What are your standards of modesty when it comes to clothing? Do your kids know what these are?
As a religious Jew, I dress in a certain way. To sum it up briefly: I wear long sleeves, long skirts, and I cover my hair. But don’t assume for a second that it’s been easy, or that it is easy for me on any given day. It isn’t.
And it hasn’t been easy sharing these ideas with my children – sons and daughters – along the way, either.
The other day, though, a friend shared a post on Facebook by a parent who proudly wrote that she doesn't enforce any modesty standards in her kids. She wrote that "Modesty is too subjective and true modesty is about attitude and our heart."
(The page it was posted on has two owners; I'm going to assume it's the mother, Jessica Martin-Weber, who's writing. Apologies if I’m wrong!)
I agree with Jessica Martin-Weber’s second claim in part – yes, attitude and intention are important! - but not necessarily with the first.
Where does the idea that modesty is "subjective" come from? Well, as she claims, "The definition of modest dress has and will continue to change through history and across cultures." True enough. But our children don't come from a range of historical time periods, or a range of cultures.
My children live in the here and now, and I believe teaching them standards of modesty is an important part of teaching them about THEMSELVES: not a range of cultures, but their own culture.
First of all, kids have to be aware of what modesty isn't. It's not about shame. It's not about hiding your body because there's something wrong with it, or with bodies in general.
We absolutely have to start from a perspective of positivity and even wonder. Bodies are beautiful because Hashem made them. Every day, we say a bracha over and over praising Hashem for the amazing way our bodies are put together.
That’s where you have to start from. And then you build.
In her post, Jessica Martin-Weber offers a series of questions parents can ask kids to encourage them to dress in a thoughtful way. Her questions are in general very practical and sensible - dress for the weather, dress for the activity, and so on. Those things don't seem to clash with dressing in a modest way.
One of her questions frankly horrified me, though. I can’t wrap my mind around the idea of asking a child, particularly a squirmy teenage daughter, “Are your genitals adequately protected?” Maybe Jessica Martin-Weber lives in a world where her kids won’t run away at that question, but mine absolutely would.
“Are your genitals adequately protected?”
It sounds like something a VD researcher would ask.
By the time I’d gotten out the first 3 words, my kids would definitely have stopped listening. And honestly, this question is ridiculous. Protecting our genitals, really? Is that why we get dressed? I’m Scottish by marriage, so there are things I know about traditional dress codes that I’d really rather not and there are many reasonable clothing standards that actually don’t do this.
She also mentions bacteria as part of this question, which is also frankly ridiculous. Sure, maybe you can get athlete’s foot by running around in bare feet on a damp change room floor. But can you get “athlete’s bum” by sitting on a public bench with your bare bottom exposed? I guess it’s possible, but it’s not my biggest concern when it comes to how we dress (nor is the possibility of splinters if the bench is made of wood).
No, my biggest source of discomfort is when it comes to the moral dimension. Because here, Jessica Martin-Weber sidesteps what I see as a big part – perhaps THE biggest part – of being a parent: offering moral guidance.
When it comes to morality, she offers a question for kids that seems intentionally vague and subjective: "Are YOU comfortable with the parts of your body that are showing and that others may notice those parts and though we are not responsible for the actions of others, how will you feel if someone says something about that?"
She comes to this position on modesty from a strict Christian upbringing, as she has written: "I grew up hearing a lot, and I really do mean A LOT about modesty. In fact, I wasn’t allowed to wear pants, make-up, short skirts, bathing suits without a cover, shorts, etc. All in “deference” to my “brothers in Christ” for fear of making them stumble."
You get that a lot in the Jewish world, too, the idea that women and girls should dress modestly so we don't cause men to stumble. But I don't think that's really the point at all.
But as Felicia Epstein writes in this well-thought-out editorial,
We should not cast girls as the seductresses and the boys as the ones who desire. The increasing trend towards obsession with female "modesty" does not stop with dress but is part of a wider trend to remove girls and women and their voices from the public sphere. These restrictive approaches are sought to be justified on the basis that women must maintain a certain sense of ‘modesty.’ Modesty is cited as the basis for guidelines for women's and girls' dress and becomes synonymous with how ‘religious’ a Jewish girl or woman is.
I like this because of what she goes on to say, which is that modesty is valuable, and yes, it is perhaps subjective in a way that Jessica Martin-Weber is not considering: modesty in Judaism is part of choosing to belong to a Jewish community.
Most standards of modesty are determined not by halacha from the Torah but by daas Yehudis, the decisions made by Jewish women over the years. This relies on an innate communal sense of modesty. So it is subjective, because these days, we don’t live in a shtetl. We choose a Jewish community to live in, and then we follow the standards of the women in that community.
