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On modesty and spirituality

September 23, 2009

A Mother in Israel blogged about a sign from a Jerusalem playground, which had called on women maintaining a high level of tzniut (modesty) to stay away from other women, dressed in a more relaxed fashion. Most people have a gut feeling that this kind of segregation within a community is wrong, but in my opinion it’s much more serious than that. It breaks down our ethics and completely distorts Judaism and halacha.

An old dictum says that a chumra (stringency) in one area almost always results in a kula (leniency) in something else. Placing excessive focus on a specific halacha carries the risk of blurring the larger picture. For example, someone careful to pray vatikin on Shabbos is less available to educate his kids to daven properly (unless he goes to shul twice). Likewise, the growing preoccupation with modesty is leading our community to deemphasize women’s feelings.  I am not saying we should tell men “to control themselves” and encourage women to dress as they please, but as a community we have to include both considerations when setting social norms.

Reading the post reminded me of a story about Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, related by Rabbi Eliyahu Yosef during the last Binyan Shalem convention (Rabbi Yosef is the author of HaTorah HaMesamachat, an inspiring biography of Rabbi S. Z. Auerbach; volume two is due to be published after the holidays).

About 25 years ago, a well-known Jerusalem yeshiva high school employed a female science teacher. Other staff members felt that to be inappropriate and resolved to pose the question to Rabbi Auerbach. After ascertaining that the teacher in question was maintaining appropriate appearances, Rabbi Auerbach ruled that while it was undesirable to employ a female teacher in a boys’ school, the school would have to retain her until the end of the year, since it was too late for her to find other employment. At the same time, the administration was instructed to tell the teacher that she should start looking for a different position for the following year.

To me this story illustrates one component of Rabbi Auerbach’s greatness, namely his ability to find a solution that would maintain harmony between seemingly opposing values. Though he was very concerned about tzniut, this concern did not prevent him from ensuring compliance with halachot of Yorah Deah and proper interpersonal relationships.

While very few people are blessed with Rabbi Auerbach’s genius and sensitivity, we can all draw inspiration to take a more holistic approach to our spirituality. And there is no more befitting time to do so than during these days of repentance and awe.

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