Reclaiming Dignity

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With hashkafic and halachic explorations that untangle the threads of mitzvah, middah, halachah, and cultural practice, Reclaiming Dignity highlights the universal relevance of tzniut to both men and women, evoking a sense of empowerment and pride in this significant Jewish value.

In Part I, a diverse anthology of twenty-six essays by leading educators and influencers presents honest and personal perspectives on this sensitive topic.

In Part II, a comprehensive, source-based explanation of the halachot will transform the way we understand and learn about tzniut, helping you relate to this challenging mitzvah in a nuanced and positive fashion.

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Please note that, due to the considerable size of this 680-page volume, which weighs 2.6 pounds, we can only ship it via UPS. To ensure cost-effectiveness, we have negotiated a flat shipping rate for your convenience.

Praise

“A most important work for those seeking a comprehensive and intelligent understanding of this crucial aspect of Torah life.”

– Rabbi Ahron Lopiansky

“This book is written with great care, providing sources for every single detail, so that anyone who wishes to look into a specific issue will have the correct address to find it.” 

– Rabbi Herschel Shachter  

“Rabbi Manning manages to show the special beauty of the world of tzniut in a way that will motivate people and give them the impetus to be properly observant in this area.”

– Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon

 

Book Reviews

There is no gainsaying the importance of tznius in the life of the Torah Jew and the Torah community. Yet, few issues have contributed more to young people losing their enthusiasm for Torah – and often their entire connection to it – than misunderstandings and misapplications of the concepts of tznius.

Have you often quietly screamed, “This is madness!” when hearing about some new innovation in the area? If you haven’t, there is a considerable chance that your teen-aged daughter has. And that she has a friend who is approaching the off-ramp from Yiddishkeit because of it.

Finally, someone has done something about it. If you’ve sworn to yourself never to read another paragraph extolling the virtues of what the Gra called the avodah that is to women what learning Torah is to men (Relax. He didn’t! That’s just another distortion.), you can safely read Reclaiming Dignity, by Bracha Poliakoff and Rabbi Anthony Manning. I can almost guarantee that it will bring the reader new insights into the true nature of tznius, and renewed confidence in the halachic system. I believe that it is the antidote to a significant cynicism (perhaps well-deserved) that has grown in the serious Orthodox world over the years.

There are two parts to the work. The first is a compilation of twenty-six essays, the vast majority by women, brought together by Bracha Poliakoff. Contributors come from all parts of the Orthodox world. The second is a halachic analysis of tznius, theoretical and applied, masterfully put together by Rabbi Manning, a close talmid of Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits. Nothing I say could add more gravitas to his work than the three approbations on the back cover: R. Aharon Lopiansky, R. Hershel Schachter, and R. Yosef Tzvi Rimon.

My interest in halacha took me straight to the second part of the book. For a halacha sefer, it was certainly a page-turner. What follows is not a full review, but a trailer/teaser. It’s a sampler of what you can expect to find if you follow up and mine the sefer for meaning.

  • Tznius is obligatory upon both men and women.
  • The woman’s version is not about her lifnei iveir obligation to protect men from their instincts. That is the man’s business, not hers.
  • Tznius is not about covering up, as if those who opt for maximum cover are doing a better job of it. Those who say it is are creating a distorted conception of women in both genders.
  • Communities that go for “stricter” standards are not more tzniusdik. They are just different. A woman who follows the standards of her halachic community should not feel less observant, or more “modern.”
  • Announcing with glee that you’ve found no halachic basis for a particular standard is not helpful, and misleading. Communities can set their own standards of dat Yehudit (get the book, and you’ll find out what it means), and they become legally binding on members of that community. However, this can’t be done by rabbis – or rebbetzins. Only the acceptance of such a standard by its women (not clear if that ever happens) makes it normative.
  • On the other hand, some standards are simply policy decisions of particular institutions. They are not rooted in objective Torah law, nor in communal dat Yehudit. If you don’t like them, find a different institution.
  • Teaching stringencies in general as if they were halacha is a major error.
  • The indiscriminate banning of all female pictures is a misapplication of the real nature of tznius; potentially causes Torah to be mocked; is seen by many to be terribly demeaning of women; and creates a rift between rabbinic authority and frum reality.

You’ll find much, much more in the sefer.


The fact that ‘Reclaiming Dignity’ has already sold out (yes, they are printing more!) already says much about this new ‘Guide to Tzniut for Men and Women’, published by Mosaica Press. But what makes ‘Reclaiming Dignity’ unique? Before even delving into the specific details and nuanced insights found in ‘Reclaiming Dignity’, the answer is three-fold: Firstly – and this is a point I will be returning to shortly – it claims to be a guide to Tzniut for both men and women. Secondly, it is that this book is not the singular voice of one Rabbi, Rebbetzen, scholar or teacher. And finally, it is that ‘Reclaiming Dignity’ is made up of two parts: the first, which we might call the ‘aggadic’ section of the book, and the second, which is labelled as being the ‘halachic’ guide.

