February 7, 2012
From Behind the Veil Of Tzniyut
American Jews, secular and religious alike, have been united in their rejection of Jewish extremists’ headline-grabbing attempts to keep young girls and women out of public spaces in Beit Shemesh, Israel on the grounds of religious modesty.
Observers, journalists and pundits have rationalized these actions to be little more than the misguided work of self-anointed Haredi Jews known as Sicarii. The Sicarii is a group much like ancient religious zealots bearing the same name, who drove Judaism to near destruction with their radicalism and uncompromising benightedness in 66 A.D. These latter-day, rebels, who notoriously spit on a modestly dressed eight-year-old girl on her way to school, screamed epithets, and removed benches from public bus shelters, are indeed fundamentalists.
Their misdeeds, however, bring to light an extreme manifestation of a subtler, yet deeply rooted perception of tzniyut; it also reveals how the interpretation of religious modesty has cultivated an underlying resistance to and exclusion of women assuming ritual leadership roles in Jewish synagogue life in Israel and America.
Thankfully, most women are not spat on and harassed in public; however, female spiritual leaders are not welcome as bona fide members of Modern Orthodox rabbinic and professional networks. Female scholars are not featured in scholarly journals, nor are they invited to speak on public, mainstream panels. Currently, there are only two female heads of co-ed Orthodox Jewish day schools in America. And, with some notable exceptions – notable because they are exceptions – women for the most part do not have roles in synagogue lay or religious leadership.
Far too often, tzniyut is cited as the reason for the imbalance. In June 2010, after being graciously welcomed to speak at the Young Israel of Hewlett, Long Island, a rabbi in the Long Island community, who would likely never identify with the Sicarii, wrote an acerbic essay lamenting my very presence as an ordained Rabba, or spiritual leader: “Leading Torah scholars have condemned the appointment of a woman to a rabbinic position as ‘a breach of tzniyus [modesty]’ ...because of the event, this coming Tisha B’Av, we will have something else to cry about.”
Modesty is the halakha or Jewish code of law, most readily summoned upon as the basis to exclude women from public leadership roles. Yet it is fairly typical for certain Modern Orthodox congregants to also be regular consumers of “immodest” television programs, films, and entertainment. These individuals deal with women in the secular boardroom and courtroom, but they do not want women standing before a shul because, well, it’s immodest.
When taken to an extreme, it is considered a “breach of modesty” for women to appear on billboards or to travel with men; when walking outdoors in certain communities, it is deemed immodest for girls and women to wear clothing that does not cover their bodies from head to toe.
But should the same principle of tzniyut be invoked in Modern Orthodox communities as a way of preventing women from offering a few words of Torah from the pulpit, from announcing the time for mincha on Shabbat afternoon, from reciting Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, or from even holding a fully adorned Torah for a few precious moments?