Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Understanding Tzniut

The topic of modest dress in Jewish law is one that is very dependent on local custom. While there are some issues that are universal, most of the details are location specific. This became glaringly obvious a few years ago when R. Pesach Eliyahu Falk published a book titled Modesty: An Adornment for Life, which consistently presented practices that represent the norm in certain Charedi/Chassidic circles as the unequivocal standard.

R. Yehuda Henkin has published a detailed and devastating critique of many of R. Falk's fundamental positions. This long essay originally appeared in the journal Tradition and has now been updated and published in a book appropriately titled Understanding Tzniut: Modern Controversies in the Jewish Community. The essay is published alongside another two related essays and a second section of interesting essays on unrelated topic (e.g. whether one must show respect to a disrespectful Torah scholar and the proper attitude towards the state of Israel post-Disengagement). R. Henkin's essay on modest dress analyzes a number of relevant topics (e.g. women's haircovering, necklines) and shows that R. Falk's positions are extreme. In reaching his conclusions, R. Henkin displays a mastery of both halakhic views on this subject and sound reasoning.

Click here to read moreWhen I first saw the book I regretted that it does not include a brief summary of all of R. Henkin's conclusions. However, I subsequently realized that this actually makes the book useful in a classroom setting, with the construction of a summary a likely student assignment.

I'd like to discuss here an issue related to this book but not directly addressed in it. On page 21 of R. Falk's book, he quotes the talmudic concept of "kol kevudah bas melekh penimah" (the king's daughter's glory is indoors - Ps. 45:14), which implies that a woman's appropriate place is in the home and not in public places (yes, I know that this is a verse but the application is talmudic). It seems clear to me that this idea is not the practice in the vast majority of Torah observant families, including (especially) kollel families where women go out into the workplace. What does this imply about the concept of "kol kevudah"?

The idea comes up explicitly in two relevant yet contradictory passages. In Gittin 12b the Talmud actually says that one might have thought that we apply the concept of "kol kevudah", which is why we needed to be taught explicitly that we do not. The implication seems to be that we do not accept the concept. However, in Yevamos (76b) the idea is invoked to explain why women from Mo'av and Amon did not go out to war. In a related passage, the Mishnah in Kesubos (67a) states that male orphans inherit their father's money but must first use it to support their sisters. If there is not enough money for the brothers and sisters, the sisters receive priority because it is "not their way" to go collecting door-to-door. The implication is that we invoke the concept of "kol kevudah".

Based on all this, the Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Ishus 13:11) writes that married women should rarely leave their house to go out in public. The Rema (Shulchan Arukh, Even Ha-Ezer 73:1) writes in a similar vein. It might seem that the practice of women today is halakhically indefensible.

However, there is a different talmudic concept occasionally invoked that the Jewish people are considered the children of kings. For example, the Mishnah in Shabbos (66b) has a dispute over whether only princes may wear a golden bell in public on Shabbos (and for everyone else it is considered carrying because it is not their normal way of wearing clothing) or that since all Jews are the children of kings we are all allowed to wear princely clothing. Halakhic decisors consistently rule against this idea (cf. Rosh, Shabbos ch. 18 no. 2), implying that on an halakhic level, Jews are not the children of kings. The Mahari Bruna (Responsa, 242) concludes that if Jews are not halakhically considered the children of kings then not only are the men not princes but the women are also not princesses. Therefore, he rules, we do not accept the concept of "kol kevudah".

The She'arim Metzuyanim Ba-Halakah (152:3) qualifies this, based on the Mishnah in Kesubos quoted above. According to him (R. Shlomo Zalman Braun, a chasidic rabbi in Brooklyn who passed away approximately 10 years ago), the concept only applies to single women but not married women.

It seems to me that perhaps we can say that the common practice today implies that we follow the Mahari Bruna, possibly as modified by R. Braun. The practice of holy Jews shows that normative halakhah follows this view among the authorities.

Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Favorites More