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Restrictions That Free

Restrictions That Free


“Don’t you feel like your life is restricted?”

“Aren’t there way too many things that you have to do?”

“Is there anything in your life that you wish you could do, but you can’t because you’re religious?”

The questions came hurtling toward me, one after the next. Hayley, Olga, Julie and Kelly were on a roll. Each question posed was followed by another one—they were snowballing at me!

Don’t you feel like your life is restricted?Olga, Hayley, Kelly, Julie and I sit around in a circle on the grass, with the warm May sun beating down on us. With sunscreen on, in tank tops and shorts, the girls relax to tan and talk. And then there is me, with my long-sleeved shirt and skirt. I stick out like a sore thumb among these women who are just a few years younger than me. But they feel comfortable sharing with me their perspective on what it looks like to peer into the religious world of Judaism.

They came on a college trip, sponsored by a religious Zionist organization, to explore and tour Israel, to hopefully become advocates for Israel on their college campuses, and to learn about Judaism. We are “Partners”—partners in searching for meaning and understanding in Judaism. We are meeting together to dispel myths about religious people, and openly discuss questions about Torah and G‑d. Most of all, we meet to bond as Jewish women.

Our fifth session together was challenging and invigorating. With each session, we had grown closer with one another. The shyness had worn off as we charged forward in search of answers, voicing doubts and absorbing new concepts.

Their questions made me think hard, and they helped me to re-clarify my way of life. This was an exciting new experience for me, and I needed to learn on-the-spot how to explain my beliefs and feelings in an understandable manner.

I couldn’t fall asleep the night after our fifth meeting together, as I thought of the many questions they had that were still left dangling. I was kind of nervous, because I knew that the next day would be our final session together—with just one hour of time available. Finally, I got out of bed and sat at my dining-room table, trying to formulate my thoughts and write some barely legible notes. Only then was I able to fall asleep, feeling as ready as I could to tackle the next day’s challenge.

Tuesday morning, as we all sat down at our favorite spot on the grass, the Jerusalem sun shone brightly upon us, and there was a light morning breeze. The bond that we had formed in just a week and a half was almost tangible.

I reminded them of the many questions we had left hanging the day before, and how I thought we would focus this last hour on the “restrictions” of Judaism, since that topic kept coming up in different venues. They were thrilled.

So I turned to Kelly, a tall blonde and a passionate vegetarian with an upbeat personality, and asked her, “Do you feel that your life is restricted since you can’t eat meat?”

“Not at all,” she said as she firmly shook her head.

“Why not? I eat corned beef, schnitzel, chicken soup… There are so many things you can’t eat. Isn't it so restricting?” I challenged.

“I chose to be a vegetarian because I believe it is important. So it doesn’t feel restricting to me,” Kelly answered.

“Is it hard for you to not eat meat while everyone else is eating it?” I pressed.

“No, it’s not hard for me. I don't want it.” She explained. Then, as an afterthought, she jokingly added, “Except for matzah ball soup! The smell is heaven! But I don’t feel like I’m missing out too much, since I figured out how to make the most delicious version of vegetarian matzah ball soup!”

We all laughed.

“I, too,” I began, “choose to keep the Torah lifestyle, and I don’t see its guidelines as restrictions, because I see the beauty and the joy that they have brought into my life.”

I saw Kelly nodding. The others didn’t seem so sure. So I continued on.

“When you get married, you are restricted to one person. But you can build a really meaningful and strong connection that you can’t ever have with twenty friends. Because it is only you two, the deepest, most joyous relationship is possible. Marriage is limiting yourself to one and only one person, but opening you up for your most important relationship. The restrictions that you see in Judaism are there to free you to have a deep bond with G‑d. A relationship that is genuine, you would never trade for more trivial ones. The commandments, the mitzvot, are the guidelines that help us focus on building a rich connection with G‑d.”

A relationship that is genuine, you would never trade for more trivial onesI noticed Hayley nodding and Olga wide-eyed. I charge on. “Let’s take wearing long sleeves, high collars and skirts for example. It seems so restricting. But I feel so free. I can walk down the streets and not have to be concerned that guys might have inappropriate thoughts about me. I am protecting myself so that I can be my deepest, truest self. Dressing modestly gives the message that you don’t have to look at my body to know who I am. What may look like a restriction is really freeing me.”

