Wear this, or wear that.

Let’s try a little exercise:

If I mention the Jewish concept of modesty, tzni-ut in Hebrew, often referred to by its Yiddish pronunciation, tznius, what comes to mind? Stop reading for a minute and picture what modesty means within the Jewish religion. Then come up with some images in your mind.

Scroll down when you’re done.










Ready? Do you have some images in mind which reflect how we are supposed to exemplify tzni-ut in the context of Jewish practice and congregational life?

I bet I can guess right now what you thought of.

I predict that any or all of the images that came to your mind included things like women wearing wigs. Shoulders covered. Wearing skirts. Long sleeves.

How’d I do? If I succeeded in reading your mind, you have to like and share this blog post. That’s only fair.

So are you seeing a common thread? Modesty, tznius, is often just another excuse for the marginalization of women in the Jewish religion. You can be there, but don’t be seen. Don’t call attention to yourself. Don’t be a distraction to the men who are busy doing the real business of Judaism.

The Orthodox world has codified this concept–they proscribe even the sound of a woman’s voice, the so-called Kol Isha. According to this rule, a singing woman is so seductive and sensuous, the males will be unable to concentrate on their prayers and focus on the service.

But this is not just a screed against Orthodox Judaism–this message is alive and well in all of our seemingly modern, enlightened, and inclusive congregations. Why does every set of directions to future B’nei Mitzvah families include so many directions on proper dress for the service? And within those directions, why do we focus primarily on what the girls will be wearing?

Now of course we have standards for how we would like people to appear when they’re in temple, and especially on the bimah. And certainly we all have stories of wardrobe fails–sneakers, prom-like dresses, jeans, cocktail attire at 9:00 am–it goes on and on.

Yet like all the dress code rules in effect in schools, the burden falls mostly on our girls. Cover up as much of yourself as possible. Make sure your dress comes down at least this far. No shoulders! (We are obsessed with the scandal of bare shoulders even though the entire female professional world successfully wears sleeveless dresses to work everyday.)

We are communicating an insidious message: The congregation and the Jewish religion thinks that you–each one of you girls–should be ashamed of your bodies. Cover yourselves up. Completely. If the boys or other men are tempted to look at you and think a certain way, that’s your fault. You did that. YOU ARE A DISTRACTION.

When I have to explain the standards of proper dress for services to families, I like to keep it simple: Dress appropriately–period. Yes, I know what you’re thinking. But the vast majority of people know perfectly well what that means. I find it objectionable to use the “what to wear to services” conversation as a set of prohibitions about all the ways that girls’ outfits can be inappropriate.

The real definition of modesty has nothing to do with covering up your body. It’s about self-respect. It’s about how you act and how you speak around others. It’s about wearing a kipah in shul because you realize that you’re not the most important person in the world. It’s about giving tzedakah anonymously. It’s about doing for others rather than wondering what’s in it for you.

Let’s allow our girls to spend more time practicing their Torah readings rather than worrying that their dresses might offend the congregation.

Cantor Matt Axelrod has served Congregation Beth Israel of Scotch Plains, NJ since 1990. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and a national officer of the Cantors Assembly. Cantor Axelrod is the author of Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider's Guide, and Your Guide to the Jewish Holidays: From Shofar to Seder.

2 comments on “Wear this, or wear that.

  1. Pingback: Male Cantor Privilege – Cantor Matt Axelrod

  2. Pingback: Some Congregants are More Equal Than Others – Cantor Matt Axelrod

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