Letters to the Editor
Modesty, Fashion, and Self: A Religious Fashion Designer’s Account
In the world of Orthodox Jewish thought, the conversation surrounding modesty has taken a significant leap forward since the publication of Reclaiming Dignity and the reviews in the Lehrhaus pages by Laurie Novick and Emmanuel Bloch. While valuable discussions have emerged from this discourse, one aspect that remains underrepresented is the personal experience of fashion. As a religious woman and a fashion designer, I believe it is essential to add socio-historical context to this conversation.
Revisiting the context of the 1960s fashion revolution sheds light on the increased focus on modesty in contemporary times. The 1950s were characterized by the elite’s fashion choices, with elegant dresses and white gloves being the norm. However, the 1960s brought about a new sense of identity and expression for young people. Dress codes loosened and fashion became more relaxed, even for the older generation, as evidenced by figures like Jackie Kennedy favoring mini-skirts.
My personal journey into the world of fashion began as an expression of transformation. Having spent seven years in the seminary world and grappling with challenges such as depression, body image, and navigating dating and breakups in my 20s, I used tzeniut (modesty) both as a religious expression and as a method of control—a way to disconnect myself from rising sexuality as a single woman in her mid-twenties. However, as I embarked on a journey of healing and personal growth in my thirties, I found solace and freedom in clothing. Fashion became my art form, not only in what I wore but also in creating fashion lines that garnered attention from mainstream stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Macy’s. Our broader discourse should reflect these themes as well; as we explore the conversation around modesty, we must acknowledge its connections to body image, sensuality, and self-esteem.
To find guidance in the development of how we relate to fashion and clothing, we can turn to the Torah. To cite some brief starting points for consideration: Adam and Eve first used clothing, realizing their nakedness, covering themselves and hiding—seemingly in shame—from God. The term beged means both clothing and trickery, and was used by Jacob (dressing up in Esau’s clothing) to deceive his father. However, the significance of clothing evolves over the course of the Torah, with the pinnacle being the priestly clothing. The hakhmei lev, those imbued with the wisdom to construct the Tabernacle—fashion designers in essence—were chosen to create the clothing for the purpose of beauty and for splendor. How different that is than to use clothing for the use of covering in shame and trickery.
As we continue the conversation on modesty, it is crucial to reflect on, and build on the Torah’s treatment of the meaning of clothing, the significance of clothing as it projects images of our inner selves to the world and our roles in society. Clothing is not merely about hiding our bodies but also about revealing our true selves, expressing our divine connection, and inspiring others through our attire. Just as the priests’ sacred garments exuded splendor and beauty not only to their wearers but to society as well, so too can our clothing be a testament to our devotion and role as agents of change in this world.
Ahava Schachter Zarembski
(Director of Women’s Education at Congregation Schara Tzedeck)
I enjoyed reading Emmanuel Bloch’s review of Reclaiming Dignity, particularly his sharp sociological insights, and more broadly, his counterintuitive take on the book as a whole. This particular volume, for reasons Bloch both understands and carefully examines, has received (seemingly) universal approbation, at least according to my media consumption.
However, the primary question Bloch’s evaluation left me with was, “If so, then what?” Meaning: if we grant that R. Falk’s relationship to tzeniut is excessively puritanical, and we deem R. Manning and Mrs. Poliakoff’s approach excessively apologetic to be a fair representation of classical views of tzeniut, how, then, did Hazal understand tzeniut in Bloch’s schema? Is any coherent, overarching “theory of the case” viable in his view?
In addition, I would be curious to hear Bloch’s analysis of the book’s halakhic treatment. While of course related to its hashkafic content, presumably this lengthy section could be “untainted” by some of the more accommodationist tendencies Bloch attributes to the book’s overtly hashkafic second half.
Finally, and as an absolute sidebar, given my own professional investments, I could not let slide Bloch’s appraisal that the kiruv movement “has been in severe crisis for a decade and a half,” an aspersion promoted by a now-infamous Mishpacha article he cites, and elsewhere. Bloch makes the common error of equating kiruv’s evolution with its decline. Students (and young professionals) may be less inclined to follow a long lecture from the aforementioned kiruv “superstars” (all still active, albeit), but by any metrics the movement writ large is flourishing.
Olami, primary purveyor of programming among the 18-32 year old populations, currently sponsors over 300 organizations in nearly 30 countries, servicing upwards of 50,000 students and young professionals each year. This is far more “front line” activity than ever has existed prior.
If Bloch would prefer to judge by yeshiva/seminary attendance, Aish HaTorah is filled to capacity, as are Machon Shlomo and Machon Yaakov. A new seminary, Aish Aspire, recently opened. This is without mentioning Schapells, Neve, Shearim, et al. Ohr Sameach Israel recently completed renovating their beit midrash. And while Ohr Sameach Monsey—Bloch’s alma mater—did close, The Shaar in Far Rockaway, Torah Links’ new program in Lakewood, and even Toras Dovid on that same property all have emerged to fill this domestic void.
I invite Bloch to come visit any of these institutions for a refresher on current ongoings, or to join me on campus to share his prodigious knowledge with a largely unlettered generation.
Finally, drawing some kind of straight line between the emergence of “Kiruv Kerovim” and the (perceived) decline of “Kiruv Rehokim” strikes me as a bit too tidy. The latter’s persistence has been demonstrated (albeit briefly), and the former’s growth is much more likely a function of an emboldened Orthodox community—numerically larger, which invariably stratifies the population, and no longer willing to brook any disaffections.
In any event, these modest critiques notwithstanding, Bloch’s keen ability to trace various philosophical and public policy approaches to shifting sociological trends constitutes a valuable contribution to this significant, often sensitive, subject. I look forward to his further offerings.
Silver Spring, MD
(Executive Director, MEOR Maryland)