Now everyone is nodding. They get it.

My mother, Bracha Goetz, is my inspiration, and we love discovering ways to share the beauty of Judaism. She is a talented author of over fifteen children’s books, and many poems and articles. I decided to share one of her poems that seemed to fit with our discussion. This poem was written to express her evolving thoughts about dressing modestly, during her exploration of Judaism when she was in her twenties. Slowly, I read aloud:

Fragile Wings
Where was the open sky?
Come on and meet the prisoner,
Who thought that she could fly.

Religious girls in summer,
Blouses buttoned high.
I’d see long skirts, with stockings,
As I would pass them by.

I’d laugh inside me, mocking,
The girls I used to see.
Those girls are missing so much.
How trapped could people be?

But how could I have known then,
Jogging through summer rain,
I strode past them, uncovered,
In years before the pain.

Those girls kept their wings hidden,
And my own wings got crushed.
Why did I jump too quickly?
Why was my childhood rushed?

Crystalline wings they treasured,
Even at that young age.
My wings, I learned, were fragile,
When I hit bars inside the cage.

My wings have long been broken.
Can they be healed?
Those girls now fly past rainbows.
Tell me, how does it feel?

Inside, I’m thrashing lamely.
Can I get free?
Now that I see the picture—
Reversed, ironically.

Where was the freedom promised?
Where was the open sky?
Here I am. Meet the prisoner,
Who thought that she could fly

I paused for questions and comments, but for the first time, there were none. This group had never failed me before by coming back at me with more questions! They all sat there peacefully, and I could almost see them internalizing the message in their silence.

I prayed that each one of them would one day try out their wings in new waysThere was one more piece that I had prepared for my Partners, so, with the little time that remained, I continued on. It was one of my favorite parables, from a children’s picture book called “The Little Bird.”

There is a wonderful story of a little bird walking on its scrawny legs. She looked around at all the animals that G‑d created and noticed each of their unique features—the giraffe with the long neck, the lion with its powerful roar, and the deer running very fast. Sadly she wondered, “What is special about me?” She could only walk slowly with her little legs and two heavy wings on her back, weighing her down.

When suddenly a gust of wind came, pushing open her wings. She flapped and flapped, spreading out her wings, and then she began to soar into the sky. The wings weren’t weighing her down at all—they were her unique treasure!

Sometimes what we view as restricting, really contains our greatest power. It can have the potential to free us to be who we are and reach where we want to go in life.

“Time’s up! Time’s up!” called the leader of the program. Everybody gathered up their knapsacks and brushed off their clothes. I handed out personal letters to each woman in our little group, and we exchanged e-mail addresses and phone numbers. We pulled out cameras, snapped a few group pictures, and warmly hugged each other good-bye. Olga, Hayley, Kelly and Julie headed off to their bus to enjoy a go-karting activity in Israel.

I watched them leave and wondered what impressions our sessions would leave on their hearts. I prayed that each one of them would one day try out her wings in new ways, and discover how she could soar.

Dina Bacharach lives in Jerusalem, Israel, and is a mother of three adorable children and an educator of elementary and college-age students.
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Anonymous February 16, 2017

Women Singing Someone mentioned the restriction on hearing women sing...I have this to say. I was singing in a liberal synagogue as a cantorial soloist for 10 years. I was uncomfortable. This community lacked active, knowledgeable males so I continued. I was young in studies of observance but felt there were practical reasons for everything the rabbis had taught us. Increasingly, while standing in reception lines during Yom Tovim, men, not women, said that I had the voice of an angel.. They were too enthused if you ask me...eventually one said he was dreaming about me singing.
I was married, number one and fully covered and average looking. Ok, that's it I quit on the spot...enough proof for me. The men weren't trying to be inappropriate. I was so embarrassed that my spiritual offering had life of its own that was not intended. I never felt G-d was judging me or I did something "wrong" I was shown that the wisdom we're taught is not at all capricious. Ask for insight every time! Reply

