By Chaya Sara Waldman
When I set out to write the op-ed in response to Rabbi Gurary’s letter I had no idea that it would elicit the kind of response it did. I watched in amazement as comments poured in and then letters in response began to appear. It was never my intention to disrespect or goad anyone, it was rather to take an opportunity to participate in this discussion, participate in my community.
My favorite people in the world are Lubavitchers, and I love Crown Heights. I must admit that there have been times, especially in recent years, when I have felt somewhat alienated from what seemed to be accepted community opinions. It sometimes felt very isolating, and this despite my perfectly tznius appearance.
When Rabbi Gurary’s letter to parents was made public, I felt those same feelings of alienation from a community that I love and want to be part of. Reading the letter, I felt my heart fall; What was disturbing was the way this venerated institution, in an attempt to champion tznius, is distorting its meaning, abusing its spirit, and pushing people so far away from true tznius that I am fearful about the future of our community.
I read COLlive.com regularly. I never comment. I know others who read collive.com and also never comment, no matter how strongly they agree or disagree with an article. I didn’t want to be silent anymore. I love Crown Heights, it is my home, and I figured that the only way to be a part of it was to participate – by contributing my thoughts on a matter close to my heart. I also thought of the many people who feel the same way – family and friends, and fellow mothers and casual acquaintances – who worry they will have to leave Crown Heights because of the increasingly extreme community norms. I wanted to write this article for them to let them know that Crown Heights is diverse, home to people with many different views – even among those who are always perfectly tznius.
It was gratifying to see the letters which expounded on what I had written – both those discussing what tznius is, and those sharing their thoughts about the methods that have worked. It was hard to read some of the comments, though. It was frustrating to see many people utterly miss the point of my piece in an unnecessary effort to come to Rabbi Gurary’s rescue. It was painful to see how ugly people could be in their fearful defensiveness – vilifying someone they have never met and saying awful things which I can’t imagine they sincerely believe could in any way be righteous. And how disturbing to read how some women have leaned into this perversion of tznius (as in one woman’s comment about sending pictures of herself in store dressing rooms for a Rav’s approval).
As I previously clarified, my article was in no way intended to disrespect Rabbi Gurary. Of course, he has the right to make any rule he pleases for his school. My point was to question this method and manner of pushing a version of tznius that contradicts the very core of tznius. To me, tznius, this fundamental element of yiddishkeit is core to my life. I also know the importance of women’s dress – and how important it is to the Rebbe. There was never any disagreement on my part of any of those elements. Rather, the refined and aidel woman in me cringes at the crudeness of a letter presuming to inspire women to be tznius being itself so entirely hepech tznius. There is something strange, maybe even perverse, about the fact that women’s clothes has become the Number One priority in this community. There is something suspect about the argument, “we know there are a lot of other issues, but right now we are talking about tznius” when “right now” is ALL THE TIME. The obsession with skin, hair and fingernails is a vulgar enterprise and has also completely eclipsed many of our other fundamental values. This is especially pointless when we take a moment to consider the effects of edicts like this. This kind of coerced tznius doesn’t work. The need for a letter such as this is proof of that. If a mature woman hasn’t embraced this version of “refinement” and “beauty” of tznius to the point that she has to be threatened to adhere or leave the school, something is not sticking. How can we ingrain in our girls a personal passion for true tznius that they will want to keep – even when no one is watching? Shouldn’t that be the point? My own experience as an educator and a mother has been that girls in high school can’t wait to be out of the daled amos of school to cast off these rules. And to those of you who have praised this school for finally taking a stand, realize that this is not a new initiative. Letters and rules have been in all of the girls’ schools for the last twenty years! Consider this: the parents who are so flouting the halachos of tznius that they had to be threatened to adhere were students in high schools which pushed tznius this same way! Clearly, this method does not serve our long-term purpose. Why are we deliberately ignoring the painful fact that this does not work, and in fact may have terribly exacerbated the issue.
I wish my article had been challenged by more substantive arguments than those made. I wish more people actually addressed the points that I made and not used this article as an opportunity to brandish their self-righteous indignation. But I am not disheartened. I know that the people I speak for and the people I speak to tend not to comment here – a Silent Public. I hope that another mother who finds herself getting turned off by the path some of our institutions choose to take, who wonders whether there is a future in Crown Heights for her and her children, will read this and know that there are others who feel the same way. I hope that a young high school girl who has been called into the principal’s office because her socks fell down, who feels abject shame and indignation, whose gut tells her that there is something “off” here, will read this and instead of throwing it all away, she will realize that this characterization of Judaism and this chassidishkeit is not everyone’s definition of Judaism and chassidishkeit and there’s a place for her as a Lubavitcher right here in our Lubavitch community.
Personally, judgment, shaming, and un-tznius’dik ways of talking about tznius have consistently turned me off wanting to be tznius, and sometimes even made me question other Jewish values. I am so grateful for the models of true tznius in my life: my mother and sisters, some of my favorite high school teachers, women who I work alongside with…all of whom truly embody not just the “inches” but the spirit of tznius. I have never felt their eyes scanning me up and down; I have never felt their judgmental scrutiny; I have felt only intense admiration and inspiration, wanting to be like them – and look like them. This is what has worked for me. This is what seems to work for others. Perhaps this subtle-but-sure way will yield the results we are all so earnestly hoping for. The swallow-this-foul-medicine-you’ll-thank-us-later approach does not seem to be working.
I love Crown Heights. This is my home. These are my people. I am appreciative for the opportunity to participate in my community and I hope I can help it to be a place that inspires and supports all women to grow in yiddishkeit and chassidishkeit in ways that are genuine, joyful and true.