I read a book years and years ago by a person who was converting to Judaism because – at least as it seemed from the book – because nothing was right about Judaism, so once she was a Jew, she was determined to change almost everything. And I thought about how strange that was, that you would choose to belong to a community in order to change that community. Bizarre. That doesn’t mean Judaism gets everything right, but at some point, shouldn’t you just say “there’s too much here that needs fixing” and choose another religion?
The same thing may be true about choosing a Jewish community and following its standards of dress. Choosing a community is about taking a stand, getting down off the fence and identifying, for better or for worse.
Let me first repeat that dressing modestly has been a very big challenge for me over the years. But the times when it has been hardest have been the times when I felt most marginalized and least like I belonged, both to the community, and to Hashem. The times when it is easiest to dress modestly (and yes, I believe “properly”) are when I feel most connected, both to Hashem and to the Jewish people dressing modestly around me.
Because dressing in a frum way has been so hard for me for so long, and been so closely associated with my spiritual ups and downs, it has come to feel like an integral part of the religious striving that I believe every Jew needs to do... the continually-upward struggle to do better, to live better, to connect better.
For me, dressing modestly means I am NOT on the fence about who I am and where I belong. I am taking a stand and making the point that being Jewish, this kind of Jewish, goes with me everywhere I go. My husband wears a kippah, I wear a skirt. It’s the uniform of a proud Jew, and I try to teach my children to wear this uniform with pride.
We had an interesting conversation at the Shabbos table the other day about modesty. GZ was talking about someone in the Tanach who was very “modest” and said also that Har Sinai was chosen because it was “modest.”
When he was finished talking, I said this was an interesting point, but asked afterwards, “Do you mean ‘humble’?”
It seems to me that there are actually two words – modesty and humility, in Hebrew,ענוה and צניעות (anava and tzniut/tznius) – that work very closely together. That are sometimes indistinguishable. (GZ insisted that he meant “modest” even after I explained what each one meant.)
Moshe, for instance, is praised as being the humblest person, anav mikol adam. But in a sense, though we translate this as humble, it could also be seen as modest. Moshe had a “modest” funeral and mourning period compared to his siblings, by which we mean not much of one. Was it modesty, or humility, according to our tradition, that led to our not knowing where his burial place is?
Felicia Epstein actually mentions this close connection between the two words in her article.
We need to teach modesty in Jewish schools to both girls and boys within the wider context of behaviour. That modesty is a value that should inform how both girls and boys ought to behave in the world; that, like Moses, we should aim to achieve a sense of humility in how we treat other people, accepting that we are all equal before God; that while in biblical times women were honoured for their modesty in their private roles, as expressed in the saying from Psalms "The honour of the daughter of the king is within", that does not prescribe women's roles or what modesty is today; that women are not compromising their adherence to modesty by being active participants in public life today.
Modesty, privacy, humility – these ideas all go together, and by telling our kids that modesty ONLY means measuring your skirts with a ruler, as Jessica Martin-Weber seems to be saying, we are avoiding bigger issues and side-stepping the need to offer our kids moral guidance.
If that’s what you mean by modesty, then sure, I can see the value in throwing it away, as far and as fast as you can.
But if modesty is intertwined with a whole bunch of other concepts, as it is within Judaism, and contextualized in the broader meaning of a person’s spiritual life’s work, then perhaps it’s something worth not only maintaining, but passing along to our children.
Jessica Martin-Weber wraps up her post by saying, “With our girls we never, ever tell them something isn't ok to wear for modesty reasons.”
And I can’t help wondering, “If parents don’t, who will?”
Don’t get me wrong. This doesn’t mean expecting your kids to grow up as carbon copies of who you are and what you do. Past a certain point, you can’t tell them who they are – past that point, if you’ve raised them right, to know their own minds and question authority in a healthy way, they’re going to start telling you, and you won’t always like what they say.
But as a starting point, yes, I do believe it’s my job as a parent to tell my sons and my daughters who we are – a religious Jewish family – and what that means. It may not mean obsessing over sleeve lengths (though I do, sometimes), but overall, it does mean telling them that everything they do – and in particular, the outward projection of identity that is unavoidable through their choice of clothing – has meaning.
Reducing the problem of modesty to “Is it a fancy or casual occasion?” and “How protected do your genitals feel?” is an oversimplification as grievous as that of misguided rabbis who release books full of diagrams of the female body with lines showing where the clothes ought to go. When you separate modesty from morality then, sure, it quickly starts to sound ridiculous and antiquated.
But when you weave the two together, you have one crucial ingredient in a recipe for a meaningful Jewish life.