Judaism and Modesty 101 by Nina

Monday, November 12, 2012
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!

17 comments :

  1. I loved this post, and I love the thoughtfulness and humility with which Nina approaches this very visible daily application of religious principles. I also love that silver dress. Brava!

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  2. I've always wondered about clothing guidelines in the Jewish faith! It's great to know that there are other religions (besides my own) that practice modest dress. Your outfits are absolutely amazing and inspiring!!

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  3. Thanks for your post! I was a Religion major in college and I studied mostly Hebrew Bible within its ancient context, so it's interesting to see how things are interpreted/continue to be followed today. - Leah, leahwise.wordpress.com

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  4. Cool, thank you for sharing. I love to learn about different cultures and think it is so wonderful when people who participate in lesser understood religions are open to sharing their beliefs.

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  5. lovely outfits!!the last one is my favorite:)
    kisses from Milano
    have an amazing day
    http://sienastyle.blogspot.it/

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  6. I love the background on Judiams you gave paralleling your own journey within it. Thank you for sharing.

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  7. Very thoughtful and interesting! I really enjoyed this post! :)

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  8. Well- written post! I love it and I love that silver shiny dress too!!

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  9. Thanks for sharing this post! I love fashion that can be sexy and feminine while modest!! You look beautiful as usual in these pics. I wore blue and yellow today too!

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  10. This is a great post! If I didnt know you were dressing to a certain standard when I passed you on the street I would have never guessed. All your looks are adorable, great job!
    kendrrat
    kendrrat.blogspot.com

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  11. Nina looks great in all her outfits

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  12. Nina is misrepresenting jewish modesty. It's not only about the clothing you wear, its also about how you carry yourself and how you represent the jewish faith.
    By publicly writing that you decided that hair covering is "not for you", you are basically admitting that you are a hypocrite.
    Either you follow the jewish laws of modesty or you don't. You don't pick and choose what you decide you can do.

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    1. Anonymous, this comment bothered me. If you're interested in an actual dialogue, I've responded on my blog: http://alltumbledown.blogspot.com/2012/11/responding-to-criticism.html --because you see, you don't have a monopoly on the Jewish faith.

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    2. I felt the same way when I read Nina's piece the first time. It is true that minhag (custom) between Orthodox communities does to a certain degree dictate what is, or is not, considered acceptable, but I find Nina's assertion that "within Orthodoxy you will find great variation on how these [modesty] standards are interpreted" to be inaccurate and misleading. While Orthodox Judaism is broadly comprised of many groups, at its core is adherence to halacha (Jewish religious law, which dictates almost every aspect of how Jews are to conduct themselves including how one should dress)and the belief in its divine origin. As such, extreme care must be used with any interpretation of these laws and no underlying principle may be compromised due to shifting social, or political mores.
      When I read it a second time I noticed Nina identifies herself as "Modern Orthodox" and Modern Orthodox Judaism allows for a slightly freer interpretation of halacha, which explains, as a married woman, Nina's relaxed observation of covering her hair. The differences between Orthodox and Modern Orthodox Jews may seem insignificant to non-Jews, among many Jews, however, they aren't, and can be a sensitive area. I applaud Nina for her outreach to readers of this blog, but at the same time, I wish she had taken a bit more care and consideration in her representation of herself as an Orthodox Jew.

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  13. I absolutely loved reading this post! It's so interesting to learn about how different religions are, while being similar in so many ways! And you look beautiful Nina :)

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  14. beautiful! Thank you for your positive influence!

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