Modesty, known as tzniut in Hebrew, has always been a central part of Jewish tradition. The rabbis of the Talmud felt that respectful attire and appearance were important values, especially in the context of prayer. One should not lead services in ripped or torn clothes or pray in situations where people might not be fully covered, but the rules of Jewish modesty have often been in dispute, because they are social constructs.
As anyone who has even been a teenage (or parent) knows, what is immodest for one generation is de rigueur for another. Jewish youth groups and summer camps have struggled for years with the question of how to make rules that provide a basic level of modesty without sparking a revolt or unfairly punishing the girls. Generally, these rules target female clothing – may the shoulders be uncovered, how low must shorts and dresses extend, etc.
While modesty is an important Jewish value, it should not be used to control and stifle expression, which has often been the outcome of these rules. Some in the Orthodox world believe there is a prohibition on men hearing the voice of women sing. This ban is based on the interpretation of a statement by one rabbi in the Talmud which for thousands of years was never considered a halakhic (legal) ruling. Only in the 19th century did Orthodox rabbis begin to prohibit women from singing in front of men.
Nevertheless, Orthodox women have stayed true to the rule of “kol isha”, that they can only sing for other women, but what about the members of the community who love music and were given the gift of a beautiful voice? For years they had virtually no opportunity to share their talent. After all, the Orthodox music industry is controlled by men and a female singer’s potential audience is cut in half.
Enter digital and social media, which allows female Orthodox performing artists to create, produce, and distribute their own content. Some of these women perform traditional Jewish music; others explore genres like pop, gospel, and even rap. While in the secular music industry recordings are often labeled explicit because of their content, in the Orthodox female world they are either labeled “kol isha” or “for women and girls only”.
The reaction in the community to this explosion of Orthodox female performers has sometimes been negative. The women are criticized for creating music that can be heard by men, which would be a violation of Jewish law. But as one artist said, “I’m not responsible for how people use it … for me, it’s like allergen information. I’m not going to tell who should and shouldn’t listen to it.” This male reaction is all too common when it comes to modesty. There is an expectation that women must do all the work of protecting themselves from male urges.
Last week the Orthodox world was rocked by the suicide of a popular children’s author who was being investigated for sexual abuse. Subsequently, one of his victims also committed suicide. Some in the Orthodox community defended the author, which sparked even more outrage. Laura Adkins, writing in the Forward, pointed out that the rules of Orthodox modesty do not protect women against sexual assault, despite such claims from religious leaders.
Every culture creates guidelines for modesty, whether they are written explicitly or known implicitly. They help us easily figure out how to navigate social situations, but they can also become stifling. As human beings we have an inherent need to express ourselves, even when it pushes at the boundaries of what is acceptable.