Q: In recent years, a question has come up in religious high schools for girls: How to react towards girls who are not careful about dressing modestly? Is it appropriate to punish someone who does not come to school in accordance with the rules? Or perhaps the proper way is to explain in depth the importance of modesty, and let these girls come to their own conclusion about which clothes are proper to wear? Should the rabbi or principal of the high school deal with this, or should it be left to the female teachers? And in a broader sense, how is it that, generally speaking, we are in a process of religious strengthening, to the point where even some religious people themselves complain about “religious extremism”, while on the other hand, in regards to modesty there has been a decline?
What Occurred in Recent Years
A: First, it is necessary to explain why this problem has surfaced specifically in recent years. As a person serving in the important role of father to nine girls, some young girls, others young women, I have learned that in recent years, the question of modesty in women’s dress has become a painful issue. For quite a few years, the trend-setters in the global fashion industry “permitted” the wearing of long skirts. True, it was not always considered the most “in” style, but in the sphere of post-modern pluralism, permission was given to wear skirts in several lengths, and therefore the religious women, together with certain concessions, could manage. With the backing of this temporary tolerance, there even developed a unique style of women settlers wearing long skirts that touched the floor, slightly laid-back, along with some contemporary touches. A line of clothes transmitting simplistic elegance, combined with an alleged guarantee of unique individualism.
The problem is that lately, long skirts are genuinely out of fashion. The trend-setters in the industry decided that long is “out”, sending the religious women into a state of confusion. On the one hand, they have a commitment to the Master of the World and His holy Torah, but on the other hand, how can they defy the decree of the fashion industry?! How can they show their faces in public after all the TV stations and secular media transmitted unequivocal hints from the leading fashion guru’s that “long is pass?”, and anyone who continues wearing long, is truly “out of touch”, and anyway, there are no more long skirts or dresses to be found in the popular stores?
Then there are those women who adamantly claim that they adore and crave the new style, and just by chance, they happen to be in style right now. And the proof that they are not affected by the current trend whatsoever is that when, all alone, standing in front of the mirror, this is their inner feeling. And anyway, it’s not important to them to look beautiful in the eyes of someone else, but most importantly, that they look good in their own eyes, and wear something that underscores their inner beauty…
They don’t realize that all their concepts of beauty blow in the winds wafting out of the major fashion houses in the West, who, for financial reasons, recruit talented artists in order to periodically renew fashion lines. At first, they dress actresses, models, and other celebrities in the new line, and then sell a limited number of them to women who “truly understand” clothing (i.e. those who can pay thousands of dollars). For a few weeks, they let all the other women observe and envy them, and afterwards, begin producing a wider range in this line for women whose understanding of clothes is slightly less, but are still good judges (i.e. those who are able to pay hundreds of dollars for a piece of clothing). Within weeks, the various factories make an exerted effort to quickly copy the new line, so they too can ride the wave, and sell high-priced clothing; true, not as expensive as the leading fashion houses, but certainly way more than the cost of the fabric and production. And this is where the financial interests of the prestigious fashion houses combine with the large factories.
In the meantime, women in Israel start to grumble that because they live in the Middle East, the “correct” clothing hasn’t arrived. Instantaneously, however, they can be found at “Kikar Hamedina” (an exclusive Tel Aviv shopping area), and later, in other stores. This is the stage where the religious women, out of ‘total choice’, come to the novel conclusion that these areexactly the type of clothes they always wanted to wear. There remains only one dilemma: what to do about the conflict created between religion and conscience.
It’s bad enough when a person realizes he is influenced by the mode, but when everything from the hair on his head down to his toenails is a complete imitation, but nevertheless, he claims that everything is done out of total choice and originality, this is rather humiliating.
An Independent Man
About twenty years ago, young men in Israel started wearing their hair parted in the middle, something that only women had done up until then. I talked to one of them, and he told me about his troubles in high school, how his teacher was very much opposed to his hairdo, and almost threw him out of the yeshiva because of it. Nevertheless, he felt his hairstyle truly expressed his individualism, and in order to be faithful to himself, he had to confront the powerful, religious establishment opposing him. Therefore, even though he respected his teacher, he felt conscience-bound to maintain his individualism.