In terms of the aggadic section, it contains 26 essays, each written by a different Torah teacher and author, and each expertly edited by Bracha Poliakoff who herself has written a fabulous introductory essay to this section which sets the tone for the entire book. Moreover, these 26 essays – 23 written by female authors (Rivka Simonsson, Miriam Kosman, Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller-Gottlieb, Rivka Slonim, Rebbetzin Chaya Chava Pavlov, Dr. Deena Rabinovitch, Sivan Rahav-Meir, Michal Horowitz, Shevi Samet, Rabbanit Oriya Mevorah, Jaclyn Sova, Beatie Deutsch, @Yael Kaisman, Dr. Leslie Ginsparg Klein, Alexandra Fleksher, Sarah Davis Rudolph, Ilana Cowland, Shalvie Friedman, Esti Hamilton, Faigie Zelcer, Elisheva Kaminetsky, Rifka Wein Harris, Dr. Yocheved Debow), and 3 by male authors (Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky, Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, Rabbi Yitzchak Shurin) – are categorized into six areas: i) Defining Tzniut, ii) Models from Tanach, iii) Manifestations of Tzniut in our Lives, iv) Personal Perspectives and Experiences, v) Men, Women & Tzniut, vi) Teaching Tzniut to the Next Generation (nb. special mention should be made of the comprehensive biographies of each of these authors at the end of their essays which stand in direct contrast to the 1-2 line bio’s which often accompany articles and which rarely capture the diverse achievements of authors). And then, after this first half is the halachic section written by Rabbi Anthony Manning, which is made up of 11 Chapters – i) Defining Tzniut, ii) Lifnei Hashem, iii) Tzniut and Interpersonal Mitzvot, iv) Tzniut in Public, v) Tzniut and Dat Yehudit, vi) Tzniut, Community and Hashkafah, vii) Jewish and Non-Jewish Clothing, viii) Ervah, ix) Head and Hair Covering, x) Tzniut for Men, xi) Women, Men, Tzniut and Society and is followed by a comprehensive bibliography and index of citations.

Before proceeding further, I feel it wise to explain what this review seeks to focus on, and what I will not be addressing, because I suspect that women are plenty fed up with men writing about women & Tzniut.

Given this, my review is being written from four different vantage points, each of which being an area for which I hope I am qualified. Firstly, as someone who has read many books/sefarim on this and related topics, and who is also knowledgeable of halacha, I’d like to offer some thoughts from a literary and halachic standpoint. Secondly, as a Rabbi and educator, especially having taught in various girls schools and seminaries, I would like to speak about the contribution of this book. Thirdly, as a father of five daughters, I would like to consider the possible impact of ‘Reclaiming Dignity’ in the home setting. And finally, as this book claims to be a guide to men, I would like to reflect on my experience as a male reader of this book and as someone who takes the concept of Tzniut seriously as a man.

Having explained a little about the book and how I wish to engage with its contents, let me turn to the first section of ‘Reclaiming Dignity’ where, as previously noted, Mrs. Poliakoff’s essay sets to the tone for the whole book. And how does she do so? Because she begins by acknowledging the toxic ways in which ‘Tzniut’ has been improperly invoked by so-called religious leaders as theological justification for national tragedies, how ‘Tzniut’ has been mistaught where stringencies and customs have been insistently presented as halacha, and how ‘Tzniut’ has often been used as a benchmark to judge others. As Mrs. Poliakoff writes, ‘as an adult, I learned a term that perfectly summed up my experiences: “Tzniut PTSD”’ (p. 3) which she blames, at least in part, on the fact that ‘we have reduced the concept of tznius to its most external and superficial aspect: dress, and, more specifically, women’s dress’ (p. 4). Given this misrepresentation of the wider message and ethic of tzniut, along with the way in which tzniut has been weaponized by various Rabbis, Rebbetzens, schools and teachers, Mrs. Poliakoff explains that the goal of this book is to “reclaim tznius” for ourselves – ‘men and women alike’ (p. 8 ), so that the combination of Rabbi Manning’s ‘clear and validating’ (p. 8 ) approach to tzniut, along with, ‘additional hashkafic perspectives and voices on this topic, especially those of women’, can enable and empower ‘readers… [to] examine their own relationships with tznius, and find ideas that resonate with them on their own journey of personal and spiritual development’ (p. 8 ).

In terms of evaluating ‘Reclaiming Dignity’ from a literary and halachic standpoint, what is great about the first section is that many of the articles reflect the style that one might find in a magazine or journal article – namely that they are short, easy to read, and often reflect a personal perspective on this topic (as reflected by the different styles of writing and varied ‘tones and tenors’ found in each piece – see p. xxix). Moreover, while some of the core ideas found in these essays may have previously been shared in closed settings such as women-only facebook groups, the very fact that they have been explored in greater depth and published in ‘Reclaiming Dignity’ powerfully validates the feelings of many women of whom only a few have, to date, felt comfortable giving a voice to in a public space. Beyond this, these essays provide a unique window to the experiences of the Orthodox Jewish woman which some non-Orthodox women, prospective converts to Orthodox Judaism, and many men may be totally unaware of.