Zlata Brooklyn, New York August 17, 2016

Thank you for the encouraging article! As a 15-year-old who was born into an Orthodox Jewish family, sometimes it gets frustrating when I have to veto item after gorgeous item of clothing that does not meet my standards of modesty (too tight, too short, etc....). Articles like this inspiring one keep me strong in my commitment. Thank you! Reply

Anonymous October 7, 2017
in response to Zlata :

Veto or selective? Zlata, keep up the good work. You are rejecting these items because they don't come up to the Jewish standard. I look at every clothing item & sewing pattern with the question, how can I fix this to tsnius standards? Is it cheap enough to buy 2 in order to make the garment tsnius? I recently bought a sleeveless pants suit & used the pant legs to make sleeves for the jacket. Voila, a tsnius jacket! Reply

shifra boston July 6, 2016

i find it awful that women's voices are not to be raised in song in judaism if men hear. what men are missing. i am so tired of listening to jewish men talk endlessly. they do not listen to women, yet we are to endlessly hear them talking on and on and on indefinately. whether they say something intelligent or not, just because they are orthodox men, we must listen and revere what they say. then they will have one designated woman to speak, who they clear beforehand. how sad Reply

Angie Georgia, USA June 27, 2016

I love the poem.
Spot on.
I want to paint it on the walls! :) Reply

Anonymous Cincinnati February 19, 2015

Look uo here at my face when you talk to me. I can relate personally to the poem. That was me, my fringed shaw, bared feet, skimpy teen's,"free lifestyle", no accountability, and 3 divorces, always searching. Becoming frum and modest has given me the freedom to discover who I am apart from the stereotypical persona of my youth. It allows others to get to know "me". Plus I belong to a community of people who have always dared to be different. Reply

Jubi California August 30, 2014

Question Must one be completely covered? For example, I live in Sunny Cali, where it gets horridly hot, and wearing that would be ludicrous! Is it okay to wear past the knee skirts that are not too long and shirts that have only the shoulders covered, and also don't show too much cleavage? Reply

Anonymous October 7, 2017
in response to Jubi:

Tsnius boundaries: Necklines are to be above the collar bone, elbows are covered when arm is extended, skirts are below the knee when sitting. Wear natural fibers like cotton, linen, rayon to keep cool. Reply

Sam Leon Dumfries May 3, 2014

Modesty is a G-dsend. I've chosen the Torah life for myself as well, and I'm only 18. Being a baal teshuva in the making is hard at times. I can't wear pants or eat cheeseburgers (and I am a girl who used to wear short shorts and spaghetti straps and go to McDonald's all the time!), but then I read articles like this, and it's very liberating. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma July 17, 2013

restrictions that free We also call this, when it comes to raising children, Tough Love. Children need limits. Imagination can be limitless, but love has its boundaries, and we often push against those boundaries, and even, hit a wall, on where we can go, and what we can and cannot do. Life is structured this way. In life we see the extremes of everything, including what we don't want, as in terrible events, terrible deeds, and then we have the gold. It seems unbounded in both directions, but I feel the big Directive or Direction is to get IT right, meaning being found in Tikkun for us all.
Surely a caring Father on high, however we view this, has to put in place a code of ethics to follow but sure, boundaries can be stretched if they are for love, for good reason.

In the final analysis, it could be, the entire story, like prescriptions, is Pre Scripted.
What matters though, is how we ACT no matter what we believe. Reply

Rhea Cohen Boca Raton July 7, 2013

Tzniut Empowers Us I loved your perspective on modest dress. In a global society that venerates overt sexuality, a woman's true value, true beauty, true self, and true esteem come forward when she invites others to see her without being provocatively sexual. As a mother of B"H two grown daughters, I have personally seen the great returns of a "limited" or "restrictive" type of wardrobe. As a result, it inspired me to create an online modest women's and teens clothing store ( as my newest business venture. I believe that when we dress with Tznius - whatever level one espouses to - we are truly empowering ourselves. Reply

