Reclaiming Dignity Reviewed

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Laurie Novick

Reclaiming Dignity: A Guide to Tzniut for Men and Women (Mosaica Press, 2023)

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 tzeniut education 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 (Ketubot 7:6), 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.”

Laurie Novick is Director and Head Writer for Deracheha: Women and Mitzvot (, an online halachic education initiative under the auspices of Yeshivat Har Etzion. She is a Nishmat Yoetzet Halacha and Fertility Counselor, serving as a Senior Responder for, and a teacher at the Migdal Oz Beit Midrash for Women.