Extreme Immodesty and Modesty Extremism – Marching to the Beat of our Own Drums
Earlier this week, after much hesitation and deliberation about weighing in on a recent Jewish news story, I wrote the following:
My wife is one of the most modest people I know – humble, appropriate, under the radar and tzanua. And… she played the drums at our wedding.
Countless people have forwarded the articles about the bride in Bnei Brak who played the drums at her wedding and the hall and band were forced to apologize for the breach of modesty. Many have asked for my reaction to the story, given our wedding.
So here it is: There are parts of the Torah definition of modesty that are objective, regulated by Jewish law and there are parts that are subjective, standards created by each particular community. All would agree a woman playing an instrument is not objectively prohibited. Apparently, some communities would define it as a subjective breach of modesty, and we need to recognize that they are entitled to do so.
However, while adopting extreme and perhaps excessive standards of modesty might seem like the appropriate reaction and response to our culture which is increasingly becoming extremely immodest, it doesn’t come without a risk and a cost.
We are caught in a vicious cycle in which the extreme immodesty is breeding modesty extremism. The more society says there are no boundaries or limits, that nobody has a right to impose any definition of modesty on anyone else and all are entitled to dress, act, say and identify however they please and in whatever way makes them happy, the more those committed to modesty feel they need to become more restrictive and more narrow, even to the point of the absurd.
But the result is counterproductive as some who in principle are committed to modesty, see the extremism and are so turned off, they go in the opposite direction. Given the choice of living in one of the two worlds, they feel more comfortable with those who bend modesty that those who are excessively rigid with it.
But here is the thing – there aren’t only two options, we don’t have to choose between the extremes. There is a world of Torah observant Jews who are both committed to modesty in principle and in practice, who live with boundaries in speech, dress and conduct and who are turned off equally by extremism on both sides. We need to find a way to band together to preserve the attitude and community standards that are not only most true to Torah and our mesorah, but most likely to retain and attract others to a Torah way of life. We need to not feel apologetic or defensive to either side but we must articulate the values that inform our space, the “normal” place so those like us don’t feel so lonely, so frustrated and such despair from what they see in both directions.
So, if a community wants to adopt a standard of women not playing instruments in public, it is not only entitled to, there is something admirable about its conscious effort to enforce a sense of modesty. However, the goal posts of modesty for the rest of the Jewish community isn’t moved because of it and nobody should be measured or judged by it. We remain entitled, by halacha and by mesorah, to subscribe to the same objective standards of modesty while defining and preserving our own subjective ones which includes our brides playing the drums on a night unlike most others, where they are center stage by any measure.
My thoughts clearly struck a chord and resonated with many as the post quickly picked up steam and was shared widely. But not surprisingly, not all agreed or were happy with it. I am grateful for their feedback and for the opportunity to engage in this conversation. I think it is a critically important one, and I have a few further points I’d like to share.
First, those living in Israel and those living in America are addressing two different realities and describing two different phenomena which, though they overlap and are similar, are also very different. In Israel, the more right-wing community often doesn’t only adopt standards for themselves, but its zealots and enthusiasts have been guilty of coercing those not from their community to adopt their standards. In America, in my experience, the right-wing community establishes policies for their constituents and does not try to coerce or force it on others. So while, for example, pictures of women have been torn down in non-charedi communities in Israel and innocent young women in Beit Shemesh have been treated nothing short of horrifically for wearing clothing that does not live up to charedi standards of modesty, nobody in America is forcing others to subscribe to magazines that don’t include women’s pictures. This distinction is very important and I believe informs our different views on this issue.
Second, I referenced the recent incident with a bride playing drums in Bnei Brak to share thoughts on the broader issue but wasn’t focused on that particular story. Of course, I agree that no individual should be shamed or embarrassed or the subject of gossip, not in the name of preserving modesty or for other reasons, noble or ignoble.
Third, I regret not being more clear in what I meant when I wrote, “there is something admirable about its conscious effort to enforce a sense of modesty.” I don’t believe this specific policy or other extreme policies are admirable. My admiration is not for the policy or how it was executed, it was more broadly for a community that is committed to preserving modesty in an increasingly immodest world.
To be clear, I share the frustration with the direction of modesty extremism. That is why I originally wrote that I think these new restrictions are not only inconsistent with our mesorah, I fear they are counterproductive. But now what? There is extreme immodesty in one direction and modesty extremism in another. Both concern me, but neither of those sides is concerned with what I think about their policies and practices. So what is the best response? I believe it is to work on our community, to create and protect a space for those who are unequivocally committed to halacha, who yield to Torah and mesorah, but who believe in moderation, normalcy and standards that are reasonable and arrived at with input from all the stakeholders.
I believe it is both more appropriate, and more fruitful, to channel my frustration into important conversations regarding our community’s policies and efforts regarding modesty, than it is to try to influence the standards of other communities who want to hear what we think, about as much as we want to hear their opinions about us.
While I disagree with them, I believe those communities who have adopted policies for themselves and are not imposing them on others (like in America), are entitled to come to their own conclusions. I even presume they are doing so responsibly and thoughtfully. I know some of them personally, they are not the Taliban, they aren’t misogynists or barbarians. They are struggling with navigating the input of gedolei yisrael, the “marketplace,” and how to implement what they think is morally correct.
I don’t want them telling me that I am not entitled to my conclusions and I am not prepared to tell them that their conclusions are categorically wrong. Their positions are not appropriate for my community and that is why I will advocate in every way that I can that we not adopt them or imitate them, but I am not the arbiter, judge, or policeman of what is deemed modest in other communities.
But if our only conversations and articles protest what we reject, we have done a terrible disservice and have left a great vacuum. The conversations in our community about moderate modesty or normal tznius seem to always focus on the “moderate” and the “normal” and not a lot on the “modesty” or the “tznius.” Are we doing anything to address the modesty in our community, from ostentatiousness and flamboyancy to consuming pop culture indiscriminately?
Why do people in our community feel so comfortable sharing about television or movies they watch that would once qualify as soft pornography with no shame or embarrassment? Why do we ignore or brush aside issues with promiscuity within our community? What are we doing about the objectification of women, not only by extreme rules of modesty, but by the marketing and celebration of increasingly immodest models and actresses? When and how will we protest society’s continually lowering the standards for publicly acceptable language and messages?
I can’t speak for what is happening in Israel and am heartbroken when I hear stories of people, mostly women, being physically coerced or bullied in their community by those from a community with different standards. But let’s change the conversation from what we are rejecting to what we want to adopt. Let’s shift from that which is beyond our control to that which we can influence. Let’s convene to analyze what is working and what isn’t, what is appropriate and what is counterproductive. Let’s not only talk about what we shouldn’t look like, let’s dream and aspire to holiness that our community could model.
Instead of offering condemnation of others, let’s use this opportunity to ask questions of ourselves. How can we inspire and improve our sense of modesty with normalcy and moderation? What can we do to preserve our sacred boundaries and to raise the level of holiness in our community? Let’s not only talk about those who are getting it wrong, let’s have a conversation about how to get it right. If we can successfully articulate a compelling vision, we will not only enthusiastically retain those from our community, we will become a place that attracts those who are turned off by others.