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Based on the amount of attention given to women's modesty, one could argue that being modest is their primary role in Judaism. (I think I've even seen that said explicitly.) Women are obligated in many other mitzvot (and it's unclear if modesty is even an actual mitzva), yet this is the one that gets focused on.

For example, there are dozens of books addressing women's modesty, yet I have never seen a single one dedicated to men. On this site alone there are nearly a dozen questions about women's modesty: What clothes women should wear, how women should act, etc, and only a couple of questions regarding men's modesty.

  • Why is there so much focus on Women's Modesty among Orthodox Jews?

Follow-up: What are the Halachot of Tznius as they relate to men?

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There is a midrash that says that God repeated over and over to Eve "be modest, be modest" as he was creating her. It seems in Rabbinic literature to be an important part of the jewish woman. –  Baby Seal May 28 at 22:48
@BabySeal - Last I checked, men wrote Halacha. Women can't be Poskim, women can't be Rabbis, women can't even be political leaders... –  Shmuel May 28 at 22:53
So Chazal in writing the Talmud sought to subvert women, taking the Torah in to their own hands and corrupting the word of God for their sexist chauvinistic ends? They had no basis for saying women are disqualified from being poskim, or rabbis, they just wanted to make sure they stayed in the kitchen? –  Baby Seal May 28 at 22:55
It would be nice if you indicate how you know this gets more treatment than the other mitzvot they are obligated in. For instance, there are lots and lots and lots of books about Kashrut which are 100% applicable to women. There are few mitzvot which women are obligate in (roughly speaking) which men are not (roughly speaking). –  Double AA May 28 at 23:04
I can't provide anything stronger than anecdotes, but most schools are far more stringent on their dress code than any other Halacha, such as whether the student properly keep other, probably more important laws, like ,lashon Hara, rechilut, etc . And many have classes dedicated to tznius, which places it on the same level as Shabbat and kashrut. –  Shmuel May 29 at 6:10

3 Answers 3

Rav Yaakov Weinberg was once asked this question at a convention in Richmond, VA. The following is a summary of his response.

Man was created with a Divine purpose, to be a spiritual being interacting with a physical world. This required that he go out into the world. But he is not meant to be a businessman - he is meant to be a man who is involved in business. He faces the challenge of becoming overly involved in the outside world and seeing that as his primary sphere of existence, and the danger of losing his focus.

Therefore, there has to be a Jewish home which is unaffected by the outside world. This is the crucial role that the Jewish woman, the עקרת הבית, serves. She is to remain unaffected by the outside world, and maintain a pure atmosphere which can serve as a base from which to venture into the outside world. Therefore כל כבודה דבת מלך פנימה, all the honor of the princess is internal. And therefore women have the burden of modesty, as the role of modesty is to remain internally focused and to not draw attention to yourself. The woman is the anchor which keeps the Jewish unit focused on its mission.

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If I understand correctly, this opinion agrees with the Rambam that says a woman shouldn't go outside more than once a month, never mind actually doing anything with her life other than tend house. –  Shmuel May 29 at 6:01
I don't know how you arrived at that conclusion, but with preconceived notions, anything is possible. (R' Weinberg's daughter became a doctor with his blessing, for the record.) –  YeZ May 29 at 12:04
@YEZ So why did she go become a doctor instead of focusing on her house and letting her husband go out and do stuff? –  Double AA May 29 at 14:15
@DoubleAA Because he didn't say be a hermit. He said live in such a way that you are not influenced by outside factors. This is accomplished by being private, which is what tznius is about. –  YeZ May 29 at 17:32

There is a general trend toward strictness in charedi communities, which manifests itself in many areas of law, including tznius. (Among Modern Orthodox communities, people tend to follow the basic rules (headcoverings, usually; shirts past elbows; skirts past knees; no low-cut tops) without a lot of discussion and controversy.) There are some reasons why tznius is one of these areas in which charedi Judaism has become increasingly strict.

Sexual transgressions are not seen as very important in today's Western society (except in the case of rape and adultery). But in the Torah, the Gemara, and later rabbinical literature, these sins are considered to be of utmost gravity.

