Understanding Tzniut

Modern Controversies in the Jewish Community

By Yehuda Henkin

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 141

ISBN: 13: 978-965-524-005-4, 10: 965-524-005-3


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by Rabbi Yehuda Henkin

Hardcover, 141 pages
ISBN 13: 978-965-524-005-4
ISBN 10: 965-524-005-3
publication: 2008

In his innovative and magisterial lead essay, Rabbi Yehuda Henkin analyzes the pervasive yet little-understood area of women’s modesty. In Understanding Tzniut, Rabbi Henkin also examines the issues of handshaking, aliyot to the Torah, and dancing with a sefer Torah, as well as general topics such as questions of rabbinical misjudgment during the Holocaust and the relationship to Israel’s government in the wake of the expulsion from Gush Katif. To all topics, Rabbi Henkin brings halachic stature, scholarship and erudition.

About the Author:

Rabbi Yehuda Henkin, an authority on Jewish law (posek halacha), occupies a central position in contemporary halachic discourse. The author of Bnei Banim – four volumes of Hebrew responsa – and a commentary on the Torah, he also writes prolifically in English on topics of Torah commentary, Halacha and Jewish thought. He is the grandson of the gaon Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu Henkin ztz”l.

Rabbi Henkin’s previous books in English are: Equality Lost: Essays in Torah Commentary, Halacha, and Jewish Thought (1999), New Interpretations on the Parsha (2001) and Responsa on Contemporary Jewish Women’s Issues (2003).

Praise for Understanding Tzniut

The topic of modest dress in Jewish law is one that is very dependent on local custom. While there are some issues that are universal, most of the details are location specific. This became glaringly obvious a few years ago when R. Pesach Eliyahu Falk published a book titled Modesty: An Adornment for Life, which consistently presented practices that represent the norm in certain Charedi/Chassidic circles as the unequivocal standard.

R. Yehuda Henkin has published a detailed and devastating critique of many of R. Falk's fundamental positions. This long essay originally appeared in the journal Tradition and has now been updated and published in a book appropriately titled Understanding Tzniut: Modern Controversies in the Jewish Community. The essay is published alongside another two related essays and a second section of interesting essays on unrelated topic (e.g. whether one must show respect to a disrespectful Torah scholar and the proper attitude towards the state of Israel post-Disengagement). R. Henkin's essay on modest dress analyzes a number of relevant topics (e.g. women's haircovering, necklines) and shows that R. Falk's positions are extreme. In reaching his conclusions, R. Henkin displays a mastery of both halakhic views on this subject and sound reasoning.
-R. Gil Student
Hirhurim blog

Sex is a hot issue. But for Orthodoxy the preoccupation with illicit sexual attraction has taken on an all-encompassing centrality.

Concern that men will be enticed by women while they make their way through the public sphere has provoked religious leaders to take radical measures.

Dozens of public bus lines, catering to a predominantly haredi population, regularly separate the two sexes, placing women at the back of the bus while men are seated up front.

Increasingly more demanding standards of dress are being adopted by haredi women. A small fringe group headed by Bruria Keren of Ramat Beit Shemesh has even chosen to adopt the dress code of radical Islam, including total face coverings and multiple layers of clothing that totally hide the curves and shapes of the female anatomy. There are small groups of these women in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak and other places.

In the haredi media the situation is the same. Female images of any kind are conspicuously absent from all haredi newspapers. Haredi sensitivities to the dangers of lascivious influences are so developed that even a young male singer whose voice sounded uncannily female was banned from the haredi airwaves.

The sacrifice made by religious women to adhere to the strictures of chastity and modesty imposed by the norms of their communities is enormous.

Some women are willing to burn wigs made of human hair worth thousands of dollars in deference to rabbinic opinion. Others opt to search out new women-only job settings created especially for the haredi public in towns such as Modi'in Illit and Betar, thus forgoing socioeconomic upward mobility.