Admittedly, when it comes to these 26 essays, I cannot do all of them justice in this review – and nor is it necessarily even appropriate for me to offer my reflections especially in response to those women who are speaking of their own experiences. However, I would like to make mention of a few points.

a. The issue raised by Alexandra Fleksher (pp. 119-120) about what one writes about oneself speaks deeply to me, as does her comment that ‘understanding that the goal of modesty is to strengthen the sense of self, so that the pursuit of accolades and recognition loses its alure’.

b. Both Miriam Kosman (p. 21), Shevi Samet (p. 75), and Rabbi Efrem Goldberg (p. 91) speak about how certain conversations can be so private and intimate that it seems inappropriate for them to be shared with others. Not only do I fully concur with this view, and not only am I very particular about this in my own life, but it should be noted that this lesson is derived by Rabbeinu Yonatan as quoted by the Maharsha in his commentary to Eruvin 63b.

c. Sarah Rudolph’s remarks (pp. 126-127) on Bereishit Rabbah 53:9 where she states that, ‘there could be such a thing as too much modesty’ – which is itself a message noted by Rabbi Yitzchak Shurin (p. 138) with reference to Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman – is certainly worthy of further exploration.

d. Beyond this, specific mention should be made of Rabbi Yitzchak Shurin’s essay where he notes (p. 139) that the increase of so-called ‘stringencies’ in tzniut create a hypersexualized community, and where he presents his firm position against the erasing of women in Orthodox life and publications (p. 140) – a topic which has largely been brought to the attention of the wider Jewish world due to the advocacy of Chochmat Nashim.

e. I was taken by Esti Hamilton’s remarks (p. 154) that ‘the misplaced focus on conformity causes… a constant obsessions with body and dress’, and that, ‘we need to think deeply about the way we are teaching this mitzvah that is causing us to completely miss the mark’ (ibid.).

f. Beyond this, Dr. Yocheved Debow’s suggested conversations with teenage daughters (p. 184) are very helpful.

Moving on to Rabbi Manning’s section of ‘Reclaiming Dignity’, while I previously referred to it as being a ‘halachic’ guide, this is actually an unfair description as Rabbi Manning not only provides a huge array of well laid out halachic insights and rulings which he explains with remarkable clarity (eg. his distinction between Ervah and Tzniut), but in addition to this, he also examines both spiritual (eg. Lifnei Hashem) and sociological (eg. Dat Yehudit) principles, all of which are thoroughly referenced, while drawing clear distinctions between halacha and minhag. Beyond this, Rabbi Manning’s many references include perspectives – such as those of Rabbis David and Avraham Stav – which, to date, have not been treated in any English language book, while his analysis of the rulings of contemporary poskim including Rabbi Yehuda Henkin, especially on the tricky question of habituation (see pp. 524-535), should be commended. For those familiar of some halachic material, the care and nuance with which Rabbi Manning presents his research (such as his treatment of Kimchit & hair covering) will enlighten readers. Beyond this, Rabbi Manning also makes reference to the phenomenon of the erasure of women in Jewish publications (pp. 409-410). Yet what makes Rabbi Manning’s contribution so helpful is that he speaks from a ma’aseh (practical) viewpoint while considering many real-life scenarios that women and men encounter.

By this point, I hope it is already clear that ‘Reclaiming Dignity’ is a tremendous resource for both women and men, and especially for those who are in the field of educating about Tzniut. However, I would specifically like to make reference to Dr. Leslie Ginsparg Klein’s educational recommendations (pp. 114-115) who suggests – as I have previously done when offering guidance as an educational consultant – that schools should separate dress code and tznuis, while I am also inspired by some of the suggestions offered by Elisheva Kaminetsky (pp. 167-170) who emphasises the centrality of ‘relationship’ when educating about tzniut.

As a father of five daughters (aged 12-19), I appreciated the remarks of Rifka Wein Harris (pp. 176-177) that, ‘something fundamental gets hijacked in the relationship between fathers and their daughters when fathers become bogged down in the weeds of their daughters’ particular mundane external struggles. It erodes the sense that they are being recognized and valued as someone internal and substantive. And particularly in this generation – where tznius has been harmfully mistaught by reference primarily to men’s shemiras einayim – it triggers daughters into being hyperconscious of the male gaze.’ Fortunately, as recommended by Harris, these conversations almost entirely occur between my daughters and my wife. Still, as she explains, and as further emphasised by Rabbi Manning (p. 207), there is great value in fathers modelling tzniut and thereby contributing to a home atmosphere where this value is taken seriously by everyone.

I’d finally like to speak about ‘Reclaiming Dignity’ as being a guide to Tznuit for men and women. Throughout the first half of the book, reference is made to the care with which certain biblical personalities carried themselves and acted in a tzanua manner (see for example pp. 12-13), while Rabbi Manning has a fabulous treatment on this topic, based in part on Rabbis David and Avraham Stav’s Avo Beitecha. Specifically, Rabbi Manning notes that, ‘many men are now far more focused on body image, style, and how they project themselves externally to other people, especially to women’ (p. 505), while noting the current trend in more Yeshivish communities of men wearing extremely tight clothing which ‘can be embarrassingly immodest and extremely inappropriate’ (p. 509). Significantly, none of the essays in the ‘Personal perspectives and Experiences’ section of the first half of the book are written by a man – which is somewhat understandable. Still, I hope that ‘Reclaiming Dignity’ initiates a serious enough conversation that will lead at least some men to actively consider sharing some of the issues and scenarios arising in their life.

