Live from the Lilith Blog

July 9, 2009 by

Blaming the world's tragedies on women's immodest dress

In Hendonistan, there’s a new message that’s been circulated via email and posted on relevant notice boards inside one particular shul (although by the time you read this, I understand the notice will have been taken down). In a paean to Mea Shearim typography, the black and red banner in this popular Orthodox London shul requests that girls and women maintain proper halakhic [according to Jewish law] standards of dress in shul. They are to refrain from ‘low necklines, see-through and short-sleeve tops and short skirts.’ And finally, there is the classic plea ‘Please help us to preserve the Kedushat Beit Haknesset.’ [sanctity of the synagogue]. Yes, all that holiness resting on the errant elbow of a Hendon housewife.

In Hendonistan, formerly known as Hendon, large numbers of Muslim women wearing their jilbab and hijab share the streets with young Orthodox women in their swirling denim skirts that sweep the ground. ‘At least,’ think all the women in sheitels and long sleeves, ‘we don’t have to cover up ourselves like THEM. We’re so NORMAL.’ Yes, it’s perfectly normal, as some rabbis have cited, to blame the tragedies of the world on the immodest dress of women.

The case of the three yeshiva students in a Japanese jail for allegedly smuggling some drugs is a recent example that highlights this worldview. In the May 1st edition of the Five Towns Jewish Times, there is an advertisement written in the name of Mrs. Goldstein, the mother of one of the boys in jail. Distressed by her son’s situation, she explained that Harav Hatzadik Rabbi Yakov Meir Schechter was asked what could be done for the young men. “The tzaddik’s answer was precise. A hisorrerus [awakening] – in tznius [modesty] will surely be a big z’chus for the yeshua [salvation].”

The advertisement continues with emotional blackmail; “The commitment of righteous women to improve in any area of Tznius carries more weight than all efforts combined. Your contribution in the form of a personal undertaking can be the deciding factor in their fate. Who can remain idle at this time?”

There is also a small outlined box for you to fill in “I, so and so, daughter of so and so, hereby, bli neder (without making a promise) undertake … upgrade my tznius performance by …” Three blank lines are left for you to fill in before sending the note to Mrs Goldstein in Monsey, New York. Conveniently, a few suggestions are offered in addition to the usual hem length advice:

* Refrain from brisk walking as a form of exercise
* Refrain from eating/drinking in public areas, especially where men are present
* Shoes/heels/fitted with a rubber sole
* Learning hilchos tznius (the laws of tzniut) daily.

What is a woman meant to make of this? Holding women’s actions accountable for the fate of these young men serves to abrogate the personal responsibility of those who committed the crime. How is a man meant to respond? Is he really meant to believe that his mother/wife/daughter/sister is the harbinger of all bad tidings pending her fashion sense? Has thousands of years of Jewish history and our complex relationship with the Divine been reduced to a schmutter [piece of cloth]?

In Hendonistan, there is no shortage of rabbis and teachers willing to instruct women how to dress appropriately. Treating the women like children who need to be reprimanded is foolish – their only sin is perhaps too much disposable income with which to buy the latest fashions. While some women simply scoff at this modesty policing, many teenage girls are having a visceral reaction to the way that some lessons in school are hijacked to remind them of the importance of modesty. Critical and condescending teachers are not going to save the Jewish people.

However, if you are concerned about your wardrobe, there are some solutions for a modesty makeover. Try Sleevies – a sleeve extension with an elastic band at the upper arm that you pop underneath the original short sleeve. You can transform your whole wardrobe with this simple device that creates a ¾ sleeve on every top. For suspect necklines, wear a TeeNeck which is a “shirt supplement designed to wear with a lower cut top.” Or if you’re nifty with a needle, a new book by Rifka Glazer is all you’ll need. Seams and Souls: A Dressing, Altering and Sewing Guide for the Modest Woman published by Feldheim (who else?) claims to be a ‘a comprehensive guide to sewing and shopping for clothing that conforms to the proper standard of tznius. It will help you decide which clothing to buy and which to avoid or discard because they cannot be altered to meet halachic standards, plus it offers many creative solutions for tznius problems.” There is a wide range of creative tips and techniques for tznius solutions for sewers at all levels and over 250 modest, easy-to-follow diagrams for altering the most problematic parts of garments.

