The Book You’ve Been Waiting For
There is no gainsaying the importance of tznius in the life of the Torah Jew and the Torah community. Yet, few issues have contributed more to young people losing their enthusiasm for Torah – and often their entire connection to it – than misunderstandings and misapplications of the concepts of tznius.
Have you often quietly screamed, “This is madness!” when hearing about some new innovation in the area? If you haven’t, there is a considerable chance that your teen-aged daughter has. And that she has a friend who is approaching the off-ramp from Yiddishkeit because of it.
Finally, someone has done something about it. If you’ve sworn to yourself never to read another paragraph extolling the virtues of what the Gra called the avodah that is to women what learning Torah is to men (Relax. He didn’t! That’s just another distortion.), you can safely read Reclaiming Dignity, by Bracha Poliakoff and Rabbi Anthony Manning. I can almost guarantee that it will bring the reader new insights into the true nature of tznius, and renewed confidence in the halachic system. I believe that it is the antidote to a significant cynicism (perhaps well-deserved) that has grown in the serious Orthodox world over the years.
There are two parts to the work. The first is a compilation of twenty-six essays, the vast majority by women, brought together by Bracha Poliakoff. Contributors come from all parts of the Orthodox world. The second is a halachic analysis of tznius, theoretical and applied, masterfully put together by Rabbi Manning, a close talmid of Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits. Nothing I say could add more gravitas to his work than the three approbations on the back cover: R. Aharon Lopiansky, R. Hershel Schachter, and R. Yosef Tzvi Rimon.
My interest in halacha took me straight to the second part of the book. For a halacha sefer, it was certainly a page-turner. What follows is not a full review, but a trailer/teaser. It’s a sampler of what you can expect to find if you follow up and mine the sefer for meaning.
- Tznius is obligatory upon both men and women.
- The woman’s version is not about her lifnei iveir obligation to protect men from their instincts. That is the man’s business, not hers.
- Tznius is not about covering up, as if those who opt for maximum cover are doing a better job of it. Those who say it is are creating a distorted conception of women in both genders.
- Communities that go for “stricter” standards are not more tzniusdik. They are just different. A woman who follows the standards of her halachic community should not feel less observant, or more “modern.”
- Announcing with glee that you’ve found no halachic basis for a particular standard is not helpful, and misleading. Communities can set their own standards of dat Yehudit (get the book, and you’ll find out what it means), and they become legally binding on members of that community. However, this can’t be done by rabbis – or rebbetzins. Only the acceptance of such a standard by its women (not clear if that ever happens) makes it normative.
- On the other hand, some standards are simply policy decisions of particular institutions. They are not rooted in objective Torah law, nor in communal dat Yehudit. If you don’t like them, find a different institution.
- Teaching stringencies in general as if they were halacha is a major error.
- The indiscriminate banning of all female pictures is a misapplication of the real nature of tznius; potentially causes Torah to be mocked; is seen by many to be terribly demeaning of women; and creates a rift between rabbinic authority and frum reality.
You’ll find much, much more in the sefer. Or, for live discussion of the implications of its publication, I’ll be moderating a panel in RBS (34a Nachal Refaim, Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph) discussing the book on May 7th at 8:30PM.
Sounds exciting. It’s nice to hear differing views on Tznius and, as Rabbi Adlerstein wrote, this may aid those who are “turned off” by what is generally thought as Hilchos Tznius in being able to keep the Halachos correctly.
Looking back, it seems like Mrs. Poliakoff is no stranger to Cross Currents and has already written an article on the topic at this link: https://cross-currents.com/2019/05/06/cultivating-an-attitude-of-tznius-in-our-media/.
Kudos to her!
Any chance the panel will be recorded and shared somewhere?
I’m trying to convince them to do just that. Stay tuned….
The book I am waiting for starts with the middah of tzenius. Of not seeking the limelight. Of knowing one’s worth comes from being an indispensable part of others’ lives. Whether (to paraphrase R Shimon Shkop’s mashal) one’s role in the community’s engine is in an oft-discussed role like a piston or spark-plug, or whether one is the unnamed screw without which the oil would all leak out and the engine would melt itself into a block of metal. It too is essential to the running of the machine, and thus no less valuable than the engine, the community, as a whole.
Only then one can put tzenius in clothing into context. Into not dressing in order to get attention. As if we can be the protagonists in someone else’s life story. Using sexuality and those innate responses to get attention is just one piece in a bigger attitudinal picture.
