Is it okay for a Jewish woman to wear short shorts, spaghetti straps, or bikinis? What concerns might there be as far as Jewish values? Is the answer different in the various denominations or movements of Judaism?
Yes, it is perfectly OK for a Jewish woman to wear these items … so long as she is alone in a room with the door closed! In all other contexts, the tradition teaches that she ought to consider what she chooses to wear, what it says about her, and the impact that her dress might have upon others.
It is important to stress that the Jewish rules in this area are not sexist. They apply to both women and men. It is true that the traditional sources, like contemporary conversations, revolve more around women’s dress than men’s, but this is likely because women’s dress more readily evokes a sexual response in men, than the converse.
Nevertheless, the laws of tzniyut (modesty) in dress are important for both genders, since these practices elevate us by separating us from the animal world. Plainly, they also lead to the covering up of that which is sexually suggestive. The Talmud (Berakhot 24a) makes this point explicitly:
Rav Hisda said, A woman’s leg is ervah (sexually suggestive) … Shmuel said, A woman’s voice is ervah … Rav Sheshet said, A woman’s hair is ervah.
The same Talmudic page also states that “one who looks at the little finger of a woman, it is as if he looked at her private parts.” There can be no doubt that this is an exacting statement. However, since Jewish women are not required to wear gloves, pinpointing precisely what this standard implies in terms of actual items of clothing, plainly involves cultural and sociological judgments that go beyond legal statements.
For those who might conclude from these texts that Judaism is “prudish” or “repressive,” it is perfectly plausible that the exact opposite is true. It is a paradoxical feature of human sexuality that that which is hidden is often more exciting than that which is exposed. It may well be that the aim of covering the body is precisely to make its uncovering all the more stimulating within an appropriate, licit context.
From the perspective of Jewish values, therefore, the pursuit of modest dress has two clear goals:
1) To distinguish us from the animals, as beings that are not simply “physical bodies.” By covering up our physicality we convey the critical message that we – uniquely among created beings – aspire to a world of the soul. We cover our physical nature in order to highlight something that is far more elevated.
2) To the extent that it is possible, to remove sexual considerations from the public domain, and to enhance them within the private (marital) context where they most appropriately belong.
It is clear that different groups within Judaism respond to the value of tzniyut in varying ways. Even within the Orthodox world, some who call themselves “modern Orthodox” have dress standards that are not significantly different from others in society, while others in the Orthodox world can be readily differentiated by their dress.
There is, it must be said, an unfortunate tendency in the non-Orthodox world to describe the dress standards of some in the Orthodox world as “extreme,” all the while ignoring that there is behavior that might be described as “extreme” in the non-Orthodox community.
After all, dress, like many things, can be plotted on a bell-curve. If “nakedness” is at one extreme of the curve, and the total covering of a “burka” is at the other (both extremes being outside any acceptable Jewish range), then the question for all of us is: what point on the bell-curve constitutes prudent Jewish modesty that bespeaks our values?
Those sections of the Orthodox world that can be readily differentiated by their dress clearly have an answer to this question. Those sections of the non-Orthodox world that allow their children to appear on the beach in bathing suits that are little more than string, for the most part have given the matter little, if any, thought. The Orthodox world might well respond to charges of being too “extreme” with the rejoinder that a standard that some describe as “too extreme” is probably better than having no standard at all.
There is more than one possible Jewish dress standard that can conform with the values stated above. Where to “draw the line” on the bell-curve is no easy matter, but drawing the line is important across the Jewish spectrum. What is needed is thoughtful conversation and the intelligent application of Jewish principle in the matter of dress, across all sections of the Jewish community. What is also needed is a determination to resist many of the dress trends of the surrounding culture. When we achieve these goals, not only will the answers vis-à-vis specific items of clothing become clear, but those answers will also be “owned” by the community in a truly enduring fashion.
The way a person dresses often indicates a self-identification, sense of personality and communal affiliation. While the other panelists here explain the considerations in their denominations, it should be noted that Orthodoxy itself is not monolithic and a range of practices exists. A haredi ultra-orthodox Bais Yaakov woman will wear long sleeves and long skirts, whereas a typical modern Orthodox woman may have sleeves above or just below the elbow.
