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This essay is an adaptation of an article from a forthcoming book, Dignity Reclaimed: A Guide to Tzniut for Men and Women, edited by Bracha Poliakoff, halachic analysis by Rabbi Anthony Manning. This article is l’ilui nishmas Chaya Sara bas Avraham Simcha.
“And now . . . we have to become image makers, creating a buzz, making sure it looks good in pictures. The screen has to scream . . . . But I prefer to whisper.” —Fashion designer Alber Elbaz
I am abundantly blessed to be the mother of four teenage daughters. As someone who came to parenting later in life, there is more than a full generation between my children and myself. That creates a chasm for us to cross when we discuss tzenius.
I also happen to be a person with a baroque aesthetic sense and an outsize passion for adornment, decoration and beautiful things, especially in clothes. So much so that in midlife, I left my job as a corporate lawyer and went back to school to study garment construction and am today a designer and fabricator of fine jewelry.
My avocations and my aesthetic leaning bring much joy to my life. When it comes to modeling and teaching the practice of tzenius, however, they make this particular topic a bit more fraught, especially with similarly artistic daughters, some of whom share my creative affinities and strong opinions on matters of taste.
Long ago, it became clear to me that tzenius was so loaded with challenge and external pressure that it had become a minefield to traverse with teenagers. Our schools often struggle to address modesty, and sometimes, however well-intentioned, some of them will approach the topic in a way that highlights and reinforces particular dysfunctions of shallowness deeply rooted in this generation. In some girls’ schools, tzenius is typically taught by recourse to two concepts: first, the unforgiving demands of a measuring tape, and second, the effects of female attractiveness. The former is shallow and reductive—it does not begin to capture anything substantive about the concept of modesty. The latter produces insecurity and even body dysmorphia in many frum teenage girls. Explaining tzenius in terms of the potential to lead a man to be nichshal—whether this message is conveyed directly, or even indirectly through a ban on pictures of women in the press—undermines the development of a teen’s own agency and autonomy, warping and complicating her necessary actualization.
Given both the open and hidden hazards of this minefield, my radical proposal is to teach tzenius by not teaching tzenius; I say this while absolutely affirming the halachic bright lines of tzenius. Only once our children are armored with certain sensibilities and sensitivities do the halachos of tzenius even begin to make sense to them. And therefore I suggest we defer teaching those halachos until the prerequisite groundwork is first laid in them.
A girl’s sense of tzenius reflects how deeply she has developed her internal self. Tzenius should be taught not by shining a spotlight on the way teens present themselves to the outer world, but by building up their inner sense of self until their feeling of intrinsic worth is so bulletproof that they do not need to constantly broadcast status updates to the world, whether on their devices or through their fashion choices.
In our home, my husband and I talk a great deal (my girls say endlessly) about three things that undergird the idea of tzenius: privacy, humility and feinkeit. We explain that the onus falls on each of us—and the people around us—to model how those three middos translate into matters of comportment and self-expression. We point out that these three middos actually apply equally to men; indeed, hatznei’a leches* is addressed to everyone. It is in no way about hemming in female identity and actualization. Instead, it creates a system through which both genders can define their boundary between public persona and private neshamah.
It is only in a child’s interior world where his or her relationship with Hakadosh Baruch Hu can germinate and grow. Seeded with conversations about our own recognition of His gifts to us and our bottomless gratitude for this abundance, a child can begin to appreciate the meaning behind berachos and the impetus toward tefillah. To develop and deepen this relationship with Hakadosh Baruch Hu, all children require a robust sense of privacy. A private sphere where it is just them and Hakadosh Baruch Hu. Tehillim notes that the kevudah of a bas melech (glory of a king’s daughter) is penimah (internal). Teaching our children to view their essence as internal—their thoughts rather than their friends or clothes; their ideas and their tefillos over their fashion cool—helps them self-define as a neshamah first.
Our generation of constant connectedness and frenetic oversharing, where intimate truths are broadcast to the world and internal thoughts are regularly on display, erases this liminal space. Today, it is uniquely daunting for a teen to preserve a platform that is entirely internal. And therefore, the process of actualization often proceeds two steps forward and one step back. From the outside, it may barely resemble progress. It becomes a constant push and pull (one to which I myself am not immune) over how much sharing is appropriate and what kinds of sharing erode that sense of a private self.
Only once our children are armored with certain sensibilities do the halachos of tzenius even begin to make sense to them.
Cultivating a sense of privacy starts with the mundane. My youngest daughter, when she was barely four years old, took a discarded shoebox and labeled it “my secrit box and speshul.” Every child needs her own secret and special box. A private drawer that is not subject to search. A private notebook with her journal, drawings and poems. It is okay if children do not want to talk about something that is bothering them. Respecting their boundaries will validate a child’s need to separate and individuate. The idea of privacy deepens in a child’s mind in those times when kids are left free range, on their own, bored and unscheduled. Privacy is encouraged by children creating without parents looking over their shoulders.
So, too, do children innately require privacy when they are davening. There should be no commenting about when (or even if) they are davening on a given day, since it is precisely in a space that lies beyond others’ external expectations—one that they need to inhabit fully—that the mental space in which to daven grows. Privacy is the axis within which our own relationship with Hakadosh Baruch Hu is most present, and it is the natural domain in which to grow it.