Sidenote: I was under the impression from email discussions with R Yehudah Herzel Henkin zt”l (the Benei Banim) that “das Yehudis” isn’t a set standard, but an observational one. What, lemaaseh are people in the community wearing? From the community up to the leadership, with the poseiq’s role being descriptive rather than perscriptive.
Get the sefer. You’ll be pleasantly surprised regarding both of your observations!
When I started at YU, the whole incoming class was given a booklet with an essay on Tzniut by R’ Norman Lamm. As I recall, it talked about clothing not at all but heavily dealt with the concepts you mention. I know the essay was republished in Seventy Faces, the collection of his essays, and may be available on the internet.
Even then I realized how revolutionary that essay was compared to all the books then coming out with diagrams of collarbones.
That essay is included in this books suggested bibliography
This Hebrew volume by Rav Yaakov Meir Shechter has interesting, useful content on the topic, for both men and women:
His other books in the Osef Amarim series, and really anything by him, are also excellent.
Thank you for this thoughtful review. The book is available for purchase at https://mosaicapress.com/product/reclaiming-dignity/
I was able to peruse the book for a few hours over chag, but yes, I am planning to get it. A surprisingly moderate tone, and an encouraging one. And I am sick of most harping on tzniut.
R’ Adlerstein, do you have any serious evidence that the extreme interpretation of tznius is driving people off the derech? Everyone thinks their pet peeve is the real reason. R’ Slifkin has claimed numerous times on his blog that people go off the derech because of the cherem against his books and the rejection of his approach to Torah and science. Others say the way we handle sexual abuse drives people away. Etc. Color me skeptical.
I am confident that no matter how you define it, any definition of tznius will be at odds with the values of the surrounding secular culture. There’s an irreconcilable difference that can’t be avoided. And given the choice, it’s not surprising that some prefer the secular version. Chareidi extremism makes an easy target, but I am doubtful that a more moderate stance on tznius would help keep people in the fold.
This is not to gainsay the importance of the book. It is important to articulate a well-balanced view of tznius, but only because it is an important topic for the internal health and avodas Hashem of our community.
At any rate, thanks for bringing attention to this interesting looking sefer. Looking forward to getting a copy soon.
The simple answer is yes! All anecdotal. Some of it from people I’ve spoken to myself. (Keep in mind that all we have to go by about any phenomena within the Torah community that we discuss is based on anecdotal evidence, since we don’t invest in rigorous scientific study of issues that concern us.)
Now, it is quite possible that many other factors were/are involved in the process of getting “turned off” to Yiddishkeit. That is always something that we have to keep in mind. But we shouldn’t completely ignore the frequent citation of heavy-handed enforcement of tznius rules by those who have cooled their enthusiasm for charedi Yahadus. And these girls and women would not have reacted the same way if tznius were taught and enforced in the spirit of this new book
Why there are essentially no scientific studies of issues that concern us should be a matter of concern to all of us. I have some hypothesis’s why but irrelevant the reason to hope to help keep/attract people to Dvorak Hashemite we must know what works and doesn’t work. Obviously, given such info actions should be discussed with poskim, but we must know what and why things happen first.
It is not only a question of the excessive stringencies and distortions of tznius. It is also about the excessive focus on tznius and the constant hammering away at our girls and women, almost to the exclusion of anything else.
Two very well known and respected Rebbitzens told my friend, a prominent Rav, “Women are tired of hearing about tznius, speak to them about something else!”
(They tell a story about a frum man who failed to stop at a stop sign and almost hit another car. The woman got out and told the driver, “You know, you almost killed me.
And then there would have been a gathering to to strengthen tznius in our community!)
While it is true that even the most nuanced and balanced presentation of tznius “goes against the values of secular culture” there is one significant difference.
When presented well, it can actually appeal to sensitive women. The more prevalent approach, is an affront to sensitive women, at a very high price!
Indeed. This is the real cancel culture–the erasure of any public sign of 50% of the population.
Reb Yid, in your view, are frum Jews ever in the right? And are enemies of Torah ever in the wrong?
I myself am part of a community of religiously observant Jews.
But sadly, the vast majority (although not all) of what passes today for institutional Orthodoxy is in fact highly problematic.
“the vast majority (although not all) of what passes today for institutional Orthodoxy is in fact highly problematic”
If you have thoughts to share that could potentially enlighten, have you considered doing so as a concerned member of a religiously observant community, as opposed to what’s evidently limited to caustic and provocative taunts?