Clearly, there will be statements, perspectives and perhaps even halachic positions which some readers may take issues with. However, what makes ‘Reclaiming Dignity’ such a wonderful addition to the Jewish bookshelf beyond all the reasons I have already listed is its honesty which, I dearly hope, can change the way conversations are held about Tzniut in homes, schools, shuls and seminaries.


A few years ago, my then teenage daughter wore a nude-colored shell under a black lace gown to a family simcha. The gown had a short sleeve, and in an attempt to create a more aesthetically pleasing junction between shell and gown, my daughter folded up the sleeve of the shell in a way that exposed her elbow. A friend of my mother sidled over to my daughter and attempted to pull the shell down over her elbow with the admonishment, “don’t make waves.”

When I requested to review this book, I was asked if I had a particular connection to the topic. I laughed. Aside from the above story, I can tell you a million more, and although I generally shy away from reading books about tznius, Reclaiming Dignity is much more than just another tznius book. The first part is a series of personal essays written by contemporary Orthodox educators and leaders, and the second part, while ostensibly dedicated to the halachos of tznius, is also a masterful compendium of the hashkafic differences that exist between communities vis-à-vis the practical application of these halachos. Unlike previous books about tznius, this book is geared to both men and women; as educator and lecturer Ilana Cowland writes, “Tznius is not a women’s mitzvah. It is a Jewish society’s mitzvah.”

When I was growing up there were no books about tznius, there was no need for them. Rifka Wein Harris, a former classmate of mine, notes in her essay “…it was absorbed from the air. Without anyone telling me, I knew exactly where the borders lay – in speech, in action, in posture, and yes, in clothing, just by living among the adults in my orbit.” I don’t even remember how old I was when this changed, but by the time my own girls were in elementary school the concept of tznius had metamorphosed from being an implicit lifestyle into being a restrictive dress code, one that was enforced in a way that left many women, even years later, with ‘tznius PTSD.’ The editor of the book Bracha Poliakoff succinctly sums up the heart of our current tzniusproblem, “By making tznius about medida (measurements) we ignore tznius as a middah.”

This concept of tznius as a middah versus tznius being solely a mathematical equation involving multiple body parts is a unifying theme that is woven throughout many of the personal essays. Some of the essays took me by surprise by expanding the parameters of tzniusinto arenas that were a little off my radar while others verbalized sentiments that I’ve had about tznius but was never able or willing to put into words. Shevi Samet’s Tznius, Privacy, and Social Media will make you think twice the next time you post even the most innocuous photo of your sweet toddler. “It’s not always what is being shared that is inappropriate, it’s the fact that you’re even sharing it at all.” Yael Kaisman (who was my daughter’s chumash teacher, and a woman who personifies tznius) notes that although she never struggled with dressing modestly, as a teenager, she “felt a constant struggle between my personality and my perceived expectation of tznius.” As someone with a “strong, outspoken, and feisty personality,” she wondered if Hashem wanted her to squelch her personality so she could be more like the reticent girls who were praised for their modest behavior. Alexandra Fleksher, a writer and podcaster with a large global reach asks a question which resonated with me a lot, “by publishing your ideas, are you no longer being private or modest?” This is something I often wrestle with when I write articles that include anecdotes from my family life; how much sharing is too much? Israeli marathon champion Beatie Deutsch speaks for many women when she confesses “I don’t find modest dressing empowering…I’d actually find it a lot more empowering to show off all those muscles I work so hard for.” All of the essays are engaging and because the writers come from diverse walks of life there is a hashkafic tone for every reader.

In the second half of the book Rabbi Anthony Manning delves into the halachic aspects of tznius and he presents the material in a way that is not overly didactic nor judgmental. As someone who moved from Flatbush to Highland Park as a young adult, I found the chapter Tzniut and Dat Yehudit to be particularly illuminating. Although I didn’t consider myself yeshivish, I had always dressed ‘bais yaakov style’ and I was confused when in my new community I met women who did not conform to the dress code I’d always thought was immutable; yet in all other areas of observance these women were just as ‘frum’ as I was. The concept of minhag hamakom was foreign to me, one that I only learned much later after years of grappling with where I wanted to be on the tznius spectrum. There is also a discussion in the book about how to dress when visiting other communities; are you required for example to wear a sheitel and not a mitpachat when you visit Borough Park since that is their custom? Do you have to wear pantyhose when you visit Lakewood? Other discussions surround what it means to dress in a dignified manner; for example, a long sheitel may be dignified on a young woman but less dignified on an older woman; a subtlety that is nonexistent on a rigid checklist of ‘yays’ and ‘nays.’

