Review of ‘Reclaiming Dignity’ by Rabbi Johnny
The fact that ‘Reclaiming Dignity’ has already sold out (yes, they are printing more!) already says much about this new ‘Guide to Tzniut for Men and Women’, published by Mosaica Press. But what makes ‘Reclaiming Dignity’ unique? Before even delving into the specific details and nuanced insights found in ‘Reclaiming Dignity’, the answer is three-fold: Firstly – and this is a point I will be returning to shortly – it claims to be a guide to Tzniut for both men and women. Secondly, it is that this book is not the singular voice of one Rabbi, Rebbetzen, scholar or teacher. And finally, it is that ‘Reclaiming Dignity’ is made up of two parts: the first, which we might call the ‘aggadic’ section of the book, and the second, which is labelled as being the ‘halachic’ guide.
In terms of the aggadic section, it contains 26 essays, each written by a different Torah teacher and author, and each expertly edited by Bracha Poliakoff who herself has written a fabulous introductory essay to this section which sets the tone for the entire book. Moreover, these 26 essays – 23 written by female authors (Rivka Simonsson, Miriam Kosman, Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller-Gottlieb, Rivka Slonim, Rebbetzin Chaya Chava Pavlov, Dr. Deena Rabinovitch, Sivan Rahav-Meir, Michal Horowitz, Shevi Samet, Rabbanit Oriya Mevorah, Jaclyn Sova, Beatie Deutsch, @Yael Kaisman, Dr. Leslie Ginsparg Klein, Alexandra Fleksher, Sarah Davis Rudolph, Ilana Cowland, Shalvie Friedman, Esti Hamilton, Faigie Zelcer, Elisheva Kaminetsky, Rifka Wein Harris, Dr. Yocheved Debow), and 3 by male authors (Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky, Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, Rabbi Yitzchak Shurin) – are categorized into six areas: i) Defining Tzniut, ii) Models from Tanach, iii) Manifestations of Tzniut in our Lives, iv) Personal Perspectives and Experiences, v) Men, Women & Tzniut, vi) Teaching Tzniut to the Next Generation (nb. special mention should be made of the comprehensive biographies of each of these authors at the end of their essays which stand in direct contrast to the 1-2 line bio’s which often accompany articles and which rarely capture the diverse achievements of authors). And then, after this first half is the halachic section written by Rabbi Anthony Manning, which is made up of 11 Chapters – i) Defining Tzniut, ii) Lifnei Hashem, iii) Tzniut and Interpersonal Mitzvot, iv) Tzniut in Public, v) Tzniut and Dat Yehudit, vi) Tzniut, Community and Hashkafah, vii) Jewish and Non-Jewish Clothing, viii) Ervah, ix) Head and Hair Covering, x) Tzniut for Men, xi) Women, Men, Tzniut and Society and is followed by a comprehensive bibliography and index of citations.
Before proceeding further, I feel it wise to explain what this review seeks to focus on, and what I will not be addressing, because I suspect that women are plenty fed up with men writing about women & Tzniut. Given this, my review is being written from four different vantage points, each of which being an area for which I hope I am qualified. Firstly, as someone who has read many books/sefarim on this and related topics, and who is also knowledgeable of halacha, I’d like to offer some thoughts from a literary and halachic standpoint. Secondly, as a Rabbi and educator, especially having taught in various girls schools and seminaries, I would like to speak about the contribution of this book. Thirdly, as a father of five daughters, I would like to consider the possible impact of ‘Reclaiming Dignity’ in the home setting. And finally, as this book claims to be a guide to men, I would like to reflect on my experience as a male reader of this book and as someone who takes the concept of Tzniut seriously as a man.
