What is considered modest dress in our day? May women and girls wear pants or short pants? Orthodox rabbis and institutions reject such attire and even punish girls who are caught wearing pants. What is the Masorti approach to this halakhic issue?
There are four prohibitions, which have to be discussed in this context:
1. “ None of you shall come near anyone of his own flesh to uncover nakedness” (Leviticus 18:6). The sages interpreted this to mean that one should distance oneself from “nakedness”. Furthermore, one should not bring himself into a situation where he has lewd thoughts about a woman. “Rav Sheshet said:”…whoever looks at the pinky finger of a woman, it is as if he looked at her genitals” (Shabbat 64b). The Tur adds: “One should stay very far away from women. He may not motion with his hands or wink at one of the ‘arayot’ (forbidden sexual partners) and he may not laugh with her or… look at her or even smell her perfume. And it is forbidden to even look at the colored garments of a woman he knows” (Even Haezer 21). These laws stem from the fact that in the eyes of our sages a woman is first and foremost a person and not a sex object.
There are two trends in the sources. One trend says that the prohibition of looking at or touching a woman stems from a person’s intentions. If a man has no intention to arouse himself, there is no prohibition. This is the approach of Rav Aha bar Abba (Kiddushin 81b), Rav Giddell (Berakhot 20a) and Rav Aha (Ketubot 17a) as well as aharonim such as R. Moshe Feinstein. The other trend says that a person cannot trust himself. He must therefore never look at or touch a woman because, even when he has no intention of sinning, his “yetzer harah” may get the better of him. This is the approach of a Beraita in Eruvin 18b and of Ula in Shabbat 13a. But even in those cases some of the later rabbis (Maimonides, Rema, Shakh) stress that if he did not do it out of affection but for other reasons it is permissible. These two trends compliment each other and one has to search for the happy medium between them. Normal social contact does not arouse. On the other hand, looking at a half-naked woman does arouse even if the person looking has no bad intentions.
2. “Let your camp be holy; let Him not find anything unseemly among you” (Deut. 23:15). This prohibition demands that we may not look at a person’s nakedness when reciting the amidah or the shema or a blessing or studying Torah. In this case the halakhah spells out exactly which types of nakedness are forbidden (Berakhot 24a) and they are forbidden regardless of the intentions of the people involved.
3. “A woman must not put on man’s apparel nor shall a man wear a women’s clothing” 9Deut. 22:5). There are two explanations for this prohibition: Some dress this way in order to arouse licentiousness and some do it as a form of idol worship (Maimonides, Sefer Hamitzvot, Negative Commandments, no. 40). This prohibition is not relevant to women’s clothing today for four reasons:
a) The definition of men’s and women’s apparel is based on local custom (Tur). Since in our society pants are a common form of women’s garb, it is not appropriate to call them “man’s apparel”.
b) In most cases women’s pants have a special style or color different from men’s pants so they are clearly not “men’s apparel”.
c) Unisex clothing such as jeans are not prohibited as is illustrated by the Talmudic story about Rabbi Judah and his wife who took turns wearing the same garment (Nedarim 49b).
d) The prohibition applies only when the intent is to appear like the opposite sex (Sifrei Devarim, par. 226).
4. “Nor shall you follow their customs” (Lev. 18:3). Some say it is forbidden for women to wear pants because pants are a non-Jewish mode of dress and we must retain our own “original” Jewish form of dress. This claim is easily refuted, since all of our clothing is borrowed from non-Jewish sources (see EJ vs. Dress). Even the hassidim borrowed their distinctive garb from the Polish nobleman of the eighteenth century.
In conclusion, modesty is an important aspect of Judaism, which reflects a basic Jewish value – the holiness of every human being. Therefore we must develop respect for the human body and for its attire. Some modern rabbis have defined the laws of modesty in terms of centimeters and millimeters. But we have seen that the issue is much more complex than that. On the one hand many rabbis allowed women to dress according to the accepted norms of their society. On the other hand, there are a number of types of accepted dress today which attract attention and which primarily intended to attract attention and should therefore be avoided. But in the final analysis every woman or girl must seek out the golden mean between comfort and style on the one hand and modesty on the other.
Thus far regarding everyday life. But as we have seen, in the synagogue we must be much more scrupulous about modesty. We must honor the place and the occasion. The guiding principle must be to view the synagogue as a “small sanctuary” and prayer as the standing of man before God. And thus we must dress in the synagogue as we would dress to go to greet a VIP – in dignified and modest clothing.
Many Orthodox rabbis instruct girls to wear only skirts in order to set them apart from secular society. We take the opposite approach. We see ourselves as part of modern society. It contains many good things, which we can benefit from without relinquishing our Judaism. A Masorti Jew dresses in a modest fashion as required by Jewish Law, but does not seek unnecessary restrictions, which are meant to separate him from society as a whole.
Rabbi Chaim Weiner
Approved Unanimously 5750