My rebbeim always taught me to start at the beginning. The source for tsnius is the possuk in Michah 6:8:
הִגִּ֥יד לְךָ֛ אָדָ֖ם מַה־טּ֑וֹב וּמָה הֹ’ דּוֹרֵ֣שׁ מִמְּךָ֗ כִּ֣י אִם־עֲשׂ֚וֹת מִשְׁפָּט֙ וְאַ֣הֲבַת חֶ֔סֶד וְהַצְנֵ֥עַ לֶ֖כֶת עִם־אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ:
That is not talking about women or clothing, specifically. It applies to that, but a lot more.
Since often that is the last passkeys of an haftorah before Rush Hashana not tied to the 3 weeks and 7 weeks of Nechama I’ve referred to the message that Chazal want us to remember. Never has anyone referred to women and clothing. It is not a ritual emphasis but behavorial, primary message of many Haftarot that Chazal picked out
The posuk in Micha, important as it is, is not and cannot be the source of the concept of tznius. That source must be found in the Torah itself. Else Micha would be introducing a new concept, which is not something that he or any other navi after Moshe Rabbenu can do.
The first place in Chumash that tznius appears, so far as I can think of, is in the aftermath of the chet of the Aitz Hadaas Tov v’Ra. There are, of course, numerous other instances, but this is the earliest (so far as I can presently recall).
As a neo-Litvak, it is my duty to question both contentions 🙂
1) אין נביא רשאי לחדש דבר applies to halachah alone. I don’t see any barrier to going to Nach to illuminate many issues. Gemara does it right and left. Not surprising at all that we would wring useful information about a midah (tznius) form Micha. And it is not just Nach that serves as the basis of new understandings. If that is not true, all followers of the Ari z”l and the Besht are in big trouble
2) I supect that the author of the book would say that you are conflating – as most people do – body exposure which is easily sexualized, with tznius, which is a constellation of other values
It’s interesting that often the defense of higher tziniut dress standards is they are necessary because of the concomitant lower standards in the outside world. I wonder why we don’t see a similar movement demanding higher standards for a tzniut lifestyle for both men and women. An example might be that institutions should not encourage expensive events for fundraising, and that smachot and holiday programs should also be less ostentatious in times where the general society focuses on ostentation. Any thoughts on why?
Why you ask?: Vie is christelled zoch, azoi yiddelte zoch. Pashut.
My personal experience, having worked at Bell Labs in Holmdel, is to marvel at dinners at that location, now called Bell Works.
“Vie is christelled zoch, azoi yiddelte zoch. Pashut.”
I think we do ourselves a disservice and are not being intellectually honest when we blame all of our shortcomings on “goyish values seeping into our community”.
We need to ask ourselves if they are not perhaps a reflection on our chinuch system and on our priorities.
MK, i don’t disagree that our education system should help shield us from adopting negative external influences. However, being a small minority it only stands to reason that almost all if not all of our bad practices come from the world around us. Thank God that our innovations bring us hiddushim and Nobel prizes as opposed to new forms of ostentatious behavior
It’s from the wish that some magic bullet will cure our flirtation with materialism. Clearly, we need a broad, coordinated strategy to battle our own crafty yetzer hara in its many changing guises. Look at our responses whenever we suffer a communal tragedy, G-d forbid. We always seem eager to make a snap judgment and find one simple cause, even when we lack the most basic information.
What does the statement of the Vilna Gaon really mean?
Mrs. C. Rubin
IMHO, all it means is that he told his mother that she was not in any need of the details of his pep-talk about various midos. She was a tznua – in the sense it is used in Tanach. That means possessing a constellation of good midos, like refinement, understatement, calmness, humility, etc. IOW, tznius in its true sense , not the more limited one of dressing modestly. Because his mother was a true tznua, she didn’t need his mussar. I have no idea how those words came to mean that tznius is the equivalent avodah to a man’s limud Torah.
I applaud a sefer that tries to inform its readers of the actual halakha, but I wonder if it will stem the tide. Sadly, I doubt it. My personal ah-ha moment came eight years ago at the 50th reunion of my Torah Vodaath class of 1965.
As a video of the late RY, Rav Pam ztl and his rebbitzen was shown, the face of the rebbitzen, then in her eighties, was hatched. I was not sure I saw it accurately, but my suspicion was confirmed by Rav Pam’s equally outraged grandson, present celebrating his 25th anniversary, and by freeze-framing the disc I was later
I have heard that this type of uber-frumkeit has led to a new humrah: do not attend shul in a makom that is open on Shabbat.
Ooooh, a book on Tzniut co-written by unrelated man and woman. Guaranteed to be banned.
