"Women, unite! Take back the night!"
Such is the rally cry at the "Take Back the Night" protest, an old favorite in feminist circles. The concept of the rally is simple: women get together at night and walk around to show that we should be free to walk at night without worrying about becoming targets for criminals. In the act of walking around together, women symbolically "take back the night."
The purpose of this rally is purely symbolic. Nobody expects that chanting "take back the night" is an effective defense against crime. However, the words make the women feel empowered, and I appreciate that so much that I am borrowing the slogan for my discussion of the Jewish woman's dress code, the area of Jewish Law known as tznius.
The most common translation of the word tznius is "modest." But unless you have seen a woman who embodies this praiseworthy quality, this does not convey the meaning adequately. In English, a modest person is unassuming and does not boast. Tznius is more than that. A tzniusdiggeh (Yiddish adjective form) person is refined and dignified, yet warm and gentle. "Wholesome" was a word one of my recent Shabbos guests used to describe the teenage girls she met in synagogue. I find this the most precise description of all.
The laws of tznius encompass more than our dress code; tznius is more a style of behavior than of dress, which is why I don't feel the word "modest" does it justice. Tznius is an internal attitude which affects the outward appearance. Ultimately, tznius is an expression of the innate spirituality of humanity.
The Torah itself teaches us this lesson most clearly. The first occurrence of tznius in Torah is when Adam and Eve clothe themselves in fig leaves (Genesis 3:7.) This occurred right after they sinned by eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Before the sin, human consciousness was radically different than it is now. Body and soul were more in sync with each other. Adam and Eve knew that their bodies, like everything else in their world, were tools for expressing themselves spiritually. After they ate from the Tree, they understood that they could use their bodies without recourse to spirituality. In coarser terms, one could say that they discovered the difference between love and lust. They were ashamed of this potential within themselves, so they covered themselves.
Adam and Eve were married and therefore permitted to each other. They even had the commandment of G-d to be fruitful and multiply. Their relationship, therefore, could not be a sin. But because of their new realization, they understood that they could degrade their relationship into something less than holy. Thus, by covering themselves, they de-emphasized their bodies to re-emphasize their souls. This would not have been necessary if they hadn't eaten from the Tree of Knowledge. Until then, body and soul functioned harmoniously, and there was no need to cover the body. But when body and soul could function separately and against each other, covering the body distinguished the soul as the more important part of the human being.
Because we are the children of Adam and Eve, our perception of body and soul has also been affected by the Tree of Knowledge. We keep the laws of tznius to regain the balance in our perception of ourselves. The laws of modest behavior reassert that even physical activities are done in the service of spirituality.
This brings us back to the "take back the night" slogan. "Taking it back" means regaining control. The laws of tznius reflect the elevated way in which we perceive ourselves and at the same time, allow us to regain control of the way others perceive us.
I have seen this in action in my own life. I dress in accordance with Jewish Law, but I am close to a woman who does not. She is two years younger than I am, and I would say we are fairly close in beauty. We have walked alongside each other in many different places, and the reactions we receive are almost identical everywhere. While I walk around without harassment, she is subject to lascivious gazes and unwanted comments.
Some women argue that they should be free to dress as they like and that men should control themselves. Indeed, most men do control themselves and the minority who make crude comments are creeps. Dressing provocatively gives them an opening to express it. Dressing modestly puts the woman in control of strangers' reactions to her. Just like women who take precautions while walking at night, a woman who dresses b'tznius insures for herself a more pleasant experience. She has "taken it back."
My deepest thanks to my teachers at She'arim College of Jewish Studies for Women, and especially Rebbetzin Rivi Brussel, whose shiurim on Adam and Chava provided the basis for this article.