How does one define tzniut (modesty)? The truth is in everyday Jewish parlance it’s more or less taken to mean the way one dresses. Elbows and knees are supposed to be covered as are the collarbones and all places in between. Some say women’s bare legs are supposed to be covered by hose. Some say not. Some say tzniut includes women not wearing trousers, some disagree. Different sections of religious Judaism define it their way and within those sections, individuals define it personally sometimes (as I do).
It can also refer to one’s behaviour too. In this instance tzniut can mean not drawing attention to oneself. For example: I was once in a store and a whole bunch of teenage girls from the local ultra-religious girls’ school came in. They were all wearing long skirts and long sleeved shirts, their hair was tied back modestly, no make up on. They were dressed in a modest manner, but they drew attention because they were loud and obnoxious and fooling around in a manner that was not modest at all and totally inappropriate. It seems as if we expect better behaviour from people who dress more modestly. Which is a total fallacy but that is a post for a different day.
I grew up Modern Orthodox, wearing trousers and short sleeves. I lived in my jeans. I miss wearing jeans. They were part of my uniform growing up. Came home from school, threw off the grey long skirt, the grey jumper and the white shirt, pulled on the jeans and a sweatshirt and was good to go. I was comfortable. You are never as comfy as when wearing jeans or sweatpants. You cannot just lay about comfortably in a skirt, even if it’s a long denim one. You just are more aware of your behaviour. Which is kind of the whole point I suppose.
Someone explained it to me like this , when you go to a wedding, or a party, or some kind of simcha (joyous event) and you dress up, you feel different. You are careful how you sit, how you move, because you are wearing your finest clothes and you don’t want to wrinkle them or spoil them. You behave in a more dignified manner. We are always in front of God so we are supposed to stand to attention and be aware of where we are.
Well, that’s all well and good, but you cannot be stiff all the time. You have to let your hair down a bit. You have to be able to be comfortable in your own home at least. I don’t know, I don’t think I subscribe to that philosophy.
I have a lot of issues with conformity. I don’t like being boxed in, being told what to do. I am a dafkanik…tell me to do something and I want to do the opposite. I have written previously on the blog about my troubles with covering my hair – eventually I came to it on my own terms.
Tzniut seems to be a hard one for me too but I think I have reached a place where I am happy with my level. I like attention. I am being totally honest here. I like walking into a room and being noticed. I dress for that too. Yes it helps to be a skinny wench with an awesome figure, especially when one has birthed four big-headed children and is well entrenched in her 30s. God has also blessed me with a pleasant face and a huge smile (ok we can say big mouth, but huge smile sounds better) and obviously I have a HUGE ego….. This is the way God created me. I am 100% natural, no additions, no subtractions, no Botox. Why should I hide myself away?
I am always respectful. When I attend functions at the boys’ yeshiva everything that is supposed to be covered is covered. I sit quietly on my side of the mechitzah. I act in a manner befitting the environment however much it peeves me.
When I go to shul or religious events I dress respectfully. Is it all dark colours and monochromatic? Absolutely not. I am a colorful person, and I refuse to tame that down as well. I wear lots of bright colours, pinks and reds and greens. I am flamboyant, but within limits. I wear high heels because I can walk in them and I absolutely love to wear them. I dress for me, for no one else. I do not dress to prove a point to anyone.
Do I cover my *nees? Technically I do. I won’t wear a short on the knee skirt with bare legs, even in the summer. If I plan to be barelegged then I will wear a skirt that covers my knees. When I wear my short skirts I usually wear them with thick black tights, and only in the winter. In my mind, therefore my *nees are covered. However, the skirts I am talking about are to the top of my knee, and NOT mid thigh. I have my limits. I am a woman of extremes. I either wear long skirts to the ankle, or knee length. No calf length for me. This is the way I am comfortable. Does my skirt length make me a terrible person? Someone who always wears long skirts and dresses modestly according to the technical definitions – is she better than me?
I show no cleavage, my shirt collars are always near or on the collarbone, but I don’t measure it. My elbows are almost always covered, because I honestly don’t like anyone looking at them. Ick.
So I guess I set my own standards and limits. People may even call me a hypocrite. When I was doing the dating thing a rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife) told me to dress differently. That I would not find a husband if I continued to dress in this manner. No high heels, tone down the make up, wear clothes a size bigger than I should etc… Basically, deny who I am in order to catch a good one! My husband loves the way I look, and appreciates that I make an effort with my appearance. If he has a problem with an item of clothing that I have donned, he isn’t afraid to tell me, and I will usually respect his opinion.
You know, you can ask 10 different religious Jewish women about tzniut and get ten different answers. The laws and customs of today are different that they were scores of years ago. In the 1920s it was scandalous to show ankles. In the 1960s so many of our religious mothers wore mini skirts. Each community seems to have its own standard. I dress the way I feel comfortable dressing. I behave in public in a modest manner, I am not loud and boisterous and I know how to respect decorum. I do not draw attention to myself with behaviour or with loud speech.
So I guess that is my definition of tzniut. I toe the line, but up to a point.
I just wanted to add that we were discussing this a lot on twitter the past couple of days, and it seems to me that when discussing tzniut it seems heavily weighted on the female side. What women should and shouldn’t wear. There are similar standards for men, but I hardly ever hear them talked about.