Humility is a prerequisite for kedushah and for emunah. Indeed, to me, it is the hallmark of greatness. I am fortunate to have interacted with a number of gedolim during my life, and what they all had in common was an utter lack of pretense, arrogance or self-promotion. The Rambam cautions that when it comes to the middah of ga’avah, there is no golden mean. Any amount is toxic. And the Gemara is clear that haughty souls will not be resurrected at the time of techiyas hameisim.
How does one model humility in speech and in life? We are taught some of the tools. We must always remember that kol Yisrael areivim zeh lazeh, we are responsible for one another and part of something much larger than ourselves. We must remember that bucking convention is not an end in itself—al tifrosh min hatzibbur. By contracting our own egos in this way, something greater is created, both in the cooperation between individuals and in the sense of community and identity when we subsume ourselves into a bigger whole. Unpacking this social contract leads us directly to the necessity for consideration and empathy toward others. Communal considerations matter.
Indeed, the famous, aforementioned pasuk referring to a princess’s glory as internal to her goes on to say that the princess’s virtue manifests in two ways: her regal dress is not for her own sake but in deference to her position, and her attendants are her friends. The first lesson is: she knows that her choice of clothing does not define her identity, but only the role she inhabits. The second is: she is humble enough to value those of lesser rank. In effect, her glory is her humility, her anivus. Any type of vanity or arrogance is anathema to everything she stands for.
Emphasizing the middah of anivus in teens will inevitably cause friction with their growing sense of individualism and valid need for self-expression. They are navigating a virtual world where external focus, competitive materialism and obsessive self-promotion are the coins of the realm. The more “connected” the world becomes, the harder it is to resist these destructive forces.
Anivus must never be confused with self-abnegation or blind conformity. Teens must see themselves as unique individuals. At the same time, they must learn to navigate the very fine line between the need to express oneself genuinely and the contours of communal convention. They must, on their own, cultivate a consciousness that exhibitionism and attention seeking are out of bounds. Mindfulness about what to share and how much to share makes a teen aware that not everything gets shared. This encourages healthy actualization with a strong sense of worth and an informed recognition of social boundaries. It also makes a teen’s sartorial choices, however creative, more about self-expression and less about competitive consumerism.
The closest I come to discussing actual clothing with my children is my known preoccupation with “feinkeit,” a concept only partially defined as refinement. To me, the word conveys a certain attitude of propriety and proper deportment. I use feinkeit very deliberately. It is not to be confused with eidelkeit, a word that too often today conveys a shrinking of the self, particularly for girls and almost never boys. Feinkeit is an attitude of formality and dignity. We are Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s people, and we wear that identity proudly. We project respect, and engender respect, in the way we act and conduct ourselves.
Cultivating this attitude is much easier in a community where it is modeled by others. As a child, I absorbed it in the air of my Hungarian shul. Without anyone telling me, I knew exactly where the borders lay—in speech, in action, in posture, and yes, in clothing, just by living among the adults in my orbit.
These days, the world is far less understanding of feinkeit. People speak more coarsely. Patrons are loud and pushy. Clothing is often garish, too casual, deconstructed and provocative. And tzenius is misdefined as a calculus of inches and buttons without any thought to the overall impression the clothing creates. So much has been lost by defining tzenius this way. It is well within bounds now for a frum “influencer” to wear a brightly sequined bustier over a skin-colored shell to a red-carpet event (I actually witnessed this). Yes, she covered every halachic inch, but she entirely missed the point. An extreme example, perhaps, but a reminder of what happens when considerations of feinkeit are removed from the equation.
Tzenius should be taught not by shining a spotlight on the way teens present themselves to the outer world, but by building up their inner sense of self . . . .
When presented with shopping links messaged to me by my daughters, I often find myself ruling “pahst nisht” (Yiddish for “it is inappropriate”). And yes, in the absence of a cohesive community that respects the contours of feinkeit, our children will not understand it—until they do. Teen actualization means they will push back to varying degrees. Wise parenting requires a certain amount of looking the other way at things that are halachically fine but at the edge of tonally dubious. In this thrashing around, teen girls find themselves and carve out their own place in the world around them. Our task as parents is to steadfastly project and reflect feinkeit in the hope that once they exit the long, fraught tunnel of teendom, they will intuit and reflect these boundaries on their own.
* * *
The development of these three middos—privacy, humility and feinkeit—is not a linear progression, but a dance that moves forward and backward and side to side. In an effort to ground this mindset within herself, a teen will cross boundaries, then reconsider them. This is how a neshamah develops and deepens. In encouraging this progression and cultivating this growth, parents can help their daughters understand what tzenius really is: a self where the internal and the external are truly aligned.
* Michah tells us (6:8): “Hatznei’a leches, walk modestly with G-d.”
Rifka Wein Harris is a graduate of Bais Yaakov D’Rav Meir and Bais Yaakov Academy in Brooklyn, New York. She earned her undergraduate degree in history from Brooklyn College and her JD and LLM from New York University School of Law. She is a writer who is involved in advocacy in the frum world. She lives with her family in Queens, New York.