Monday, May 30, 2011

The Tzniut Project 9: Letter and Spirit of the Law

This is the ninth in a multi-part series called The Tzniut Project. Women from a variety of backgrounds with a variety of observances have volunteered to anonymously answer questions that I have written about their practices, people's assumptions, and more. For more information on the project, click here. Please continue to check back with The Tzniut Project to read more stories and comment abundantly!

Note: This post is contributed by a reader.

1. How do you affiliate Jewishly? Feel free to elaborate on the words people use to describe you and the words you use to describe yourself.
I would call myself Modern Orthodox and Daati Leumi (religious Zionist). I also identify with being ba'alat teshuva, a person who grew up unobservant and who took upon herself to observe halacha.

2. Growing up, did your mother or grandmother dress modestly in any way? Do you think modesty was something instilled in you by your family? Did you dress modestly growing up?
Modesty in a more general sense as a quality of personal character was instilled in me by my family. As a child and a teenager, I dressed on the more conservative side with regard to my peers. This was of course without regard to halacha, but rather just out of my own sense of what was comfortable, appropriate, and sometimes simply because I wasn't so confident in how I looked.

3. Are you married? How does your spouse feel about your choices for modest dress? Is it a dialogue or does your partner leave the mitzvah to you?
I got married very recently. Tzniut, including dress and haircovering, has occasionally been a point of discussion, but mostly my husband leaves the choices up to me. I know that he appreciates that my body is not on display for the whole world to see.

4. What would you wear on a typical day? On Shabbos? If you dress differently on weekdays and Shabbos, why do you make this distinction and how?
On a typical day I wear a knee-length skirt. In the winter I wear a skirt down to my ankles, usually with sweatpants underneath (it's like wearing pajamas all day long but still looking nice!) When I'm exercising I wear pants or tights with one of these skirts I bought that's meant for exercising in (probably a tennis skirt). It's my compromise between following the opinion that pants are okay for working out in, my own personal belief that pants are often more modest than a skirt, reasoning that the skirt covers the most important areas and also that it identifies that outfit as female (to address the cross-dressing argument for not wearing pants). In the summer though, I really suffer in the heat and don't like wearing two layers. I have occasionally worn just pants, especially when jogging in non-religious neighborhoods, because it's far from the most scandalous outfit around.

5. What do you think other people infer from your clothing and hair covering choices? Has anyone ever said anything to you outright that expresses a judgment based on your appearance? (Ex: “You don’t cover your hair or wear skirts, so why do you keep kosher?”)
I think about this a lot. I wish that I cared less about what other people thought, but it's so much of being human. Plus, a lot of tzniut halacha is community-based. So, from a halachic perspective, you sort of have to care.

I try to convey the image of modern but frum. I bike to work in a skirt (shorts underneath), tails of my mitpachat flapping in the wind.

I live in Israel, and Jerusalem at that, so if I wear a skirt or a headcovering, almost everyone would interpret that as a symbol that I'm an observant Jew. If I were back in the U.S., that part would be different. Here it also makes a statement about what kind of Jew I am.

I've walked through Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) neighborhoods wearing a knee-length jean skirt and a top with bright colors and feeling downright provocative. On the other hand, I've noticed that non-religious male cashiers will sometimes put the change down instead of handing it to me -- figuring that I'm so frum that I won't want to touch them. Everything is relative, really.

6. Have you ever surprised someone by dressing more or less modestly and making them rethink their stereotypes about what it means to be an observant Jew?
I don't think so. I think of my Jewish dress code of wearing skirts (except for certain limited sporting activities) as similar to men wearing a kippah. It's a statement that I'm a Jew.

Probably the most surprising thing that I've done in this realm that I'm aware of is to cover my hair. I wrote a blog post about my gripes about the practice, and after reading it, most people who know me naturally thought that I wouldn't follow through and do it. I'm still in the process of clarifying my thoughts on this matter. Although I'd like to act according to my way of following halacha, here is an instance in which I look elsewhere, because the halacha is unclear to me (and I don't have a rabbi to ask right now, and I'm not sure I want to ask a rabbi about this). Simply, my female religious role models cover their hair, as do most women in the communities in which I identify. I would like to identify and be identified with them.

7. When you see someone who observes tzniut differently than you, what are your initial thoughts? How do you deal with them?
I always try to recognize that it's not a simple matter. I try to be careful to note that how a person dresses is that -- how they dress. For instance, just because I see a woman who is dressed tznuah eating in a restaurant, I will not assume that the restaurant is kosher. I'll figure that there is a good chance it is, sure, but I won't jump to a conclusion.

The truth is that I definitely judge other people and other Jews by what they do or don't wear. I don't particularly like it, but I can't help it. I automatically assume that a woman that covers every inch of her hair is a very religious woman, even though I recognize intellectually that tzniut or a way of dressing, is a way of relating oneself and/or to God, or maybe it's just to fit in socially. It doesn't make someone actually more religious.

8. I say modesty or tzniut … what does that mean to you?
It means preserving a sense of self, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I don't show off my whole body; I don't pour out all of my thoughts and emotions without a filter. And yes, I also think that today it means the length of your sleeves, as silly as that may be.

9. Anything else you’d like to add about your choices, experiences, and more!
Something I see a lot of, especially in the United States, is women who have all the right parts covered, but they're wearing a material or a cut that is so sexy that it's really not tznua. I believe that details such as sleeve length were meant to be guidelines that keep focus in the right area, but just as with any piece of halacha, one can keep the letter, but not the spirit of the law.

On another note, I've met mothers who have told me that they won't let their children eat in the homes of friends whose mothers don't cover their hair. I find this totally preposterous!

Lastly, I want to share a gripe that tzniut has been explained to me as a way to keep men away from temptation. I don't buy it. Before I was observant, I noticed that there were many days that I wore more covering clothing such as a turtleneck and received unexpected additional male attention. Men need to be responsible for themselves.