Rabbi Manning also tackles some of the recent tznius trends in certain communities, topics that include the absence of women’s faces in print and online media as well as the deeply disturbing trend of blaming the world’s catastrophes on women for not being tzniusdikenough. There is also a section on tznius and bein adam lechaverowhich includes discussions about ostentatiously flaunting your wealth as well as not being rude or judgmental to others who don’t adhere to your tznius level (maybe pulling down someone’s sleeve in public is something to think twice about.)

I read somewhere online that this book is aimed towards the Modern Orthodox community but I disagree. The section on dat yehudit in particular accomplishes so much more than just the elucidation of this facet of tznius; it also plants seeds of tolerance and understanding between communities by differentiating between minhag hamakomand halacha. But the book’s greatest strength is that it is actually a book about tznius. It is not just about women or just about clothing. It is not about measuring or judging or scolding girls for wearing crossbody bags. It is about going back to the beginning, to the true meaning of “haznei leches,” to the true meaning of what it means to have a private relationship with Hashem. The orthodox community owes a debt of gratitude to Bracha Poliakoff and Rabbi Anthony Manning for providing Klal Yisrael with a powerful new tool to help us finally reclaim our true dignity.


Laurie Novick

The Lehrhaus

Like too many women, Bracha Poliakoff, an educator and clinical social worker, has struggled with a “disordered relationship with the concept of tznius [modesty]” (Reclaiming Dignity, 4)—a phenomenon that she now seeks to combat. To this end she has commissioned, assembled, and edited writings (as well as raised funds) for Reclaiming Dignity, a new book on tzeniut published by Mosaica Press, with plans for a follow-up website and school curriculum.

Poliakoff’s efforts make a statement about tzeniut as strong as the book itself. In pursuing this project, she has exemplified an eishet hayyil model of tzeniut, one in which women resolutely take action that radiates beyond the home and share their wisdom with others.

The resulting volume is comprised of two parts: first, a compilation of brief essays on tzeniut as a middah (character trait), written by 26 “educators, role models and influencers” (XXXIV), nearly all of whom are women; and second, an extended halakhic analysis by Rabbi Anthony Manning.

Deeper than Dress

Poliakoff’s introduction details how troubled she is by the conflation of different meanings of tzeniut, particularly by the extent to which women’s dress dominates contemporary discourse and displaces discussion of tzeniut as a middah. She returns to this point later, introducing an insightful essay on clothing in Tanakh by Dr. Deena Rabinovich, with an editor’s note explaining the essay’s inclusion as a way of “providing a means of imbuing our clothes with the depth of tznius as opposed to having them define tznius” (53).

The contributions to the essay collection successfully avoid this land mine, hammering home the message that tzeniut is not just for women or about women’s wear. Even so, many of the pieces seem to be addressed chiefly to women and center on self-presentation. Only a few—including two of the three rabbinic contributions to the volume—seriously consider the relationship of tzeniut to what we allow ourselves to see or the media that we consume.

As may be expected, several of the essays emphasize the significance of tzanua dress. For example, Israeli runner Beatie Deutsch, in an expanded version of a viral social-media post, grapples with her commitment to garb that slows her down; Dr. Leslie Ginsparg Klein delves into the importance of dressing with nikhbadut (class); and Ilana Cowland builds an argument that, “thanks to the clothing that covers your body, your inner self is expressed” (136).

The interplay of external and internal, often framed here as that of body and soul, becomes a recurring motif, as contributors present their working definitions of tzeniut. The definitions coalesce on three elements, neatly summarized by Rivka Wein Harris: “privacy, humility, and feinkeit” (172), the latter defined aspropriety and proper deportment (175).

Contributors to the volume root each of these three dimensions in the individual’s relationship with the Almighty, heeding the biblical demand of “walking modestly [vehatzne’a lekhet] with your God” (Mikhah 6:8). Extolling privacy, Faigie Zelcer describes tzeniut as “the quality of internality… a sphere within which exists our relationship with Hashem… an intensely personal, private, and unique bond” (163). Encouraging humility, Yael Kaisman defines a tzanua person as “someone whose ego is centered on expressing Godliness, and contributing to the world by being a vehicle of God’s presence in this world” (104). Regarding feinkeit, Dr. Yocheved Debow (in a reprint of a chapter from her book Talking About Intimacy and Sexuality: A Traditional Guide for the Jewish Parent) observes that “the words we speak and how we speak them, as well as our actions, should always be consistent with this sense of walking with God in the world” (179).

The relationship with God also lies at the heart of prayer. In a particularly incisive essay, Elisheva Kaminetsky traces the difficulty of educating students in both tzeniut and prayer to this commonality between them, explaining that “our relationship with Hashem… is not something that can be taught or imposed” (167). Her concrete suggestions for tzeniuteducation include engaging in more God-talk, role-modeling, and stressing spirituality, all of which would enhance prayer as well. 

Confronting Challenges

Kaminetsky also advocates for providing students with opportunities to ask questions. Raising open questions, without rushing to resolve them, invites those struggling with tzeniut to view identifying with it as an open-ended process that they too might undertake. Perhaps because so many of the contributors are experienced educators with much to say, many of the essays tend to answer more than they question. A few stand out for taking a more exploratory approach that some readers may find more effective.

