I saw her sashaying down the aisle towards me as if she were walking the runway. Her Lady Godiva sheitel (wig) was long enough to trip over, yet she stayed in motion despite her strapless knee length dress carefully zipped over her long sleeved, high neck shell. It was the fact she could walk in her 5-inch, patent Louboutins that impressed me the most.
“Are you the Rebbitzen?” she asked with a twangy Brooklyn accent. “Yes, I am,” was the only answer I could think of because I wanted to applaud her performance. “Well, how come you aren’t covering your hair?”
I was puzzled given I was wearing a fascinator, orange brocade suit with my gold fabric, jewel-accented, Manolo Blahnik slides. I remained startled and quickly become angry. I blurted out, “Good Shabbos,” and immediately walked away. The thought always occurs to me that I should send her a thank you note and floral arrangement because she has served as the source of many lectures about the issue of modesty for me.
How many sins were transgressed during this brief encounter? What does modesty really mean? After all, she was much more adherent to Jewish law. Did she realize what she was doing? I prefer to think that she did not, but the sense of entitlement in her walk and speech told me otherwise. Her brazen, judgmental, singular question also told me how she was raised.
The amount of sins that took place in my “Modesty Gate” reached even further than that. She was about 28 and I was old enough to be her mother. Respect for your elders, could be where I stop, but the big stumbling block for me was the public embarrassment she knew she was causing me. This conversation was meant to challenge and chastise me in front of at least 40 people surrounding me. What is the punishment for that sin? Death. Such an act is as if you killed the person because it results in blood being drained from their face. She risked murder by embarrassment to make her point regardless of how it would embarrass me.
The concept of modesty is clearly nothing new. It begins with Genesis and the Garden of Eden. After the sin committed by Adam and Eve, they were faced with the first body covering requirement. What to wear was the first step in the modesty process at the beginning of mankind. The rejection of nudity through shame gives birth to the Torah’s (Bible’s) idea of covering the body as the means of modesty.
The classical symbol of tzniut (modesty) is the veil. It symbolizes inner and outer privacy, a person apart. Isaiah (3:18) calls it tiferet (glory). The veil was instinctively donned by Rebecca as soon as she observed her future husband in the distance Bareisheis (Genesis 24:65).
That is one reason why the ceremony immediately prior to the chuppah wedding celebration is the bedeken, or the public veiling of the bride by the groom, who includes a blessing for the bride with the ancient words spoken to Rebbeca.
The Jewish dress code has always been influenced by Torah (Bible). Modest clothing is an essential for Jewish women, yet wonderfully interpreted throughout the world. Jewish women tend to wear clothing that is not too bright or form fitting, with sleeves to the elbows, covered necklines, and skirts to the knees. In various Chasidic circles women wear socks, tights, or stockings, as an additional covering.
I marvel at the diversity within the Sephardic sect with their ornate turbans and richly colored head scarves. A stroll down 13th Ave. in Boro Park could rival any runway show during New York Fashion Week. The beautifully dressed women of Crown Heights could recreate the concept of supermodels. Let us not forget the women of the “Five Towns” area that appear to be straight out of the pages of Harper’s Bazaar.
Tzniut was intended to preserve the sanctity of the inner human being from assault by the coarseness of daily life. (Psalms 45:14) says kol k’judah bat melekh p’nimah “the whole glory of the daughter of the king is within,” however that is followed by the description of her ornately golden and rich attire.
I believe that you need both inner and outer beauty to balance the meaning of modesty within the laws of Judaism. Achieving modesty should be done without losing your individual sense style.
Nothing modest was practiced the day of my confrontation. On the contrary, more sins were committed in the minutes of that interaction than Gd wishes to witness between any Jewish women.
Here are a few good questions to ask yourself before leaving your home dressed in the latest fashion labels:
- Does your skirt that drags to the floor matter if your speech drops people’s mouths to the floor?
- Does the proper sleeve length protect the length of your disrespectful and improper speech?
- Does your tight fitted mid-calf dress lighten up your judgmental stare?
- Does your neckline change the bottom line of your sense of entitlement?
To all the fabulous fashionistas of the social media playground and beyond, after you pick out your outfit, pick out your conversation, pick out your public impression, pick out your manners, pick out your self-respect, pick out your sense of dignity, pick out your message to convey to the world. Always remember that who you are on the inside matters much more than how you look on the outside, although it may not come with all the likes you crave.