Thus, for example, Rabbi Pesach Falk promotes the strict interpretation while Rabbi Yehuda Henkin argues that the halachic dress code should be evaluated in a cultural context because sensuality is subjective and needs to be judged based on community norms. Even within modern Orthodoxy there are several decisive nuances. Much like the kippah color and size that men wear, the brevity and style of dress can indicate a specific self-identification. In essence, in the Jewish world, short shorts and bikinis often transmit a covert message of religious affiliation.
An underlying concern in the Orthodox responsa literature and in the musar (ethical) discussions is how to reconcile the values of tzni'ut (modesty) with expressions of beauty. There is a plethora of writings on the philosophy of tzni'ut and I bring here three sample excerpts which I have edited/shortened slightly:
Dina Coopersmith: If women are viewed externally, devoid of internal character and spirituality, they are stripped of their unique gift and strength. A danger exists that they will be objectified and degraded. In fact, we see that cultures which admire women primarily for their physical characteristics ultimately degrade them and take advantage of them. Women would do well to de-emphasize their bodies in order to emphasize that which is their real beauty: their inner strengths, their souls. Of course, none of this implies that women shouldn't look beautiful.
Rabbi Maurice Lamm: Tzni'ut implies modesty in dress. Traditionally covered parts of the body should not be exposed, although one can dress stylishly. Tzni'ut was intended to preserve the sanctity of the inner human being from assault by the coarseness of daily life. Psalms 45, 14 says "The whole glory of the daughter of the king is within". Dignity comes not from exposure and indecent exhibition, but from discretion and the assurance that the human being will be considered a private, sensitive being, not merely a body. The antonym of tzni'ut is hefkerut, looseness, the absence of restraint and inhibition. In its extreme, it is gross immorality, gilui arayot (uncovering of nakedness).
Rabbi Dov Linzer: Jewish tradition teaches men and women alike that they should be modest in their dress. But modesty should not be narrowly defined by how much of one's body is covered. It is also about comportment and behavior. It is about recognizing that one need not be the center of attention. It is about embodying the prophet's call for modesty: "Walk humbly with your God" (Micha 6, 8).
In sum, from the perspective of Orthodoxy, dressing in a non-provocative fashion and projecting a modest style is meant to be a statement of values and an expression of personality, and not merely a mechanical compliance to halachic standards.
 Rabbi Pesach Eliyahu Falk, Modesty: An Adornment for Life – Halachos and Attitudes Concerning Tzinyus of Dress and Conduct, Jerusalem, 1998.
 Rabbi Yehuda Henkin, Understanding Tzniut: Modern Controversies in the Jewish Community, Urim Publications, Jerusalem, 2008.
 Dina Coopersmith, "Beneath the Surface: A Deeper Look at Modesty," http://www.aish.com/ci/w/48964691.html
 Rabbi Maurice Lamm, The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage, New York, 1980, 1991, pp. 99-102.
 Dov Linzer, "Lechery, Immodesty and the Talmud," The New York Times, op-ed, January 20, 2012, pg. A27, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/20/opinion/ultra-orthodox-jews-and-the-modesty-fight.html
Modesty in dress, known in Hebrew as tzni’ut,* is an essential Jewish value, and it is so recognized by nearly every stream of Judaism. It stems from the notion, first articulated in Genesis 1:27, that all human beings were created in God’s image. Since it reflects the Divine, the human body must be treated with nobility and dignity, and never as a mere object for sexual arousal.
Despite the near-universal agreement on the primacy of tzni’ut, however, there is much disagreement about what, specifically, constitutes modest dress. The Talmud, for example, considers it immodest for women to expose a handbreadth of exposed skin (that would normally be covered up) or a bare calf (B’rakhot 24a). Many in the Orthodox world take the Talmud’s prohibitions literally. Women in those communities expose very little skin; they tend to wear loose-fitting clothing long skirts, long sleeves, and high necklines. Orthodox men, too, tend to dress with similar criteria in mind.
While these steps certainly achieve the aim of modesty in dress, such stringency is, frankly, unnecessary; sometimes, it is even counter-productive. Unnecessary, because the value of tzni’ut does not seem to have been originally intended to discourage normal, Jewishly permissible, human activity or social interaction, which end up being the results of many of the Orthodox standards. It can be counter-productive because, as Rabbi Gordon Tucker puts it, “the insistent hiding of even the slightest part of the female body can send the message that the most salient thing about a woman is precisely her sexuality!”