For example, Shevi Samet examines the challenges of applying tzeniut to social media, acknowledging that “if there’s a spectrum of acceptability and one needs to apply radical honesty and self-reflection in determining their place on it… we run the risk of getting it wrong” (76). Sarah Rudolph quotes an intriguing midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 53:9) that calls the biblical Sarah “excessively modest” to underscore the complexity of “determining how much [modesty] is too much, not enough, or just right” (127). And Shalvie Friedman concludes her efforts to rationalize “The Headache of Hair Covering” by taking comfort in how her sense of the mitzvah’s opacity drives her to seek new meaning from it (147).

Writer and podcaster Alexandra Fleksher poses a question that likely concerns many of the contributors, along with readers: how can we reconcile tzeniut with spreading one’s ideas or taking the spotlight? Her answer for herself is instructive. First, rabbis have encouraged her pursuits. Second, she writes, “Since these are not halachic issues, I also find my answers in how comfortable I feel” (119).

Along these lines, the essays create a sustained and powerful argument for the significance of internalizing the middah of tzeniut and drawing guidance from it, as opposed to basing the criteria for tzanua behavior solely on extrinsic motivations, such as fear of punishment or a desire to conform or please. Unfortunately, as Esti Hamilton cautions, tzeniut education too frequently feeds a damaging culture of conformity. “Often,” she explains, “it is not the laws of modesty, but rather the ‘laws’ of conformity (often to a rigid standard) that create a battleground for a girl as she grows up and starts to individuate… The misplaced focus on conformity causes another challenge for frum women: a constant obsession with body and dress, similar to that which exists in the secular world, and which is enormously destructive” (154). As Ginsparg Klein remembers from her experiences growing up, “Certain personality traits were more tznius than others; introverts were more likely to be labeled tznius than extroverts” (110). Kaisman confides that, for this reason, her younger self “was secretly concerned about whether Hashem wanted me to lock my personality in a box and throw the key away” (103). In other words, some types of tzeniut education can interfere with one’s inner self being expressed.

Observations like these honestly reveal the specific, complex, and sometimes painfully unfair demands that Orthodox communities make of women in the name of tzeniut, and thus ground the case for tzeniut as a middah more firmly in lived reality. Including more such observations might have increased the impact of the compilation.

From Inspiration to Practice

The compilation’s approach to teaching tzeniut reflects a broader educational trend to emphasize an inspirational view of the individual’s path to ahavat Hashem over a fearful brand of yir’ah that enforces communal pressures. How does placing stress on values and inspiration translate into halakhic practice?

Zelcer, describing the logic behind her Penimi Tznius Curriculum, argues that recent educational efforts have failed because “when tznius became a battle over only hems and buttons, the women did not buy it… Women resisted, for they were given only a tiny slice of a huge and beautiful tapestry of connection” (164-165). She seems to assume that an appreciation for the whole tapestry will carry observance past any halakhic knots.

By contrast, Dr. Debow notes, “From my research, I have found that most [Orthodox] teenage girls appreciate and understand the value of tzniut. For the average Orthodox teenager, the arguments are generally in the details and not in the principle” (181).

Indeed, halakhic strictures of tzeniut may prove less amenable to internalization than the middah. Deutsch makes the same point. Though she is personally committed both to tzeniut and to dressing within the bounds of Halakhah, she has the courage to admit that “as much as I internalize the meaning of tznius… there are parts of this mitzvah that I don’t always understand… I don’t believe the choice to wear less clothing is necessarily a reflection of one being less in touch with their inner being” (100). She makes tzeniut and its strictures her own by embracing shifts in her perspective on them as an ongoing journey.

The Halakhic Analysis

The essays build anticipation for a halakhic analysis that will connect appreciation for tzeniut as a middah with internalization and observance of halakhic detail. Rabbi Manning, co-director of Midreshet Tehillah (a Neve Yerushalayim affiliate) and a talmid of Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits, answers this challenge by deliberately focusing “not on halacha per se, but the underlying hashkafic and meta-halachic currents that drive the topic” (199). Rabbi Manning’s main interest lies in halakhic methodology and how it “resonates with the spirit of Torah” (352).

Rabbi Manning begins, understandably, by laying his own hashkafic foundation for discussion. In addition to setting the stage for his analysis, his introduction to tzeniut as a concept also makes it clear to the reader—who has already read several such introductions in the essay compilation—that the two parts of Reclaiming Dignity function as separate books. Though many points of discussion in common with the essays appear in the long Halakhah section, they receive only brief, scattershot mention in footnotes. This seems like a missed opportunity to amplify the contributors’ voices and to enrich the halakhic discussion by engaging with them.

