What does progressive Judaism (liberal, such as Reform, Reconstructionist, and others) think about dressing and "tziniut" (modesty)? What is its position? Is this different than more traditional views (such as Orthodox, Conservative, or Lubavitch)?
Certainly there is no one way that all Jews from a particular denomination view any particular topic. But, I think there are common values that help each of us understand how we get there.
For me as a Reconstructionist Jew, the values that I focus on when thinking about how I dress are; comfort, respect (both for my body and for the community), and necessity. Clothing ought to be comfortable when you wear it and should also show respect for the body and the customs of the community I am in. Finally, clothing should also be practical. As an active outdoors person I am struck by the number of people I come across who are dress inadequately to be outside. It isn’t safe, and doesn’t represent the best values of our tradition. The same is true in my work. If clothing looks good, but doesn’t help me be a better rabbi then I probably don’t need to wear it. Additionally, I personally find that wearing clothing with lots of labels takes away from the individual person and so I prefer clothes without identifying markers that are visibly printed.
Certainly there are other values at play for me; tradition and tzniyut. Reconstructionists believe that the “past has a vote, but not a veto.” That means the customs of our ancestors should always be considered and given weight within a conversation of values. Although many liberal Jews wears clothing mixed with wool and linen, I personally don’t wear shatnez. Although there is no particular reason, I understand that an ancient custom has importance and I appreciate being able to provide the link in that chain of transmission.
Modesty is a more complex issue and I believe has personal tones to it that need to be carefully considered. Clothing should show respect for the body and care of the soul. But the kinds of clothes that meet those goals are different for different folks. I get frustrated when people complain or judge other folks because they don’t approve of how they dress. And this happens at the synagogue, particularly around young teens. I remember once receiving a note from a board member of a synagogue I worked at complaining that I wore sandals on the bima. And I recall thinking at that time, why was he looking at my feet during my devar torah! He couldn’t imagine why I made that choice, and I couldn’t imagine why he was concerned about it. I just think there are better ways to build community and show respect for our individual differences and preferences.
Certainly a Reconstructionist understanding of tzniyut is different than some more traditional approaches. In the end, however, I think the values that guide the conversation are the same. The beauty of Judaism is that we can all travel the same journey, end up in different places, and continue the conversation moving forward.
I hope I can do as much justice to explaining the concept of tziut as certain individuals have recently done to corrupt it. Tziut is a lot more than modest; it is the Jewish concept of self. Properly translated as concealment, it is a philosophy of how to "be there" and not at the same time. It's about putting your best face forward by reserving yourself at the same time. The way you dress, speak, act are all part of creating a public you as opposed you the private you. The point is to focus people on the person's human (spiritual/intellectual) qualities and not their animalistic (physical) qualities.
Judaism is intellect centered. It is not anti-physical, but rather sees the physical is seen as a vehicle to refine the spiritual essence. The opposite of tziut is pritzut, bursting out. To contrast the two, a tziut person will discuss the finer points of Torah or engage in some other intellectual dialogue whereas a parutz (one who engages in pritzut) will instead gossip or tell you things about themselves you would never want to know. A tziut person lives to uphold social order whereas a parutz looks to undo it.
The most obvious application of the principle is dress. A Jew is supposed to wear nice, clean clothes that do not direct a person to look at their physical attributes. Bright colors, outlandish costumes, and the revealing of skin can all fall under the category of un-tziut dress. These requirements apply to both men and women, but are usually discussed in terms of women because of simple sociological realities. Men are attracted in a more base way than women. For example, a man will usually be automatically attracted to a scantly-clad woman whereas any woman will tell you that there are parts of a man that are distinctly not attractive.
Tziut is actually very logical. You wouldn't share your credit card information with a stranger or details of your private life (well actually I have had random people spill their guts to me but I assure you it was quite awkward). Why would you share your body the same way? Isn't your body worth at least as much as your money?
I can see of course that I lack a certain street credit as a male that people see as dictating rules upon women. I recommend a book called A Return to Modesty by Wendy Shalit. She does an excellent job of presenting the concept from a women's non-religious perspective. She can do it more justice than I ever could.
To address the crux of your question, the only difference between the traditional Jewish and the Reform/Conservative/Reconstructist stance on tziut is whether the guidelines of tziut are governed by Jewish law and Jewish tradition or are they a function of what non-Jewish society deems appropriate. I don't think you will find anything particularly different written from the perspective of a Reform/Conservative/Reconstructist rabbi.
In your question, you place Conservative Judaism in the same category as Orthodoxy. Although Conservative Judaism is generally more traditional than Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism, and although it views halacha (Jewish law) more similarly to the way it is viewed within Orthodoxy than to the way it is viewed within the movements which you call “liberal,” the dress codes within Conservative communities tend to be more similar to the dress codes within the liberal movements than to the dress codes within the traditional movements. Having said that, Conservative Judaism, like Orthodox Judaism, values tz’niut (modest) and believes that the way we dress is a way of reflecting this value and the belief that we are all created b’tzelem Elohim (in God’s image).
In Conservative synagogues, dress codes are often not made explicit. However, there seems to be an “I know it when I see it” standard when it comes to violating the implicit rules of tz’niut (modesty). For example, the following garments would be considered inappropriate for women attending Shabbat or holiday services in most Conservative synagogues: shorts, exposed midriff, exposed cleavage, exposed underwear, tight pants, crops tops, tube tops, strapless dresses, halter tops or dresses, tight skirts or dresses, and short skirts or dresses.