While I’m encouraged by the appearance of a work that hopefully presents Tzniyus in a positive and rational light, I do not believe it will meaningfully stem the tide of those who choose to leave Torah-observance. The reason for my skepticism is because I do not agree with this statement: “Yet, few issues have contributed more to young people losing their enthusiasm for Torah – and often their entire connection to it – than misunderstandings and misapplications of the concepts of tznius.”
As Rabbi Adlerstein admits, all evidence for this is at best anecdotal. Anecdotal evidence is not evidence, it’s a collection of anecdotes, none of which can be checked for accuracy and are therefore limited in their value. It’s a popular excuse given by some who wish to breach certain standards, but, as any seasoned educator will tell you, that doesn’t mean that it’s got anything to do with it. I can think of at least five things that are far greater contributors to the problem than an insistence on Tzniyus standards.
Another troubling statement is “Communities that go for “stricter” standards are not more tzniusdik. They are just different. A woman who follows the standards of her halachic community should not feel less observant, or more “modern.””
This is too blanket a statement. There are communities where the standards are out of conformance with normative halachah and the fact that others in the community do not cover their hair, expose their upper arms and wear low necklines, does nothing to change the fact that they are not behaving in a halachically sanctioned manner. There’s nothing controversial about that statement and I find it difficult to accept that Rabbi Manning or Rabbi Berkowitz believe otherwise. This statement needs some revision for clarity.
“Another troubling statement is “Communities that go for “stricter” standards are not more tzniusdik. They are just different. A woman who follows the standards of her halachic community should not feel less observant, or more “modern.””
YA – That’s why I wrote “halachic community.” Groups of women who don’t cover their hair, or who wear plunging necklines are not part of a “halachic community.”
And to his credit, R Manning, despite writing with great tact and diplomacy, does not mince words in critiquing individuals and groups whose hashkafos are at odds with the entire ruach haTorah and/or practices have no halachic sanctions whatsoever
Your halachik community ignores those that accepted that RYBS refused to assur women going bareheaded because gdolei Lita tolerated.. Disagree with him and his followers, argue that times have changed because women in community are covering, that is true if part of community.RYBS was not the only leading gadol whose wife did not cover her hair. BTW appears much more frequent in parts of Jerusalem where Shomrei Shabbas women don’t cover hair.Certainly, the majority position of most observers now, but far from unaminous position. There were 5 women who had RYBS predeceased him would have sat shiva for him.Three did not cover their hair, including one whose mother in law clearly did. It may well become daas Yehidit but that is a descriptive function which may or may not become true. Certainly, one part of a community that requires hair covering must as one whose part of a community who wear a shtreimel must wear a shtreimel
This assertion runs counter to everything that I have heard from talmidim about the Rav’s position. I am unaware of any of those Litvishe gedolim holding that married women are not halachically obligated to cover their hair. They held, I imagine, what the Rav himself is quoted as saying when questioned about his wife: “I hold, yes, that she is obligated. I also hold that I don’t have to give her a get if she doesn’t.” He is reliably reported to have told multiple talmidim when asked if they should consider dating a young woman who had no intention of covering her hair, that they should find a different date.
There were people who were melamed zechus on the great number of women from Lita who did not cover their hair. But I don’t know of anyone who turned that into a heter lechatchila, except in the North African community.
Thank you for the clarification.
In that case, it’s hardly a chiddush, however. Every “halachic community” is free to follow its own standards and no apology is necessary. Those standards, however, are always the ones that are pushed back upon by those who don’t wish to. I recall listening to a mechaneches in an MO school discuss how much pushback they get for even their minimal standards. Her point was that any standard that is set will be subject of pushback because that’s the nature of human beings.
IOW – It’s not the strictness of the standard that necessarily encourages pushback, it’s the standard itself.
All in all, a well-written and articulated argument for Tzniyus can only be a good thing. Yeyasher Koach to Rabbi Manning.
Mark, you wrote May 2, 2023 at 12:11 pm:
“Every ‘halachic community’ is free to follow its own standards and no apology is necessary”.
What makes a community halachic in this sense? Is there an objective minimum standard?
Yes. There are objective minimum standards. And it is adherence to those standards that make a community halachic!
This looks like a very good sefer-There were a series of three fine sefarim on Hilcos Ishus, Tznius and Women and Mitzvos whose author I don’t recall that had excellent mareh mkomos on these issues as well that was published a number of years ago but this sefer looks excellent
Thank you!Rav Ellinson wrote a great three volume series on these issues
Re RYBS and covering hair, send me an email address where I can answer your contentions with Rachel Bitcha Haktana, including people’s comments on situation who you have referred positively about the Rav in. MOre important issues.