The halakhic discussion has many virtues. Rabbi Manning addresses it to men and women alike, drawing from the work of Rabbis David and Avraham Stav to present an analysis of tzeniut for men. He highlights connections between tzeniut and interpersonal mitzvot, carefully distinguishes ervah from tzeniut, does not ascribe undue significance to the prohibition of lifnei ivver (placing a stumbling block before the blind) as a basis for a woman’s tzanua self-presentation, and argues against pursuing or imposing excessive stringency. The analysis moves in a logical progression from the personal realm to the public and communal. It is especially gratifying to see those elements of the discussion that mirror the writings of my teacher, Rav Yehuda H. Henkin ztzl, and of Deracheha.

The laws of tzeniut provoke much debate, in part because the relevant halakhic categories elude simple definition. Rabbi Manning devotes considerable attention to clarifying concepts such as tzeniut, hashkafah, rabbinic law, and kol ishah that he thinks others have misunderstood, and he expresses disagreement with respect. For example, Rabbi Manning calls it misleading to suggest that “more covering” for women is a pious stringency. Rather than cast those who teach this way negatively, he sheds light on their reasoning and then spotlights his own: “While it is understandable that some teachers feel that this kind of push is helpful in our morally ambiguous world, it is my view that honesty and clarity when teaching Torah is always the best policy” (324).

The assiduous attempts to avoid judging others go very far, sometimes perhaps too far, as in a principled defense of Hasidic customs for women not to drive. “To dismiss such a position,” writes Rabbi Manning, “as ‘oppressive or hierarchical’ is unacceptable and judgmental. Rather, we need to respect the position and understand where it may fit into the rubric of… tzniut” (342-343).

A New Mitzvah

Rabbi Manning writes with confidence and passion, seeking to draw every possible insight from the texts that he quotes. In his enthusiasm, he can sometimes overstep. For example, the Talmud (Ketubot 72a) infers a woman’s obligation to cover her head from the kohen’s obligation to undo a sotah’s hair, “u-fara et rosh ha-ishah,” as part of the sotah ritual (Bamidbar 5:18). A second Talmudic passage learns from the same verse that the kohen would also partially uncover the sotah’s body (Sotah 8a), but it does not mention any implications for a woman’s obligation to cover herself. After quoting both passages, Rabbi Manning makes a weighty, if not fully unpacked, statement that introduces a Torah-level mitzvah to cover the body, also linked to the sotah: “The halachic implications of this mitzvah [of uncovering the sotah] explain two Torah mitzvot—the first relating to covering the hair, and the second to covering the body” (287).

A footnote cites one later authority (Rav Meir ben Shem Tov Melamed, Salonika, d. 1627) in direct support of this statement, while the main text immediately moves on to this linkage’s “significant implications for the hashkafic values of tzniut in public” (288). As a point of comparison, Rabbis Stav quote the same source—but present this claim only as a possibility—and then lay out the halakhic counterarguments. Indeed, since this claim does not seem to appear in the writings of rishonim (early authorities) or in major halakhic codes, one wonders how educationally constructive it is to include it and thereby give added emphasis to the shaming of the sotah.

By the end of the chapter, Rabbi Manning has reframed this possible Torah-level mitzvah for a woman to cover her body in public as a Torah-level obligation for men and women to act in a dignified manner in public: “Every man and woman, before they walk out of the house, should ask themselves if they are dignified or not in the context of what they are doing and where they are going. If not, they may be in breach of the Torah mitzvah of ‘u’fara et rosh ha-ishah’” (291). Rabbi Manning presumably means only to fortify his hashkafic point, which is well taken, rather than to suggest that this is the fundamental Halakhah. Still, the continuous interweaving of Halakhah and hashkafah can create some confusion as to when the halakhic analysis leaves off and the hashkafic homiletics kick in.

Directions for Dat Yehudit

By anchoring tzeniut in public in a Torah-level obligation, Rabbi Manning gains more freedom in analyzing a related halakhic category, dat Yehudit, because less now depends on it. Rambam defines dat Yehudit as the tzeniut practice of Jewish women (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Ishut 24:12). He then lists six actions, derived from the Mishnah (Ketubot7:6), through which a married woman violates dat Yehudit and thus forfeits her marriage settlement (ketubah). Rabbi Manning adopts the position that specifically these examples of dat Yehudit are absolute halakhic strictures, while other modest customs accepted by the community, though binding, remain contingent on context and subject to change.

This view allows for an important, forthright discussion about how “styles, fashions, and customs change within communities… and the minhag [custom] evolves” (305-306). It also provides a basis for recognizing the validity of a wide range of practice and for rejecting attempts to ascribe universal halakhic force to the standards of any one community. As Rabbi Manning notes, “There is a problem in projecting a dat Yehudit onto another community where it is inapplicable” (344).

At the same time, Rabbi Manning defines the scope of dat Yehudit within a given community very broadly, even attempting to apply it to men. Granted, dat Yehudit can apply to cases other than those mentioned by the Mishnah. Thus, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe Even Ha-Ezer 1:69) rules that a woman’s behaving immodestly (bi-fritzut) in a manner inconsistent with her community norms would be in violation of dat Yehudit. Rabbi Manning goes even further with respect to women. His list of possible applications of dat Yehudit for women includes: “Participation in sports (mixed or women only)… Acting or singing in women-only performances. Giving a public shiur in front of men? Driving??” (Question marks his, 341).

