Fish for Thought: Pants

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Fish for Pants - 2

Alright, maybe this graphic is more of an “R” or “PG-13”, but we promise that the writing for this piece is all “PG”…

I see nothing wrong with a skirt becoming a sort of yarmulke, as long as it is openly acknowledged as such, and women are taught that there is a valid opinion within Jewish law that allows pants. That way, a woman can choose to wear a skirt in order to actively identify as Orthodox; this choice may imbue her wardrobe with religious and personal resonance.

Instead, women are often simply taught that pants are forbidden, and not informed of the pants-enabling opinion. After all, it’s common knowledge that buying Castro jeans is only a condom away from having wild hot sex with the Palestinian pretzel-seller against the Jaffa gate, as the Jewish police ogle. (Holy herring – I think I might have just found the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict!)

Besides the whole “women-making-informed-choices” shpiel, there is another problem to the “pants-as-a-marker-of-religiosity” phenomenon: It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Orthodox women feel pressured to wear skirts in order to be perceived as observant, therefore, most religious women wear skirts, therefore women who wear pants are judged even more, continuing the cycle of societal coercion.

For example, I recently spoke to a female Jewish educator who asked me why I was not going into Jewish education. My answer: I am willing to wear elbow-length sleeves and knee-length skirts to school every day, in order to be a modest role-model for my students, but I am unwilling to dress that way outside of the classroom. Unfortunately, most places where I would want to work wouldn’t hire somebody who wears short sleeves, even when she is “off-duty.” The educator’s response was simple: I was being silly. After all, she herself didn’t believe in wearing elbow-length sleeves or knee-length skirts, but she decided to do it anyway, in order to gain the respect she needed to be a successful educator in Orthodox society. My only problem with that is, how many women look at her and assume that if she dresses that way, she must believe it is a Jewish legal obligation, figuring that since she’s the more educated one, all her choices must be right?

Of course, it is possible to dress according to the letter of the law, while still dressing in an immodest fashion: Trust me, I used to be a Sem girl. To claim that wearing skirts symbolizes a rejection of materialistic and sexualized secular values is wishful thinking.  It’s even possible to wear skirts exclusively and have pre-marital sex – shocker, I know.

But the bigger problem is why Orthodox society has started defining religiosity in terms of attire and sexual behavior – two actions that are in a sense, opposite, one being extremely public, the other being extremely private – yet two actions that are intricately bound up with gender and sexuality. There are so many beautiful, rich teachings within Orthodox Judaism, so many texts and laws that can fill the mind with wonder. By focusing on the sexual realm as a definer of Orthodox identity, we risk not only alienating individuals, but also reducing our religion to something it is not, thus causing a desecration of God’s name.

While I feel uncomfortable with the idea of judging anyone’s religiosity, if we are going to have a standard, why shouldn’t it be guided by the Biblical injunctions of “love your neighbor as yourself” or “let not a gossiper be found among you”? After all, as Micah said (6:8): “What does God ask of you, except for to carry out justice and a love of kindness, and to walk modestly with God?”. Modesty stands as equal – not superior to – love, justice, and kindness.

*Avnei Tzedek on Yoreh Deah, 72. Lifted from “Women and Mitzvot: The Modest Way”, by Rabbi Getsel Ellison.

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Shayna is a native Manhattanite whose interests include Torah, human rights, and poetry. An avid procrastinator, Shayna spends most of her time on Facebook, or watching any game involving the Brazilian soccer team. Brasil para Mundial 2014!