The impact. Of the scarcasric comment of “ certain talmidim of the Rav “ about a joke that he supposedly said scarcastically about not requiring to give her a get” implies that Dr Tonya Soloveitchik would disobey the Rav on a halachik matter. It is ludicrous to anyone who has the least bit knowledge of the relationship between the Rav and his wife. How she the Phd gave up everything to help the Rav in his endeavors. There were other talmidim of the Rav who also knew his wife, by virtue of also having been in Boston for a number of years. Those quotes are the ones that they object to the most and during their lifetimes objected the most. By the nature of things the Ravs wife passed away more than 56 years ago, very few if any talmidim would still be alive who could be both a student of the Rav and have been in the Boston area after that to get to know not only the Rav but his wife.
Did I state that the Rav said he can’t assur women. Not keeping hair covered because Gdolei Lita permitted? No read my language the Rav stated that he could not assur such behavior because gdolei Lita tolerated. Anyone looking at pictures from Lita a century ago can see frum people not covering their hair. That not covering hair was pandemic there a century ago is not in dispute. I’m simply quoting the Rav as saying such behavior was tolerated. Note I did not say the Rav said he had a heater for not covering hair, he said he could not assur such behavior. One has to be very careful in language and FWIW. I heard this one Shabbas when after schule, a couple of decades ago, someone was asked by a contemporary of mine. What was the Ravs svara for permitting women, not to cover their hair and the answer I asked the Rav that question, and stated he had no svara but didn’t need one because gdolei Lita tolerated such behavior and thus Incould not sssur it Thus, it is insulting for people to take a crack of the Rav and turn into a serious indictment of his wife. Certainly, if the Rav wouldn’t sssur such behavior for any reason, one can’t say that a person is outside the halachik community if she as a married woman didn’t cover her hair.
I am being very precise in my language. I’m ne has to be very careful on quoting talmidim on chakra type questions. As one who sat shiva for him once told me in reference to what the Rav apparently saidI don’t what chakras he may have said in shout but it is not what he practiced.
The whole premise of this article is wrong. I have a picture of my great great grandparents from Odessa. If they lived today, you would assume she was from a radical splinter group of Peleg or something, since her skirt covers her shoes and she has a a hijab. In fact, they weren’t even strictly observant. Standards of tznius in the orthodox world today are absolutely rock bottom, with relatively few exceptions once you leave Yerushalayim, except for strict sephardim.
That’s why this book came out. Buy it and be shocked!
You should visit Yehuda v’Shomron.
“The first is a compilation of twenty-six essays”
Sounds like an important book.
An adaptation of one of the book’s essays, “Dignity in an Oversharing World” by Rifka Wein Harris, was published in the Fall 2022 issue of Jewish Action. See link:
Her essay breaks down the idea of tzenius to three middos that actually apply equally to men: privacy, humility and feinkeit(refinement).
She also disagrees in the essay with the banning of all female pictures(“…a ban on pictures of women in the press—undermines the development of a teen’s own agency and autonomy, warping and complicating her necessary actualization”).
Hilchos krias shma in shulchan aruch is a great surprising place to start for those who wonder, “where did all the minutiae rules come from anyway?”
Tzniyus has definitely been a moving target, certainly in my generation. I am referring to the Litvishe Yeshiva community. Its trajectory has not only far outpaced the target of which it’s supposed to guard against, but also the sechel and strategic approaches that should be behind any changes.
I heard from an educator that the roles of the school Greeter and the Tzniyus Enforcer should not be imbued in the same individual. This is not just a conflict of interest in a philosophical way. But, think about the graduates of schools whose memories of their chinuch have been scarred. Instead of a positive daily point of entry into the building, they feel that they were going through a TSA check. Add to the mix a predisposition to anxiety, and the results can be disastrous.
Even in a somewhat less negative experience there are consequences. Let’s say that young women lived with the cynicism that they and their parents had of the institution. They were able to somehow survive the new rules each year. While under the guise of tzniyus, the rules were merely indirect methods of conformity so that the school would not have to deal with the headaches brought on by expressions of individuality. Let’s call the quantitative increase in tzniyus rules devoid of sechel the “Whac-A-Mole tzniyus”strategy”. Ten to 15 years later, these girls are now mothers of daughters in the same school. By now, they have realized that they experienced the school’s Whac-A-Mole tzniyus strategy including the conflation of Halacha and chumra. That eventual realization of having been lied to often does not end well and the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater. But best case scenario, they see that the current state of affairs of rules is even more over-the-top that what they experienced. How will these perhaps still-a-little-cynical mothers be able to sell this new reality to their daughters in a sincere way?