Having explained a little about the book and how I wish to engage with its contents, let me turn to the first section of ‘Reclaiming Dignity’ where, as previously noted, Mrs. Poliakoff’s essay sets to the tone for the whole book. And how does she do so? Because she begins by acknowledging the toxic ways in which ‘Tzniut’ has been improperly invoked by so-called religious leaders as theological justification for national tragedies, how ‘Tzniut’ has been mistaught where stringencies and customs have been insistently presented as halacha, and how ‘Tzniut’ has often been used as a benchmark to judge others. As Mrs. Poliakoff writes, ‘as an adult, I learned a term that perfectly summed up my experiences: “Tzniut PTSD”’ (p. 3) which she blames, at least in part, on the fact that ‘we have reduced the concept of tznius to its most external and superficial aspect: dress, and, more specifically, women’s dress’ (p. 4). Given this misrepresentation of the wider message and ethic of tzniut, along with the way in which tzniut has been weaponized by various Rabbis, Rebbetzens, schools and teachers, Mrs. Poliakoff explains that the goal of this book is to “reclaim tznius” for ourselves – ‘men and women alike’ (p. 8), so that the combination of Rabbi Manning’s ‘clear and validating’ (p. 8) approach to tzniut, along with, ‘additional hashkafic perspectives and voices on this topic, especially those of women’, can enable and empower ‘readers… [to] examine their own relationships with tznius, and find ideas that resonate with them on their own journey of personal and spiritual development’ (p. 8).
In terms of evaluating ‘Reclaiming Dignity’ from a literary and halachic standpoint, what is great about the first section is that many of the articles reflect the style that one might find in a magazine or journal article – namely that they are short, easy to read, and often reflect a personal perspective on this topic (as reflected by the different styles of writing and varied ‘tones and tenors’ found in each piece – see p. xxix). Moreover, while some of the core ideas found in these essays may have previously been shared in closed settings such as women-only facebook groups, the very fact that they have been explored in greater depth and published in ‘Reclaiming Dignity’ powerfully validates the feelings of many women of whom only a few have, to date, felt comfortable giving a voice to in a public space. Beyond this, these essays provide a unique window to the experiences of the Orthodox Jewish woman which some non-Orthodox women, prospective converts to Orthodox Judaism, and many men may be totally unaware of.
Admittedly, when it comes to these 26 essays, I cannot do all of them justice in this review – and nor is it necessarily even appropriate for me to offer my reflections especially in response to those women who are speaking of their own experiences. However, I would like to make mention of a few points.
a. The issue raised by Alexandra Fleksher (pp. 119-120) about what one writes about oneself speaks deeply to me, as does her comment that ‘understanding that the goal of modesty is to strengthen the sense of self, so that the pursuit of accolades and recognition loses its alure’.
b. Both Miriam Kosman (p. 21), Shevi Samet (p. 75), and Rabbi Efrem Goldberg (p. 91) speak about how certain conversations can be so private and intimate that it seems inappropriate for them to be shared with others. Not only do I fully concur with this view, and not only am I very particular about this in my own life, but it should be noted that this lesson is derived by Rabbeinu Yonatan as quoted by the Maharsha in his commentary to Eruvin 63b.
c. Sarah Rudolph’s remarks (pp. 126-127) on Bereishit Rabbah 53:9 where she states that, ‘there could be such a thing as too much modesty’ – which is itself a message noted by Rabbi Yitzchak Shurin (p. 138) with reference to Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman – is certainly worthy of further exploration.
d. Beyond this, specific mention should be made of Rabbi Yitzchak Shurin’s essay where he notes (p. 139) that the increase of so-called ‘stringencies’ in tzniut create a hypersexualized community, and where he presents his firm position against the erasing of women in Orthodox life and publications (p. 140) – a topic which has largely been brought to the attention of the wider Jewish world due to the advocacy of Chochmat Nashim.
e. I was taken by Esti Hamilton’s remarks (p. 154) that ‘the misplaced focus on conformity causes… a constant obsessions with body and dress’, and that, ‘we need to think deeply about the way we are teaching this mitzvah that is causing us to completely miss the mark’ (ibid.).
f. Beyond this, Dr. Yocheved Debow’s suggested conversations with teenage daughters (p. 184) are very helpful.
