Modesty: Part One

Modest /Immodest  Modest/Extravagant  Modest/Eccentric  Modest/Improper  Modest/Disgraceful…it’s extreme, but if you grow up in an orthodox community that last pairing makes just as much sense as the others because, if we are to really simplify it…the people who define what it means to be “modest” will not hesitate to define you as a shameful and unfitting (for the community). And that is the problem I have with “modesty” as something definitive and prescribed.

Modesty has been a topic of great importance in my life…I went to Yeshiva (religious jewish day-school) for high school and for most of college. In the orthodox jewish faith one of the most important aspects of being an observant woman is modesty. In the Mishnah (the written compilation of Jewish law that was transmitted verbally), in the Gemara (the documented discussion of the mishnah between the great, ancient masters) and in the various writings by highly esteemed Rabbis over the millenia the idea of a Jewish woman’s modesty is explored in great depth. There are guidelines, suggestions based on derivations from laws, and allusions made in scriptures. There are examples: behaviors modeled by the matriarchs and great women throughout the bible.

In high school in order to determine whether a shirt was appropriate we were told to place our fists along our throats and the point where the fist ends is where the shirt’s collar should be. Our skirts had to cover the knees. Sleeves were preferably to reach the elbow…short sleeves were permssible as long as they werent cap sleeves (afterall, my school was modern orthodox…there was some progressiveness).

The religious college I went to had similar requirements. My gemara teacher actually once kept me after class to ask me to start wearing longer skirts (my knees were showing). I had always been somewhat conservative when I was growing up in terms of my clothing.In secular school I was very critical of the girls who wore tight clothes to show off what was only budding at that time. I would have arguments with the “fast” kids in my classes, saying, “We are only 10 years old! Why don’t you act it? “…Miss Morality Police. So when I went to Yeshiva High school, the dress code made sense to me. I was not interested in the laws that forced us to dress in this way. I just felt that putting boundaries on how you dress was a positive restriction to place on teenagers. I felt it was important to shift the focus from the raging hormones to the actual purpose of being at school…learning.

But something started changing in my mind as I got older and I was exposed to more of the world, and most importantly, as I grew into this skin of womanhood. When the Rabbi in my college kept me after class to ask me to dress differently, I was mortified. In high school male teachers were not allowed to comment about female dress. They could report any issues to a female faculty member who would then address the issue with the girl. When the Rabbi spoke to me I was struck with profound sense of shame. This shame turned to guilt and also a feeling of being dirty…”who am I to dress inappropriately while studying these holy scriptures?”, I thought. Disgusting.

But I thought about it further…and I remembered something that happened to my friend. One morning she was changing in a bathroom. Someone walked into the bathroom, and by chance my friend’s Rabbi happened to be passing the door at just such an angle that he saw my friend. My friend plummeted into a deep shame and depression that lasted for days if not weeks. She was filled with self loathing. She endlessly castigated herself, “how could I have let this happen? why did this happen to me?” I was shocked at how severely she judged herself. Clearly, what happened was not in her hands. But she believed, “It must have happened to me because my thinking is in the wrong place, my consciousness has fallen.” She seemed to think that  somewhere inside of her she was depraved, and that as a wake-up call this massive embarrassment had to occur to set her on the right path. I guess we all believe what works for us, and yes, things do happen to convey a message to us. But the way I felt about myself when the Rabbi spoke to me about my skirt and the abuse my friend inflicted on herself…cannot be the types of feelings that give us greater self-love and self-respect.

And so I came to a conclusion

Modesty is a very subjective issue…

I’d say I have been accepting this truth only in the past few months. It’s a provocative declaration to make when you’ve lived a good portion of your life following specific guidelines of modesty. I think following guidelines are useful when you do not fully know yourself, your skin, your mind, your needs, your sexuality, your taste and your relation to the world around you. But following guidelines also brings us to a particular problem…once you reach a point where you have more self knowldge, or at least the capacity for it, do the guidelines let loose their grip on you so that you may explore the important questions of the self? Or, do the guidelines latch on to your mechanisms, overtaking them like a virus, preventing you from exploring what your true senses and true values are? Scary thought…

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