In Hendonistan, I am afraid that sewing up the seam will lead to sewing up the soul.

–Modesty Blasé


  • http://www.rashisdaughters.com Maggie Anton

    Why not go all the way and have women wear burkas? Then again, maybe those yeshiva bochers should just stop smuggling drugs.

    Maggie Anton
    http://www.rashisdaughters.com

  • Tovah batPnina

    Why take responsibility for your own actions when you can simultaneously blame someone else, and blackmail them into behaving as you want?

    Halakha is why I no longer practice Judaism, while calling myself Jewish. These people are an embarrassment, frankly, and it is appalling that we allow them to set the rules for the rest of us – especially in Israel.

  • Anonymous

    Let the men smell like rotten eggs because of heavy clothing in the warm weather. I will never allow Judaism to rob me of my connection to the real world, meaning the sun on my face, wind in my hair, and cool breezes on my bare arms. I am Jewish in my heart and soul, but I answer to my own internal life.

  • http://thelongestwar.wordpress.com/ Jude

    My blog has recently featured global patriarchy’s offerings of fashion hatred directed against womankind by deranged males in power. Let’s call the male behavior what it is: deranged, also dangerous (to women, to all of life in dominant male refusal to address male problems as calling for male solutions). Thank you for this addition to what’s becoming a long list of misogyny masquerading as concern about women’s clothing.

  • http://www.womenssundresses.net Womens Sun Dresses

    I appreciate your suggestions on how to make something immodest more modest. This is certainly appropriate when attending any type of worship. However requiring women to wear something that covers every square inch of their body is indeed a little excessive.

  • Barbara Godding

    wearing long sleeves in hot weather I don’t thinhk so you can tell your Jewish women how to dress but you can’t tell non Jewish women what they can and cannot wear be careful who you say that to or you will be probably beaten up or even shot in this day and age

  • http://sundressesforwomen.net Sundresses for Women

    I don’t think people are going to dictate what you can and can’t wear, but in certain situations it’s their right to do so i.e. private places.

    No one can make rules about public dress other than government and I don’t think their are too many people foolish enough to push their personal views on others.

  • http://www.eclothes.us Helena

    Very lovely ….

  • http://www.fryeboots.org Steve

    However requiring women to wear something that covers every square inch of their body is indeed a little excessive.
    Sometimes is not, it depends. Interesting point of view for sure!

  • http://sandalsforwomen.org Sandals for Women

    I guess it depends on where you are born. For those of us born in the west we think of it as being oppressive covering so much skin. But for those born in those countries perhaps they feel uncomfortable showing too much skin. As long as one is happy with what they are wearing why should other peoples opinions matter right ?

  • http://www.nextlevelapparel.com blank clothing

    “Modesty” is something that is relevant to where you are from, religion, how you were raised etc. I believe women should all be a little modest, but like I said modesty is something that can’t be defined in an exact way of dress.

  • http://skirtsforjuniors.org Skirts for Juniors

    What about children ? Is it possible for them to be immodest ? A little girl on the beach topless is nothing right ? Or a naked boy but once they hit puberty is when the “modesty” principle comes into play ? Yes ? No ?

  • http://nightwearforwomen.org Nightwear for Women

    Modesty is definitely related to your background. Just compare a topless woman on a beach in Spain (totally normal for them) to a muslim woman wearing a full head to toe covering. Both is considered modest to that part of the world. Modesty is in the eye of the beholder I guess.

  • Barbara Godding

    well If I want to wear immodest clothes that is my business not theirs. they have no right telling people what they can or cannot wear