Even the more modern circles of Orthodoxy have been affected by this trend. Just recently a group of religious Zionist soldiers were thrown in military prison for refusing to take part in a lecture given by a female soldier. A list of leading religious Zionist rabbis signed a petition demanding that the IDF accommodate modern religious soldiers' demands for separation of the sexes.

Understanding Tzniut: Modern Controversies in the Jewish Community, written by Yehuda Henkin, former rabbi of the Beit She'an Valley and author of the Bnei Banim compilation of halachic responsa, provides a framework for understanding religious communities' attempts to bundle up, segregate and generally desexualize the public sphere.

The book, a series of articles published previously in modern Orthodox journals of Jewish law such as Tradition and Hakirah lacks a single cohesive theme. It even includes chapters that have nothing whatsoever to do with tzniut (roughly translated as modest and chaste behavior and dress), such as one titled "After Gush Katif: May One Oppose Israel's Government?" and "A Memorial Day for European Jewry - Did its Rabbis Err?" But the bulk of the book is a discussion of Jewish legal sources dealing with women's dress codes and the mingling of the sexes and how they are implemented by contemporary halachic authorities.

Henkin might get too technical and bogged down by the intricacies of Jewish law for the taste of the general reader. But it is precisely here, amid the legalistic nitty-gritty of the centuries-old halachic discourse among rabbis, where Henkin stages his argument against extreme trends in Orthodoxy.

His most central argument against the religious community's obsessive preoccupation with tzniut is habituation. Quoting extensive halachic sources, Henkin shows that sexual arousal is culturally dependent. Centuries ago the rabbis understood that in cultures that condoned the free mingling of the sexes, dress codes and strictures against socializing with the opposite sex could be loosened.

"Where women walk around in halter tops or less, a short sleeved blouse is minimally provocative and when pornography is rampant, viewing a woman's face is not titillating." Henkin never explains why this is so. Perhaps it is a type of conditioning. If a man is bombarded with sexuality, he gradually loses his sensitivity. His threshold rises. He becomes numbed.

Another possibility is that in cultures where speaking with a woman, shaking her hand, seeing her hair is the norm there is no reason to read into these encounters a sexual connotation. The range of platonic relations between men and women widens. Women's dress or behavior is not given a lascivious interpretation by men. Whatever the reason, rabbis have cited habituation as a justification for permitting a number of practices which some halachic sources prohibit. For instance walking behind a woman, inquiring about a married woman's welfare, mixed seating at weddings and being exposed to women's hair during prayer.

For Henkin, habituation is a force for potential leniencies in Judaism. In communities and cultures where men and women mingle freely, certain strictures can be abandoned. He is careful to point out that it is forbidden to introduce the mingling of the sexes in communities where it does not already exist. Rather Halacha can only legitimize an existing practice.

But Henkin never fully examines the possibility of how habituation could work in the opposite direction to introduce ever more stringent behavior - a phenomenon that exists today. What happens if communities become accustomed to covering up and segregating their women? Devoid of contact with members of the opposite sex from an early age, would men become hypersensitive sex maniacs? Would every movement by a woman, even the most innocent, trigger uncontrollable sexual excitement?

To say that men are solely a product of conditioning like a sexually crazed version of Pavlov's dog is a degrading view of human nature. Where is free will? Does Judaism really believe that humans are nothing but walking libidos, lascivious products of their circumstances? One would be hard pressed to find an answer to this question in Henkin's book. But, thankfully, if one looks hard enough one can find it. In a footnote to a subsection entitled "Limits to Enactments," Henkin does offer a short explanation. He cites a Jewish law that prohibits a man from gazing at the colored clothes of a woman he knows because it is liable to spark sexual fantasizing.

