the notion alienating or even worse. The origin of this idea stems from a letter written by the Vilna Gaon to his family during the period when the revered sage sought to settle in Eretz Yisrael. The holy rabbi encouraged his relatives to be strong in their middot. Next, the Vilna Gaon wrote on a concept where two versions circulate. One interpretation is that the rebbe praised his mother for her t’zniut. The other version has the Vilna Gaon saying in effect that just like Torah learning is an antidote to sin for men, so too is t’zniut for women. Whatever tale we accept, it is important that we have context. We base our Torah hashkafah on statements from the Tanach, Chazal, Rishonim, Acharonim, and poskim. We develop a multi-faceted picture, which often speaks with different voices. There are hundreds of classic sources about t’zniut, which speak in different ways and are empowering and enriching. I think that even if this statement from the Vilna Gaon is accurate, it should not be the focus of the whole worldview of t’zniut because that is out of sync with how we view everything else. We never take one statement of the Acharonim and make it the approach to any particular Torah issue. This one is particularly dangerous because the obvious next step would be people concluding that women who are in breach of the laws of t’zniut are in some way destroying or undermining the world, which creates an incredibly negative culture of blame.

A recurring refrain that women hear is that they have to dress modestly so that they do not cause men to sin. Is that the crux of the issue of t’zniut? What is the basis of t’zniut?

It is true that there is a recurring refrain that women have to dress modestly so that they do not cause men to sin. The basis for this would be the Torah prohibition of lifnei iver, misleading people via a stumbling block. Lifnei iver is a Torah mitzvah that applies across the board to both men and women: whenever we do something that facilitates or encourages somebody else to commit a sin, then we are held responsible. But t’zniut is not based on lifnei iver. T’zniut is a much more self-integrated concept, which goes into the issues of personal dignity, awareness of one’s self, and being aware of Hashem’s presence. Lifnei iver is not at the root of the mitzvah of t’zniut. 

How much are women responsible for the way that men are unable to control themselves?

On a certain level, men may be disturbed by the very existence of a woman in the public domain. That does not mean women are not allowed to come out because some men cannot deal with that. So men are required to control themselves and to develop their own ability to integrate normally. But having said all of that, lifnei iver can still apply at a certain level. There is a point at which if a woman - or a man - dresses in a way that is in breach of halachah and encourages other people to commit sins, then they will have responsibility for that. But that is a bein adam la'chavero (mitzvot between man and his fellow man) responsibility, that is just being a decent human being. Why would you want to encourage anybody else to do something that is inappropriate? So, to reiterate, lifnei iver is not at the root of t’zniut .

What else can make matters worse when it comes to issues of t’zniut?

It is important that we find ways not to make matters worse by oversensualizing every potential encounter between men and women. Men have to be able to interact normally and naturally with women in society in reasonable situations.

What are limitations when it comes to t’zniut enforcement in schools?

The first thing is the importance of separating the discussion of t’zniut from the issue of dress code. Oftentimes, people conflate the two, especially in high school, and that is very damaging because then t’zniut is perceived as a rule, which upsets girls and causes much resentment. It is essential that a school have a dress code and most institutions do have one. In almost every situation, the enforcement of any rule should be personal and private. This is especially true of the dress code, which is so personal because it speaks to their self-image in many ways. I think it has to absolutely be private. The person who is enforcing the dress code has to be someone who has a relationship with the individual, so that it can be done in a holistic fashion. You certainly cannot embarrass people. You can never communicate personal rejection when you give any kind of rebuke, let alone in matters related to dress code. 

Let’s say a teacher or principal did embarrass a student when rebuking her for not adhering to the dress code. Would that require asking for forgiveness?

Yes, I think it is good practice - and chinuch - to ask people who you have embarrassed for forgiveness. Just like students are supposed to have respect for their teachers, the reverse is also true; educators should demonstrate respect towards their students.  

Who should be doing the t’zniut enforcement? Sometimes it might be a male administrator who is doing it. Is that in of itself a breach of t’zniut?

In every seminary that I have been involved in, there has been a very clear rule: no male member of the staff can make any comment at all about an individual’s dress or appearance, whether it is a negative or a positive. Both of those cross lines in different ways and are inappropriate. It should be a female who has a specific role in the enforcement of dress code violations, someone the students have a relationship with already.  

How do you deal with a student who has been harmed with overly strict enforcement of t’zniut rules?

In seminary, we have a more broad and sophisticated conversation about tzniut. So we can readdress the issue of t’zniut starting from scratch. Obviously, there are people who have been scarred from their experiences with t’zniut enforcement. Some things are inexcusable. One particular student said to me that she was having a conversation with a staff member from her high school about how she was not willing to wear a longer dress because it was hot outside. The staff member responded that it was going to be a lot hotter in Gehinnom. I do not think that is helpful on any level; a comment like that can be damaging for life.

 This article is based on Shiur 372 (5/28/22), Is Tznius Dressing All About Insuring The Men Don’t Look? Does Overly Strict Enforcement In Schools Cause Trauma For Years To Come? from the Halachic Headlines podcast, hosted by Rabbi Dovid Lichtenstein. This episode was guest hosted by Rabbi Ari Wasserman.

By Shalom Meirov