Monday, January 9, 2012

What is Tznius Really All About?

With all this talk of what tznius is not about, I thought I should take a shot at explaining what tznius actually is all about.  And I figure I should start with the problem I have with the Charedi attitude toward tznius, in the way they educate girls.  Tznius in most Bais Yakov schools is just a bunch of extreme rules that the teachers over-emphasize at the cost of actually teaching girls what tznius is really all about.  It's about skirt lengths and thick stockings, and about getting yelled at for not complying with what they claim are the halachic requirements of tznius, when they are really just chumras. 
So what is tznius really about?  I think what tznius is really all about is focusing on the internal aspects of a person, not on the external aspects.  The purpose of women dressing modestly is so that when you see the woman, you are not distracted by her appearance, but instead can focus on her internal qualities.  This I believe is the meaning of the statement "kol kvuda bas melech pnima," that the honor of a woman is in her ability to draw attention to her internal qualities, not her outer appearance. 
So what is the result of Bais Yakov schools teaching that tznius is all about these stupid rules and nothing else?  Just have a look around Flatbush and the 5 Towns, veha-mayvin yavin (no pun intended).  And if you are not so fortunate, I will fill you in.  Basically, many women follow the rules, but still manage to dress extremely provocatively.  This is of course the result of being taught that tznius is just a bunch of rules.
So how do you teach girls what tznius is really all about?  Maybe teachers can be role models themselves of how to act tznius.  Maybe they could focus on the internal qualities of their students, instead of their skirt lengths. 


  1. Ha-mayvin: great post about an important topic. I was thinking about your statement that tznius ed. today is just a "bunch of extreme rules" rather than discussions about the value of tznius. I wonder if it's better that tznius is taught as rules rather than more emphasis on the hashkafic underpinning behind modesty. Elementary and high school students aren't intellectually developed enough to really internalize the abstract hashkafa behind tznius (I know I wasn't). At least with a bombardment of rules, girls have something concrete and understandable to carry with them. I think it's much easier to rationalize breaking the laws of tznius when your understanding of it is primarily philosophical. I agree with you that today girls dress within the letter not spirit of the law. Still, most Brooklyn/5 Towns girls meet the technical requirements of tznius because they've been bombarded with rules at an early age. Perhaps it's best that Bais Yaakovs stress rules over reason.

  2. While it may be true that elementary students are not old enough to understand the concept of tznius, I definitely think high school girls can understand it. If they are expected to understand calculus and physics, they can understand tznius. And while a de-emphasis on the rules might cause the technical rules to be broken more often, it would likely cause more women to follow the spirit of the rules, which I think is more important.
    And this brings me to a broader point about high school education. I think yeshivas avoid engaging high school students in intellectual conversations about Judaism, arguing that high school kids are not sophisticated enough to understand it. But I think that's just pretext. I think they're just too lazy and don't want to have to deal with it, so they stifle all such discussions. In addition, the better you treat high school kids, the better they will act. If you treat teens like a bunch of brainless kids, they will act like brainless kids. If you treat them like the semi-adults they are capable of being, they will act like as mature as they can.