Peggy Lewiston, NY-USA September 25, 2012

WOMEN I was so touched by this article. I guess i needed to see this.. Reply

Anonymous Baltimore June 8, 2012

Beutiful article!! Reply

Elyas Fraenkel Isaacs New York, New York April 8, 2012

Jewish Truth I always reflect on who and what was brought to me during the day as I go through my before bed prayers. May all regardless of faith or belief be brought to know and love the Lord, the Lord's Truth, and all that's given.
Mazel tov for Yom tov!!
Shabbot Shalom and a great Pesach to you!! Reply

Anonymous brooklyn, ny April 6, 2012

Such a beautiful and inspirational piece to read! I really get offended when people treat me with pity and like a victim. I always tell them that they will never feel the respect and love for themselves the way I do. I am grateful for how hAshem is in my life.
Shabbat Shalom and I wish everyone a wonderful Pesach Reply

Dina Baltimore, MD February 15, 2012

Rachel My mother wrote the marriage book Two Halves of a Whole as well as over fourteen children's book: The Invisible Book, Aliza in MitzvahLand, Let your Fingers do the Mitzvos, The Happiness Box, Remarkable Park, Let's Stay Safe. Many of her poems have been published in different sites and magazines over the past twenty years. She also has a self-published pamphlet of a lot of her poetry titled - "Journey to Judaism" that we can perhaps send to you. Reply

Rachel brussels February 14, 2012

Books Dear Dina,
Your essay is very inspiring, and I loved the poems written by your mother. Could you tell me the titles of the books written by your mother? Thanks. Reply

Yenty Lasker Brussels November 21, 2017
in response to Rachel:

Hi Rachel, I see you live in Belgium. Can we meet to discuss the above article? Reply

Ms. Chanaliza Zinger January 29, 2012

no subject This is very inspirational! what I thought were useless restrictions, really were opportunities and a way of freedom. Very inspiring ! Reply

ELYAS FRAENKEL ISAACS New York, USA October 29, 2011

Divine Will So often we think ideas or practices may restrict. But, that is in truth a misconception of who we are. We all know that we reside as part of a constantly forming Divine Will. It is reasonable to believe then that all persons in their hearts desire movement towards joy and Love. While confusion or cloudy thinking may at times veil our eyes from that which we wish to achieve or move closer to, that joy and Love, and we perceive then a "restriction", we soon do discover that by accepting the truth we know, the Will, we conform to what becomes best for us and brings us to fulfillment = joy and Love, our union with G-d. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma July 10, 2011

what binds us We are all bound to each other in myriad ways. A wedding Vow is a commitment we hope to believe, is binding. We are bound to care for each other, meaning all who come into our lives, as best we can, in sickness and in, health. We are bound to each other by chains of love, that yes, can sometimes feel, even, burdensome, restricting our personal freedoms. There are restrictions on conduct that we all do observe, or try to observe, that seems universal, in terms of what is acceptable behavior towards each other. There are consequences for not adhering to these guidelines.

I think, life being bipolar, that we can look at chains in a positive and negative way. Surely the person in jail, behind bars, imprisoned, might chafe mightily at the restrictions.

I find it interesting that our word CHAIN and the HEBREW l'CHAIM are so close.

There is within words a certain alchemy, and to plumb this, is to have a universe of meaning, unfold. Is this VALID? I think it is. I am not the first! Reply

Anonymous Garnet Valley, ISRAEL via July 8, 2011

Judaism & Freedom When I was a college student, one of my professors said that the best path to freedom is through discipline (restriction). By applying this ideology to this journey called, "L'Chaim,
it has, through G-D'S wisdom, "directed" my experiences to "choose" the right path.

Also, on occasion, if my "choices" deviated incorrectly, according to G-D'S Wisdom, "Rediscovery," has been the enduring path to enlightenment and Shalom! Reply

Peggy Shreveport, Louisiana July 6, 2011

being free your teachings so touched me,, words that I couldn't get to say how I felt, you gave to me and lifted my spirit. thank you so very much. I will share this knowledge with family and friends.
I am a convert since july 2009. Since I am single, I study alone and have found the Chabad web site to be the most informative of all, maybe one day I will be able to attend their services, they are a distance from me.
Shalom Reply