Thankfully, he does eventually set some limits: “Generally speaking,” he adds, “an activity that is purely functional and that would not ordinarily attract attention should not be included” (343). Even with this caveat, Rabbi Manning’s application of dat Yehudit remains expansive in the extreme, especially since his discussion of what constitutes inappropriate attracting of attention presents dat Yehudit itself as a halakhic yardstick.

This circularity threatens to erode the distinction between modesty and conformity. Assurances such as, “As long as the lines of dat Yehudit… are not crossed, distinctiveness and individualism can be an engaging expression of personal character, without becoming anomalous or eccentric to the point of attracting attention in a way that lacks tzniut” (314), do not fully reassure. One longs for the clear-eyed candor of Esti Hamilton warning against the perils of undue conformity.

To his credit, Rabbi Manning distinguishes between standards imposed from above, such as dress-code rules, and dat Yehudit that emerges “organically and subtly through the behavior of women in that community who are conscious of the relevant sensitivities of tzniut and the importance of dignity” (303-304). In practice, as Rabbi Manning acknowledges, the origins of a community’s practice are not so easy to trace. More important, if these developments in women’s attitudes and behaviors are in fact organic, how viable is it to map their workings with precision? And is a lengthy written discussion the best guide to navigating them?

Some of the essays hint at a different outlook on the tzeniut customs of Jewish women and how to impart them, as when Alexandra Fleksher finds that awareness of her own comfort level can provide some answers. Rifka Wein Harris articulates an educational approach that she has used with her teenagers: “Our task as parents is to steadfastly project and reflect feinkeit in the hope that once they exit the long, fraught tunnel of teendome, they will intuit and reflect these boundaries on their own” (177). This type of approach resonates as authentic and trusting. It does not lend itself to detailed elaboration.

As these essayists remind us, the community of women is made up of individuals. The collective force of women’s behaviors, regardless of whether they are formalized as dat Yehudit, begins with each woman making decisions about how to speak, dress, and behave. Reclaiming Dignity seeks to cultivate the sensitivities that inform these decisions.

The halakhic analysis, however, suggests that “local rules” should generally override personal sensitivities (346), and that only specific people “are ‘qualified’ to set the tone for dat Yehudit” (350). Suggestions like these could downplay a crucial point, which is a corollary of the view that aspects of dat Yehudit are a changeable, living expression of Jewish women’s internalized values. Personal sensitivities shape dat Yehudit even as they are shaped by it.

Both sections of Reclaiming Dignity have the potential to help women and men chart a more sensitive course to walking modestly with God. Following Poliakoff’s lead, the essayists expertly shift the focus of tzeniut discourse onto the middah. Rabbi Manning gives this shift more halakhic expression and adeptly defends a diversity of practice. It is where the book ends that the real work of enacting tzeniut begins, as readers move on to “intuit and reflect these boundaries on their own.”

Podcasts

Behind The Bima with Rabbi Efrem Goldberg 

Orthodox Conundrum with Rabbi Scott Kahn

Deep Meaningful Conversations with Alexandra Fleksher and Rivki Silver

6 reviews for Reclaiming Dignity

  1. Gabriella

    This formidable tome comprehensively addresses all inquiries one might have about Tzniut, leaving no stone unturned. Its contents comprise a captivating symposium of essays by eminent scholars, constituting approximately one-third of the book’s length. The remainder explores the historical and contemporary implications of Tzniut and its universal relevance.

    Reading this work was a transformative experience, effortlessly assimilating its insights into my worldview. I shall eagerly place it on my “to re-read” list, cherishing its profound impact.

  2. Sagal

    Reclaiming Dignity is filling a void on my bookshelf and in my education—which is significant, since I went to a wonderful Orthodox high school and two years of seminary with in-depth and text-based learning.On the emotional-integration level, the essays really make you think about the lived experience of tznius—with a vast array of voices and angles. On the intellectual level, Rabbi Manning’s sensitive, thorough and nuanced approach brings all the sources together. He lays out the complexity of the different aspects (halacha, das Yehudis, minhag, hashkafa and societal norms) that comprise the law and practice of tznius.
    Thanks to this book, I am beginning to understand this important topic on a much deeper level, which is impacting both my own practice and the way I look at others. – R. Sagal

  3. Chaya

    Great book, goes through an amazing amount of sources to explain the laws of tzniut

  4. Claire

    Never has a book been so needed! This book addresses this sensitive topic with honesty and integrity and presents the reader with a far broader approach to tzniut than I have ever seen before. The depth and breadth of both the essays and Rabbi Manning’s unbelievably widely researched sources are outstanding! I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to come away with a fresh and inspiring approach to this beautiful topic!

  5. Rachel A

    I’m so happy I bought this book! I typically would not buy a book on tznius, but I’m so happy I bought this one. What a refreshing way to look at the topic!

    I haven’t even finished reading the book yet, but I am sold. Anyone considering learning more about tznius and its sources should check out this book. Especially good for people who have a negative reaction anytime they hear the word “tznius”.

  6. Sarah Shapiro

    excellent book

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