JOFA tackles "tznius"

The current issue of the JOFA Journal offers a smorgasbord of thoughtful articles about clothing in Orthodoxy, aka “tznius“.

President Carol Kaufman Newman writes about how different today’s Orthodoxy is compared to when she was growing up and freely wore cheerleader outfits. “I would be less than honest if I did not confess that all this covering up gives me pause.”

Dvora Zlochower offers a halakhic analysis and says that rabbinic opinions cannot be divorced from social norms. The issue of women’s pants “go beyond a narrower question of whether women’s pants are begged ish to their cultural and social significance as roles for women begin changing and expanding,” she writes. Raquel M. Ukeles continues the cultural theme by offering a riveting comparison of contemporary Judaism and Islam in conversation with Western society.

Tova Hartman is cited from her book, “Feminism Encounters Traditional Judaism”, in which she writes, “Given the plight of women’s bodies in Western culture, traditional society may in fact muster a nostalgic appeal. Better your body be plastered over and cast to the margins, one might argue, than stripped down and laid over a Bed of Sodom…. [A]n affinity between Orthodox and Western perspectives, despite the air of ecumenical achievements, raises the specter of new, potentially menacing threats to the minds and bodies of women and men.”

Several authors discussed issues of body image and body-mind wellness. Aliza Dworkin Frohlich appealed to schools to “take an interdisciplinary approach towards helping children think about body image issues.” Similarly, Esther Altmann wrote about the connection between Orthodoxy and eating disorders, citing shidduchim, an overabundance of food on Shabbat, and the Holocaust legacy of starvation as factors emitting a subconscious impact on the way women and girls relate to food and body.

There are a few fascinating photographs as well, from a 1930’s “pakshivil,” or declaration, exhorting women to cover up, to images from a 2002 photography exhibit on head covering. There is also a lovely piece from Shira Telushkin, a high school student.

This journal is a welcome volume about a topic that is crying out for some critique. That said, I do wish there were fewer apologetics, and more of a screaming out that Orthodox society is becoming dangerously radicalized around the women’s body. I would have liked to see a straight-up, unapologetic, feminist sociological analysis of the ways in which increasing rhetoric about the ‘dangers’ of women’s skin and hair are causing severe damage to women and girls and threatening the future of Jewish life.

It seems to me that many of the articles were toned down – even Carol Newman’s gentle assertion that she would be lying if she didn’t admit that it “gives her pause.” I would have preferred something along the lines of, “This is very troubling, and we need to take a good look at these disturbing trends.” Other articles seemed to be looking for ways to understand and appreciate women’s “choices” to cover their hair. The problem with this “choice” argument is that it is a disingenuous abduction of notions of freedom. I wonder how many women would freely “choose” to cover all their hair and bodies the way they do had they not been subsumed in the rhetoric.

I know many women who, if they felt that there was actually a real choice, would be thrilled NOT to have to dress this way. Tsnius is annoying at best and dehumanizing at worst. (The fact that it’s “better” than dressing like Brittany Spears is not enough to make tsnius good for women.) Most women who act out of “choice” do it because they believe that this is God’s will. As in, “it’s my choice to follow what I believe to be the halakha.” That’s not really choice. I would have liked to see an article that breaks down this notion of women’s choice and deflates the God rhetoric once and for all.

Nevertheless, this is an important first step. At least the important issues are starting to come to the fore. Kudos to JOFA for giving women a voice on this topic, and creating a forum for further discourse.

This piece was originally posted by Elana Szotkman on her blog.


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Sztokman, Elana. "JOFA tackles "tznius"." 16 November 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 15, 2020) <>.

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