Hi there, Clothed Much readers! I'm excited to share some thoughts about modesty in Judaism on a blog that has been so monumental in establishing a presence for women of all faiths working within modesty guidelines. I'm Nina, and I blog over at alltumbledown: a modest attempt at style, where I document my daily style choices as an Orthodox Jew. I'm a second-year history PhD student married to a medical resident, living in the lovely suburbs of Philadelphia and expecting our first child this winter. In addition to brightly colored pencil skirts, glittery nails, and sweater tights, I'm a big fan of puppies, stovetop popcorn, and the printing press.
What are the sources for Jewish modesty guidelines? In the Bible, Moses is described as anav mi'kol adam, or "humbler than any other man" (Numbers 12:3), and Micah 6:8 encourages us to hazneia lekhet im Hashem elokecha, or to "walk humbly with [our] God." These injunctions are interpreted in the canon of Jewish law in two ways: the first, a sense of humility in action, speech, and thought; and second, a more formulaic approach: guidelines for modest dress. Centuries of Jewish legal scholarship and the practices of Jewish communities since Biblical times inform what religious Jews wear today.
So what do religious Jews wear? As in every religious group, various communities have interpreted the modest clothing requirements in varied ways. For a Conservative Jew who believes in the divine origin of the Jewish law but that each generation has the power to reinterpret as needed, modesty may take form as a set of basic guidelines: no cleavage, nothing too tight, dressing with a sense of propriety. Within the spectrum of Orthodox Judaism, guidelines tend to be quite a bit stricter and focus on specific items of clothing that can or cannot be worn, rather than dressing with a basic sense of modesty.
Orthodox Jewish women on the whole follow these basic standards: skirts to the knee, sleeves to the elbow, tops to the collarbone, and headcoverings once married. That said, within Orthodoxy you will find great variation on how these standards are interpreted, as well as those who consider themselves Orthodox but do not follow the modesty guidelines in a strict fashion. In ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic communities the laws are seen as minimum standards, and actual practice is far stricter. These women are often found in sleeves to the wrist, skirts to mid-calf, stockings, collars that meet the neck, and complete headcoverings without a single strand of hair showing. Often, a sense of formality in dress accompanies these strict interpretations: instead of jean skirts or graphic tees, women don structured skirt suits for daily wear. In my religious community, Modern Orthodoxy, there is far greater variation in dress, and you are more likely to see the minimum standards reflected in daily style.
What are your personal standards, and how have they shifted over time? I have a pretty progressive view (that is, for an Orthodox Jew) of Judaism, and you will see that reflected in my clothing choices. I wear loose pants, skirts to the knee, sleeves to the elbow, and shirts at about collarbone level. I am also careful to ensure my style doesn't reflect a notion called naval be'reshut haTorah, or a scoundrel who obeys the letter of the law -- it is of course possible to follow the laws perfectly while looking completely inappropriate, and I am cognizant of this when I dress myself. My modesty journey has certainly led me to unexpected places: putting on a pair of pants for the first time in several years, for example, or deciding after 3 years of marriage that headcovering was not for me. In many ways, "modesty" blogging has allowed me to explore my own conflicting feelings on modesty, and to flesh out the tension between feeling dedicated to tradition and Jewish law and somewhat resentful of the ways in which modesty guidelines restrict and enforce decidedly non-contemporary gendered behavior.
Working within (or around) modesty restrictions makes daily acts like getting dressed an ideological statement, which can be a bit tiring. I have found that cultivating a style reflective of my interests and personality, rather than focused narrowly on what I can/can't wear, has been freeing. Saturated colors, funky patterns, and creative accessories make getting dressed a pleasure. As I say on my blog, I'm on a mission: to make restrictions the last thing people notice when I walk down the street. I'd much rather you see an inventive use of contrasting colors or textural elements than the fact that I'm the only one wearing long sleeves in August.
Comments? Questions? Visit me at alltumbledown or shoot me an email. I'd love to hear from you!