Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Married Woman's Tzeni'us Dilemma

I had the good fortune this past Shabbos of hearing a rabbi give his pre-summer tzeni'us sermon. Basically, he lectured the men of his synagogue about how important it is that women should dress and act modestly. He urged the men to tell their wives not to wear tight-fitting clothing and strongly told the men not to become too friendly with women other than their wives. He went so far as to recommend that men refer to other women formally as Mrs. Cohen and the like rather than by their first names.

Let me be absolutely clear that I have no problem whatsoever with this aspect of his speech. I think he is absolutely correct and both men and women would be wise to follow his advice. Granted, I've never spent much time in a bungalow colony and can't pretend to understand the dynamics of what goes on there. But he seems worried and I give him credit for trying to encourage greater observance of high standards of modesty.

I've always wondered what in the world these women are thinking when they buy their clothes. Presumably they look into a mirror. Do they have even the slightest doubt that it is unacceptable to dress like that?

But then I was thinking about a woman's perspective to all this, as difficult as that is for me. It is true that there are halakhos about this subject and a woman is obligated to follow them. But what happens if a married woman is the only one in the neighborhood to follow them? What will her husband think? Presumably, he is a God-fearing man who only wants to do what is right and is happy that his wife thinks similarly. But if all of the other women in their community are dressed fashionably and, day in and day out, he sees women in the street looking their best and then comes home to a woman dressed like a comparative shlump, there is no way that it does not make an impact on him. What woman wants her husband to be noticing other men's wives? She wants her husband's eyes to be on her.

Unless she's one of these super-women who can compete with other women with her natural beauty and/or charm, and assuming she isn't deluding herself into thinking she has those traits when she doesn't (as I often suspect of people who give such inspirational speeches), she does not have many options. She can dress immodestly inside the house and change whenever she goes outside. But that seems like something impossible for any woman juggling young children and other chores. Otherwise, she's stuck in a dilemma.

I don't have an answer to this problem. All I can suggest is that the rest of us judge women who wear tight clothing a little more favorably. Perhaps they are not self-centered. Maybe they are just worried about their shalom bayis.

(Note that while the above should be absolutely clear, let me reiterate that I do not encourage women to dress immodestly. I encourage full observance with the spirit and laws of the Torah.)

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