For example, the Shulchan Aruch (Even HaEzer 23:1) says that masturbation is the worst sin in the Torah (though this may have been intended as an exaggeration -- see here: If masturbation is so bad, why is it not in list of 613 Mitzvos?). The Gemara says that one may not derive pleasure from even looking at the pinky finger of a woman other than one's wife (Sanhedrin 75, Berachos 24a). Even improper sexual thoughts (such as thinking about having relations with a woman other than one's wife) are considered serious sins. See this index of references to modesty in the Gemara: http://www.webshas.org/ishus/tznius.htm

In addition, kabbalistic and chassidic thought has tended to put great emphasis on the importance of sexual purity (keeping one's behavior and mind free from sexual sin). According to some literature in this area, sexual sins are the root of all sin, and conquering the desire for illicit sex is understood to be the key to advancing spiritually and fulfilling the spiritual mission of one's soul on earth. (As an example, see this chapter in Likutei Eitzos: http://www.azamra.org/Advice/covenant.html). Although many Modern Orthodox Jews have an interest in kabbalah, chassidus or other forms of mysticism, charedim tend to be more heavily influenced by mysticism. This is an additional reason for the charedi interest in tznius.

If women dress in an alluring way, it will be harder for men to resist staring at them, which can lead to numerous serious transgressions, including lewd thoughts, masturbation, and adultery.

One common response from outsiders is that "well the men just need to control themselves." Yet every society imposes norms on its members, in terms of the minimum areas of the body that must be covered by women. Such norms are necessary, given the explosive power of sexuality (consider the association between adultery and murder, for example)) and the impulsiveness of many men (and some women) in this area. Even contemporary American society has its limits. Jewish law and tradition has its own specific requirements, which, since they have a divine origin, must be better geared toward human nature than the rules of other societies (at least for Jews).

Under the basic halacha, there are certain minimum rules ("dat moshe"), and according to communal norms in each area, there are additional rules ("dat yehudit," custom derived from the practice of Jewish women). Observance of these additional rules ensures that certain women do not stand out and attract the attention of men. For example, what in one community may seem normal may seem alluring in another. Charedi communities, insulated from wider cultural trends in Western society, tend to develop their own stricter dress norms, which seem to have become stricter over time. This may be the result of the evolution of dat yehudit (as some women adopt stricter practices, others follow) or as a result of rabbinic rulings.

An additional reason for the increasing charedi attention to and strictness in the laws of tznius for women has to do with the structure of these communities. Most chassidic communities are governed by a living rebbe whose advice or rulings are taken extremely seriously. Since the Lubavitcher Rebbe said that sheitels were preferable to other headcoverings, nearly all Chabad women have worn sheitels. Non-chassidic charedi communities also closely follow the rulings of their own local rabbis and community-wide gedolim. Modern Orthodox Judaism, by contrast, is less centralized and more individualistic. Even so, Modern Orthodox Jews have become somewhat more strict about tznius over the last generations as well.

The greater attention to the tznius of women (as opposed to men) can be explained as follows. First, traditionally, Jewish men have tended to dress in modest ways, with long sleeve shirts and coats and pants that are not form fitting. There was not a tradition of men walking around shirtless or with skin-tight muscle shirts. In charedi communities, men actually dress more modestly than the women -- since it is very hard to see the shape of a man's body when he is wearing a coat, and a long beard covers up one's facial features (such as one's mouth, chin and jaw). For this reason, there is not a specific need for clarifying the rules of men's dress. Second, men are more "visual" in their sexuality than women, and often tend to stare at women and have lewd thoughts about them. While women may do this as well, their yetzer hara is not as strong in this area.

A final thought: it may seem that all the effort put into modesty in women's dress is solely for the benefit of men's spirituality and avoidance of sin. Yet the correct observance of the laws of tznius are also of great spiritual and practical importance to women, and helps elevate them spirituality. First, their observance helps reduce the sins of others. Second, it reinforces the cultivation of modesty and humility more generally in one's conduct. Third, when men are not tempted by looking at other women they are more satisfied with their wives, and will be less likely to mistreat, neglect or leave them, and will instead appreciate and honor them. Finally, when women do need to interact with men other than their husbands, as in the workplace or marketplace, the laws of modesty promote a healthy distance between men and women and prevent everyday interactions from becoming sexualized. Even in the home between spouses, the laws of modesty prevent sexuality from being in the forefront of one's consciousness, so that couples may develop their relationship in other ways.

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Could you please make this answer more concise? I'm having trouble discerning what you're trying to say, other than "Sexuality is emphasized in Halacha" (which just restates the question). –  Shmuel May 29 at 6:12

It likely stems from the same thing that causes people in general to be judgmental. By our very nature we focus on the external and categorize people, sometimes without realizing it. Degree of modesty by way of dress, being a visual characteristic, (and the first thing one notices when encountering others), provides an immediate label which people can pin on others. Is it right? Absolutely not, in fact it contradicts a very clear law in Leviticus 19:15. Do some people not struggle with it at all? Absolutely, everyone has unique strengths and weaknesses. Things others struggle with may be easy for you, and vice versa. No one is perfect.

The best thing one can do is lead by example by shelving the preconceived notions that our hearts send our way, loving our fellow Jews, and judging them favorably as best as we can.

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