This summer my very SoCal teenage daughter had quite the “what do I wear?” dilemma — only it wasn’t the typical which-shorts-go-best-with-my-halter-top. She was hired to babysit for several my orthodox Jewish colleagues, and she didn’t own any appropriately modest clothing. (Side note: I cannot say I did not enjoy, even perhaps relish, her conundrum.)
My daughter’s mad rush to Fox Hills Mall echoed my own mad rush of sorts the previous summer as I prepared to teach at a school that required all female staff wear skirts (hems beneath the knees) and tops that cover both the elbows and the collar bones. Only I experienced a deeper level of grief because I had to say farewell to the plethora of smart pantsuits hanging in my closet (pants suits that I swear mock me as I pass them by each morning). Now I reach for the maxi skirt to don my new frum fashion.
A most compelling argument for modesty was first introduced to me by author Wendy Shalit in her groundbreaking early 2000 book A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue. Shalit dismantles the prevailing Bachelor in Paradise culture and exhorts us to end the sexualization of girls, which sadly is all too relevant today. In short, she declares that modesty equates to self respect, a virtue that is in short shrift (no pun intended) lately. As amazing as Shalit’s work was, is, and continues to be (her online support group called ModestlyYours is worth checking out), she’s merely echoing what the Orthodox Jews have been living out for centuries — tznias, or modesty.
The discussion about clothing took an interesting turn for me, however, this Sunday at church when my pastor delivered a sermon titled, “You are What You Wear,” the second part of a three part series called Be Strong. Essentially, he gave an exegesis of Paul’s urging to the Ephesians to “put on the full armor of God” in order to stand against evil (6:13). The first garments mentioned are the “belt of truth” and the boots “fitted with… readiness” (6:14-15). During the time Paul lived, the Apostolic Age as Christians call it, or 30 to 50 Common Era as the Jewish people call it, Roman soldiers used belts to hold up their lower body armor, so of course this garment would be of the utmost importance. Likewise, twisting an ankle on the battlefield would mean certain death for a Greek hoplite, so well supported foot cover was essential.
And anyone who’s ever played the party game Oregon Trail can attest to the importance of a good pair of boots. Without them, the harsh realities of 19th Century pioneer life settle in and, well, result in your leaving the table only to loiter awkwardly behind your friends while munching on pita and hummus.
Speaking of hummus, the ancient Israelites were not allowed to have weapons or an organized militia under the rule of any of their many oppressors. So does this battle dress imagery fall short when addressing my Orthodox Jewish friends?
Look to the startling description of HaShem in Isaiah 59:17 — “He put on righteousness as his breastplate, and the helmet of salvation on his head…” which Paul’s exhortation all but recites. You see, clearly the Israelites understood that God is omnipotent, and that he alone fights their battles. Knowing God’s manner of dress mattered as they faced Pharaoh, the Babylonians, the Romans, even the so-called Christians. Because HaShem was “wrapped… in zeal as in a cloak,” they could stand firm in faith not fear (59:18). I would also add that while they did not have shields and armor, the Israelites did clothe themselves in traditions, prayer, and community as they do so beautifully today. And let’s not forget the IDF, but I digress.
I think Paul and Rashi could agree on this very point — that the sincere person of faith must purpose to get dressed spiritually for each day.
Disclaimer: Before I continue, let it be understood I do not believe in shaming people for how they dress. (Learned this lesson the hard way. Let me just leave it at that.) Nor am I judging the choices women make. Finally, I am not ignorant to the complexities modesty plumbs in today’s Judeo-Christian community as well as the secular world at large.
As a Christian, getting dressed spiritually for each day essentially means “cloth[ing] yourself with Jesus” (Romans 13:14). The goal, of course, is to emanate His compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. The reality is that the best most of us can muster on a typical day, and maybe I’m the outlier here, is a few prayers and a quick look at the Bible. Also, as a community, we don’t really have a sense of what constitutes modesty save for the general concept of not causing your neighbor to stumble in lust, which really boils down to not wearing two piece swimsuits at summer camp. I would also argue that we as Christians haven’t figured out how to connect the whole “put on the armor of God” thing with how we actually present ourselves to the world.
From my limited perspective this initial year of teaching in an Orthodox Jewish school, I believe they have figured out how to connect it all. To them, getting dressed spiritually means something so much more.
It means prayer or Tefillah every morning and every afternoon and evening. But this prayer is not a solo activity with hands clasped and eyes closed. It’s communal with hands clasping a seder and eyes open to read God’s word… and mouths moving, speaking God’s promises, standing, sitting, standing. Believe me, it is a sight of true beauty and wonder, and my first day of work was deeply impacted by it.
The pursuit of righteousness inherent in the modern Orthodox is also linked to how they actually dress. In Jewish history, many communities would agree upon specific styles of clothing in order to recognize one another as a fellow Jew. In order to be united as one people, they emphasized conforming to one unique look. In a sense, the community’s survival depended on it. Also, the idea of women wearing skirts instead of pants is born of the sentiment that women should have an identity which is significant and their own. I envy that shared identity, and I am happy I get to be a small part of it now (if you saw us all on a field trip, believe me, you would know that we are together).
While modesty is the general aim for single as well as married women, the covering of one’s hair with a sheitel, for instance, applies to only the married, a practice that took me somewhat by surprise.
In my previous schools, a teacher would never be allowed to wear a beret, a ball cap, or a head scarf. How do they get away with it, I wondered that first week. In my previous schools, no one (that I knew of) wore a wig for that matter. Why does everyone have such gorgeous, perfect hair every day, I questioned to myself, secretly planning to see my stylist post haste.
Of course I soon learned that covering one’s hair is a way of honoring your husband, a way of protecting what is private and intimate, a way of remaining holy and committed. It’s a metaphoric helmet of salvation for a marriage. But mostly, it’s an act of love. (Especially in this August heat!)
Being in no way near qualified to get into the Talmud, kli gever, or beged isha, I will leave it at this… my beloved newfound Jewish community has taught me the importance of connecting my spiritual life to my daily choices, and that one powerful way to do that is by saying yes to the righteous[dr]ess. Baruch HaShem and Thank God.
#modesty #wendyshalit #judaism #christianity #yeshiva