The fact that an article of clothing exposes some of one’s skin, or accentuates certain body parts, does not in itself make it immodest. Intent, context, and cultural sensitivities might allow for a more revealing outfit in one setting, but not in others. For instance, it is not inherently immodest to wear a bathing suit to the beach, but it might be immodest to wear that same bathing suit to a bar, especially if the wearer is doing so to be sexually provocative. Furthermore, not every bathing suit should be deemed acceptable: one can dress (even fashionably) for the occasion of a day at the beach without wearing a particularly skimpy bathing suit, designed specifically for the purpose of attracting attention to the body of the one wearing it. The same kinds of considerations ought to apply to other clothing as well: One ought to be allowed to wear shorts or a short-sleeved shirt on a hot summer day, but one can keep cool and be fashionable without feeling the need to choose the short-shorts, designed to draw attention to one’s legs and rear-end, or the revealing tank-top, designed to draw attention to the assets of one’s upper body.
The key for us to remember is that, as reflections of the Divine, we are worth far more than our level of sexual attractiveness. And as such, one is enjoined not to wear clothes that are designed to be sexually provocative, or that we wear solely to make ourselves more sexually alluring.
* - Modesty in dress is only one aspect of tzni’ut, which is a more general term for the Jewish value of modesty. For more see Gordon Tucker, “Public Appearance and Behavior,” in The Observant Life, edited by Martin S. Cohen (New York: The Rabbinical Assembly, 2012), pp. 373-378. Much of this posting is based on Rabbi Tucker’s essay.
This is a terrific question because it has a wide variety of answers.
The underlying issue is tzniute - modesty. Our tradition certainly teaches that women, especially, ought to be modest. That accounts for the long dresses, wigs, long sleeves, etc. If a woman wants to wear such things, she should be encouraged to do so. I find no problem with that. I do have a problem if her boyfriend/husband insists on it since it reflects a much deeper issue in the family. However, men ought to be modest, too but our tradition does not expound on it as much as it does a woman's appearance.
Having said that, what is the purpose of modesty? The answer is sex.
Now, before I continue, though, let me state that my answer will be general, heterosexual, and fall under the normal definition of sex. That is the only way I can contain the answer. I believe, though, that the same issues exist regardless of it is a definition of modesty for a man or a woman.
The belief is that, the more a man sees, the more he fantasizes. This is a biological fact. Many people - men and women - are hard-wired that way. It is evolution's way to perpetuate the species. The more the clothes reveal, the more a person fantasizes about sex since the curves on a woman instinctivly tell a man that she will make good babies. So, the more a woman reveals, the more she seems to be 'advertising.' That is why, by the way, when the bikini made its debut, it was scandalous in a great many communities. It was a way of flaunting a woman's sexuality and this is very threatening to men. Since Judaism treats sex as something sacred and wonderful between a husband and a wife, there is value is diminishing the temptation for others. That's the theory, in any event.
The truth is that one person's modesty is another person's immodesty. An evening gown may be beautiful and possibly revealing. But is it immodest? The best designers tell us that the more left up to the imagination, the more beautiful the dress. But all that does is underscore the issue of modesty: after all, the 'imagination' is the fantasization of sex.
So we are left in a dilemma, of sorts. Many women do not want to bring unwanted attention to themselves and yet want to be fashionable. I am told that this is not hard to do - you just need to find a guru. Judaism teaches modesty but it is up to the individual to figure out what that means. It will remain contentious since your definition may not be someone else's.
So some practical responses from me, a father of two young women and a rabbi. First we don't allow strapless dresses on the bima under any circumstances. We do not permit thongs to show from under shorts. Shorts worn in the temple or at a temple function cannot be so short that....well, you get it. Skirts must not be be so tight or short that it appears that a young woman or grown lady appears to be selling something. In other words, common sense. We follow the common sense rule at home, as well. I am no prude by any means, but I have taught my daughters the importance of dressing modestly. My wife supports this and is an excellent role model for modesty and beauty.
Your clothes are a message whether you want them to be or not. People are looking and fantasizing quite often, if not all the time. This is true for both men and women. They are making assumptions about you and coming to conclusions. That is a human response. You can't fight it. What you can do - and the only thing you can do - is be aware of the messages you are sending out. This is how you may choose to dress.