However, what is often not clear is “how tight is too tight?” or “how short is too short?” Within the Conservative movement (as well as within the other movements, including Orthodoxy), there is a range in what is considered to be appropriately tz’nius-dik (modest) dress. Some Conservative organizations (including Solomon Schechter day schools, Camp Ramah, & United Synagogue Youth) specify in written documents “how short is too short.” For example, the applications of all conventions sponsored by USY (United Synagogue Youth, the Conservative movement’s youth group for teenagers) include a written dress policy that specifies the appropriate length of skirts and dresses for teenage girls; some regions permit “fingertip length,” while others require “knee length.”
There is also some variation from one Conservative organization to the next regarding the acceptability of women wearing pants or sleeveless tops. In some Conservative contexts, sleeveless tops and dresses are permissible, as long as most of the shoulder and back is covered; thus, tank tops might be permissible, but dresses with spaghetti straps would be impermissible. Other Conservative organizations do not permit sleeveless tops at all.
In general, within Conservative organizations, there is a more modest standard of dress expected during Shabbat and holiday services than at other times. For example, most synagogues, USY chapters, and Camp Ramah sites permit the wearing of T-shirts, jeans, and shorts during the week, but not on Shabbat during services. All Conservative organizations permit women to wear pants on weekdays (when it’s not a holiday), but not all Conservative synagogues find it acceptable for women to wear pants on Shabbat or holidays. Note: From a halachic perspective, the wearing of pants by a woman is not considered to be so much a violation of the laws of tz’niut (modesty) as it is considered by some Jews, primarily within the Orthodox movement, to be a violation of the prohibition against a woman wearing begged ish (men’s clothing). Within the Conservative movement, women wearing pants is not considered objectionable because women’s pants tend to be noticeably different than men’s pants. In many cases, women’s dress pants are more modest than women’s skirts and dresses!
In addition, most Conservative synagogues tend to have a stricter standard of tz’niut (modesty) on the bimah (raised platform where the Ark containing the Torah is located) than in the rest of the congregation. While some might frown upon a woman wearing a sleeveless dress while she is sitting in the congregation, it is unlikely that she would be asked to cover her shoulders unless she was ascending the bimah. Many Conservative congregations also require women and men to wear a head covering on the bimah as a sign of modesty and/or respect for God; men are expected to wear kippot/yarmulkes (skullcaps), while women may wear hats, lace head ‘doilies,’ chapel caps, or kippot/yarmulkes (skullcaps). The requirement for men or women to wear a tallit (prayer shawl) on the bimah during Shabbat morning services in some Conservative synagogue is not so much an issue of tz’niut (modesty) as it is about signifying that one is a Jewish individual above the age of Bar/Bat Mitzvah (age 13 for boys, age 12 or 13 for girls) who has taken on the responsibility of observing the mitzvot (commandments). Some Conservative synagogues only require men and boys above the age of Bar/Bat Mitzvah to wear a tallit on the bimah; synagogues that are completely egalitarian may also require women and girls above the age of Bat Mitzvah to wear a tallit on the bimah.
One more distinction that is often made within Conservative synagogues (more so than in Orthodox synagogues) with respect to tz’niut (modesty) in dress is that between those leading services and those who are not. As a female rabbi, I have noticed that there seems to be a higher standard of modesty expected of female rabbis and cantors and other sh’lichot tzibbur (female prayer leaders) than there is of other women in the congregation. While it might be perfectly acceptable (or go unnoticed) for a woman to come to shul (synagogue) on Shabbat wearing a short skirt or a sleeveless dress, a female clergy member would most likely be chided for wearing that same type of outfit. This double standard might be a function of the high visibility of the sh’lichat tzibur (prayer leader) on the bimah, which makes the ‘immodest’ clothing all the more noticeable to the entire congregation. Or, it might stem from the view that Conservative rabbis and cantors are expected to serve as role models and spiritual exemplars for the congregation, not only with respect to clothing, but also with respect to all aspects of religious observance.
Formally there is little or no discussion of tzniut, understood as a standard of dress, within the liberal branches of Judaism. There is a common concern that one should dress respectfully when attending services, though the definition of what constitutes respectful dress may vary widely. So the simple answer is that there is no one position on how one should dress within the liberal branches of Judaism.
Nonetheless, the concern for modesty in one's life is shared across the board. Tzniut, after all, is not merely about what one wears. One can dress modestly while acting quite the opposite. Tzniut, as understood by our sages, includes matters of dress, but also speech and behavior.
On these various issues there is a great deal of discussion among the non-Orthodox movements. Within the Reform Movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffe initiated a curriculum for teens and families several years ago, entitled Sacred Choices, which teaches sexual ethics, but addresses a broader range of issues including modesty. If one searches on the website of the Conservative Movement for the term “modesty”, a number of discussions come up, including a significant number of articles on the Koach site written by Conservative-affiliated college students. A search of the Reconstructionist Movement's website yields a curriculum which examines dress as an ethical issue.
An attitude of modesty affects more than one's style of dress. If immodest dress can be seen as flaunting one's self before others, so can boasting and gossiping, over-reaching in business and social relations, and the excessive acquisition of material goods. These are all ways in which we say that we are more important than anything else, including God. Behaving in all matters with tzniut reminds us that we, like all other people, are creatures of the Holy One of Creation.
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