"That being the case," asks Henkin, "why didn't the Sages forbid the wearing of colored clothing altogether, at least outside the home?" Good idea. Why not institute a sweeping black-only apparel policy for women like the one adopted by haredi men? After explaining that women would never accept such a policy since they "seek to be attractive," unlike men, apparently, who seek to be repulsive, Henkin points out as an afterthought an incisive insight that does not even warrant being included in the main body of his book: "...it is the responsibility of the man not to look, and not the responsibility of the woman to avoid affording the man something to look at."

Too bad Henkin's insight does not have a more central position in halachic discourse. If it did, expectations would be higher that men exercise their free will. And men would be expected to solve their sexual hang-ups on their own without thinking so much about what women should be doing to help them. Then, to borrow a phrase from Henkin, there would not be a danger of "being so concerned about not thinking about women that one can think of nothing else."
-Matthew Wagner
Jerusalem Post

I am generally wary of new publications on the issue of modesty in the Jewish community, and I opened this book with some trepidation. I find the heightened concern, awareness and publicity regarding issues of dress and "appropriate behavior" that are discussed in books and articles invariably written by men about women's deportment to be the epitome of a lack of tzni'ut. I assume that this topic is becoming more and more a central concern to the Jewish community is at least partially a response to a change in values in general society, which have become less in tune with traditional Jewish values. At the same time, constant harping on a person's appearance and how a person dresses puts a tremendous emphasis on superficial issues drawing more attention to them. If the purported reason for raising these issues is to lessen focus on sensual and sexual visual triggers, pointing them out may not be the best way to do it.

With this concern in mind, I found Rabbi Henkin's thin volume Understanding Tzniut to be a valuable resource. The book opens with a straightforward analysis of some of the basic foundations of issues of tzniut as they appear in the Talmud, the rishonim and aharonim. As useful as his survey of these sources is, however, the most valuable part of the book is the general approach that he offers to this topic. Decrying attempts to codify the laws that govern these areas of halakhah, Rabbi Henkin insists that tzni'ut must be seen in the larger, cultural context of given communities, arguing that by definition sensuality is subjective and must be judged based on community norms. Thus, these are halakhot that will differ depending on what is considered sensual in different settings, and cannot be codified with hard-and-fast rules.

Practical implications of this principle may affect how Jewish law treats issues ranging from women saying kaddish and reading Megillat Esther to everyday interactions between men and women, such as handshaking in a professional setting. Rabbi Henkin deals with these topics and others, quoting primary sources, analyzing them and suggesting conclusions that can be reached about them.

These essays, together with others that deal with general issues on the agenda of the contemporary Orthodox community on topics - such as the establishment of Yom HaShoah and dealing with the aftermath of the Gush Katif evacuation - make this worthwhile reading for the Jewish educator. Rabbi Henkin, whose grandfather was one of the leading Rabbinic figure of 20th century American Jewry is an accessible individual and reading his published works may encourage teachers and educational leaders to contact him to discuss contemporary issues in the Jewish community.
-Shalom Berger
Lookstein Digest

Tzniut, incorporating Jewish standards of modesty in behavior and in dress is a much debated topic. The major focus of this book is a discussion of Jewish legal sources dealing with women’s dress codes and the mingling of the sexes, and an examination of how these have been implemented by contemporary halakhic authorities. Rabbi Henkin, a leading halakhic scholar and posek, considers that many in the religious community are obsessively preoccupied with details of permitted lengths and materials of clothes. In his view, this leads to the danger of “losing sight of the real basics of modesty-not to mention being so concerned about not thinking about women that one can think of nothing else”. With a firm conviction in the importance of women’s Torah learning, he dismisses the view that just as a man has the study of Torah, a woman has the practice of tzniut. One of his central arguments for possible leniencies in the area of tzniut is what he terms ‘habituation’. In cultures and communities where men and women mingle freely, for example, certain behavior no longer need be seen as provocative. He makes clear that this is not an argument for permitting activities with explicit or implicit sexual content. One need not agree with everything Rabbi Henkin says to appreciate his deep Torah scholarship, intellectual honesty and concern for Klal Yisrael.
-JOFA Journal