At first, I sort of admired his individualism, while at the same time, wondering a bit about his teacher confronting him over something that did not transgress halacha. I mentioned this to a friend, and he told me that this hairstyle was a trend that started a year before amongst severalHollywood actors and their young fans imitate them, and this is how the hairstyle spread among young people all over the world. Only then did I realize that this “individualistic” guy is one of the last in a series of hundreds of millions of imitators, and all his reasoning was backwards! He considered himself a fighter of justice, standing alone against a vast and powerful establishment, while the truth is that it is Judaism which stands as an island of faith and vision for ‘tikun olam’ (perfection of the world), against a torrential and raving ocean of mimicry and running after worldly possessions.
I then realized that his teacher’s struggle was not against the hairdo, but against the phenomenon of imitation, as the Torah commands, “Do not follow [any] of their customs”.
About Israel’s Problems
Afterwards, people sit in their living rooms and ask themselves why the Israeli government surrenders to international pressure from time to time, not daring to declare our total right to the Land of Israel as written in the Bible, and our obligation to settle the Land entirely. When religious and Haredi women cannot find the courage in their hearts to keep the rules of halacha in opposition to the trend dictated by fashion designers, and even clothing stores that emerged for their needs, promising to be independent, fail to be faithful to halacha, Prime Ministers and government officials also find it difficult to deviate from what international public opinion permits them to say…
And on a higher, spiritual level, the sages of Israel are unable to provide a vision for ‘tikun olam’, because they must constantly respond to the actions of others, maintaining the survival of Judaism, rather than drawing holy and pure water from the wells of Israel’s original sources, thereby bringing salvation and redemption to the world.
Independence is connected to modesty. When people are too eager to please others, and to do so, are willing to change according to shifting trends, it is impossible to listen to one’s independent, inner voice.
The Positive Side of the Problem
Therefore, it is very good that this problem has surfaced in recent years, because by dealing with it, we can clarify Israel’s unique role of being a light unto the nations.
Perhaps our ability to deal with the problem at this time, heralds our reaching the point where we are able to innovate meaningful and valuable ideas in the world, and to do so, we first need to reinforce individuality and modesty.
How to Handle the Problem
Despite the profound ideas that lie behind the laws of modesty, when dealing with the problem, one should not discuss these ideas, rather, only speak about the dignity reflected in it and its framework.
My sister-in-law, who teaches in a secular high school in Arad, told me that in her school the administration set dress rules for students, such as: it is forbidden to wear tank-tops, shorts, and thongs. Representatives of the administration stand at the entrance of the school and do not allow anyone who is not dressed according to the rules to enter. Thus, there are no cases of students breaking the rules.
This is also what needs to be done in religious high schools – to set simple and clear rules according to halacha, and enforce them consistently. In this way, there will be no need to deal or talk about the issue.
Another very important principle is that only female teachers and administrators should handle the issue, completely removing the male teachers and rabbis from dealing with it.
Do Not Follow [any] of their Customs”
In addition, and irrespective of enforcing the rules, it is necessary to explain in detail the importance and virtues of modesty, and to emphasize first the independence entailed in modesty, because this is the simple, encompassing, and most basic concept, whose foundation is established in the commandment of the Torah: “Do not follow [any] of their customs” (Va’yikra 18:3). The meaning is not to follow after the promiscuous practices of the Gentiles, and not to be influenced by their religion and faith.
Modesty protects our independent way of thinking, and our freedom of spirit. After all, we embarked to freedom from slavery in Egypt, in order to receive the holy Torah and reveal its light in the Land of Israel, and thus, bring perfection and redemption to the world. How can we betray our sacred mission, willingly placing ourselves under the yoke of Gentile culture, by being senselessly dragged after trends determined in a foreign land?
The Importance of Love and Beauty
Together with education of modesty, a great deal of caution must be taken not to cause suppression of vital forces, but rather, to direct and empower them. This deep foundation cannot be explained in the short space remaining, but I must allude that true modesty is designed to increase the love between a married couple, in all the dimensions in which a person expresses himself – from the most spiritual, to the most physical.
It also must be mentioned that there is great importance for a woman to wear nice and appropriate clothing which pay tribute to her being created in the image of God, because this is part of an individual’s whole personality, which also finds expression in beauty. But in order to make sure this beauty does not overflow into negative directions, there are halachic boundaries protecting it in its proper proportions.