Moving on to Rabbi Manning’s section of ‘Reclaiming Dignity’, while I previously referred to it as being a ‘halachic’ guide, this is actually an unfair description as Rabbi Manning not only provides a huge array of well laid out halachic insights and rulings which he explains with remarkable clarity (eg. his distinction between Ervah and Tzniut), but in addition to this, he also examines both spiritual (eg. Lifnei Hashem) and sociological (eg. Dat Yehudit) principles, all of which are thoroughly referenced, while drawing clear distinctions between halacha and minhag. Beyond this, Rabbi Manning’s many references include perspectives – such as those of Rabbis David and Avraham Stav – which, to date, have not been treated in any English language book, while his analysis of the rulings of contemporary poskim including Rabbi Yehuda Henkin, especially on the tricky question of habituation (see pp. 524-535), should be commended. For those familiar of some halachic material, the care and nuance with which Rabbi Manning presents his research (such as his treatment of Kimchit & hair covering) will enlighten readers. Beyond this, Rabbi Manning also makes reference to the phenomenon of the erasure of women in Jewish publications (pp. 409-410). Yet what makes Rabbi Manning’s contribution so helpful is that he speaks from a ma’aseh (practical) viewpoint while considering many real-life scenarios that women and men encounter.
By this point, I hope it is already clear that ‘Reclaiming Dignity’ is a tremendous resource for both women and men, and especially for those who are in the field of educating about Tzniut. However, I would specifically like to make reference to Dr. Leslie Ginsparg Klein’s educational recommendations (pp. 114-115) who suggests – as I have previously done when offering guidance as an educational consultant – that schools should separate dress code and tznuis, while I am also inspired by some of the suggestions offered by Elisheva Kaminetsky (pp. 167-170) who emphasises the centrality of ‘relationship’ when educating about tzniut.
As a father of five daughters (aged 12-19), I appreciated the remarks of Rifka Wein Harris (pp. 176-177) that, ‘something fundamental gets hijacked in the relationship between fathers and their daughters when fathers become bogged down in the weeds of their daughters’ particular mundane external struggles. It erodes the sense that they are being recognized and valued as someone internal and substantive. And particularly in this generation – where tznius has been harmfully mistaught by reference primarily to men’s shemiras einayim – it triggers daughters into being hyperconscious of the male gaze.’ Fortunately, as recommended by Harris, these conversations almost entirely occur between my daughters and my wife. Still, as she explains, and as further emphasised by Rabbi Manning (p. 207), there is great value in fathers modelling tzniut and thereby contributing to a home atmosphere where this value is taken seriously by everyone.
I’d finally like to speak about ‘Reclaiming Dignity’ as being a guide to Tznuit for men and women. Throughout the first half of the book, reference is made to the care with which certain biblical personalities carried themselves and acted in a tzanua manner (see for example pp. 12-13), while Rabbi Manning has a fabulous treatment on this topic, based in part on Rabbis David and Avraham Stav’s Avo Beitecha. Specifically, Rabbi Manning notes that, ‘many men are now far more focused on body image, style, and how they project themselves externally to other people, especially to women’ (p. 505), while noting the current trend in more Yeshivish communities of men wearing extremely tight clothing which ‘can be embarrassingly immodest and extremely inappropriate’ (p. 509). Significantly, none of the essays in the ‘Personal perspectives and Experiences’ section of the first half of the book are written by a man – which is somewhat understandable. Still, I hope that ‘Reclaiming Dignity’ initiates a serious enough conversation that will lead at least some men to actively consider sharing some of the issues and scenarios arising in their life.
Clearly, there will be statements, perspectives and perhaps even halachic positions which some readers may take issues with. However, what makes ‘Reclaiming Dignity’ such a wonderful addition to the Jewish bookshelf beyond all the reasons I have already listed is its honesty which, I dearly hope, can change the way conversations are held about Tzniut in homes, schools, shuls and seminaries.