Contact Us

Jewish Feminism

Jewish Feminism

The true meaning of modesty


“Why does your dinosaur have a ribbon on her head?” the teacher asked five-year-old me.

“Because it’s a girl,” I answered with a smile.

I was the only child who had given my drawing a gender. I was proud of my dinosaur. She dressed the part of who she was. The teacher thought this was so cute that she telephoned my mom the following day to tell her about my creativity.

As a child, I insisted on wearing dresses and the color pink. I guess I was born a feminist, in the nonpolitical sense. I celebrated my girlhood and was proud of it.

I was proud of my dinosaur

At a very young age, I realized there was something very special about my femininity. It was a thing of beauty. I admired it about myself, and wanted others to notice it in me. I also realized that the clothing I used to adorn my body had meaning. It defined who I was, who I wanted to be, and how I wanted others to see me.

It’s not a surprise that people judge us by what we wear. The fact is, however shallow it may be, that our clothing portrays an image to the world of who we are and who we want to be. We are a visual society. We look at the outside world through the visual stimuli of television, the Internet and magazines.

And yet, really knowing a person is so much deeper than that. To have a deeper admiration for a person, we must use our other senses. Beauty is found in things that can be seen, but also in things that cannot. We can be attracted to a person’s scent, touch or personality. To see the complete and true beauty of a person requires depth.

As I grew older, I learned about modesty. Modesty doesn’t have a great reputation in teen and young adult circles. This is understandable, because at first it seems to stifle individuality and freedom. We’re even surprised when we think someone who dresses modestly looks beautiful.

On a trip with a group of friends, one person pointed to a radiant woman in a kosher café and said, “I thought religious women were supposed to be modest, but she looks beautiful.”

My It seems to stifle individuality and freedomfriend’s assumption was that the point of women dressing modestly was so men wouldn’t look at them. Modesty was synonymous, in his mind, with making oneself unattractive.

Modern Western culture encourages us to show off our assets. And, for women, our bodies can be our biggest assets. Showing off our bodies is “liberating.” We shouldn’t be “ashamed” of what we have if it is beautiful. Dressing in a more provocative way is called “growing up.” This is certainly true in Hollywood, but Hollywood just reflects the greater society. Being proud of your body equals being proud of yourself.

As a woman in America today, I feel like I’m given mixed messages. I’m expected to be an educated career woman, and I’m also expected to be feminine and attractive in order to find a husband. But the outfits to do those things are totally different. The superwoman of today is expected to “have it all” and dress accordingly for every part she plays.

Judaism says we can play both of these roles in our modest attire. Not because Judaism wants women to be unattractive: modesty is supposed to be beautiful. Not because a woman is ashamed of what is underneath—but because it is valuable. When something is valuable, we guard it. We don’t let just anyone see it or touch it. We protect it. A woman dresses modestly because she is aware of the power of the feminine body. Furthermore, dressing modestly allows us to be true to ourselves, no matter what type of role we are playing.

Judaism says that the human is comprised of two elements: body and soul. Our body, however, is not who we are. It is the clothing of our soul.

The point of our body is to house the soul and help it grow. By covering up the more “flashy” parts of ourselves, we are inviting others to take a deeper look We are inviting others to take a deeper lookat us. Modesty allows others to really get to know us.

Modesty does not hold us back from being beautiful. In fact, being beautiful in a modest way is praiseworthy. It is saying, “I respect myself, and I am someone worthy of getting to know.” Modesty is a tool for us as women to harness our beauty and tell the world we are much more than our outsides.

Modesty gives us a guideline for how to access the unlimited beauty within us. It further challenges others to come and experience the depth of that beauty. It’s meant to enhance who we are as people, not put limitations on it.

Some of my friends have started little scrapbooks of movie stars dressing in modest attire. Others have started modest fashion blogs. It’s amazing how many examples there really are of famous women dressing this way. It’s not as odd as we think it is; it’s just that we haven’t been trained to look for it.

Pink dresses, bows, high heels, flowing hair and makeup are things I love about being a girl and a woman. Playing dress-up as an adult and being admired for my feminine flair is not something I would ever want to give up. But I also would never give up the chance to be admired for my inner beauty and the woman I have become. Modesty is my vehicle for both self-expression and self-respect.

Samantha Barnett is a writer. She lives in Los Angeles, California.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with's copyright policy.
Join the Discussion
Sort By:
1000 characters remaining
Insidious_Sid Canada May 11, 2014

"But the outfits to do those things are totally different. The superwoman of today is expected to “have it all” and dress accordingly for every part she plays."

They'll have it all, and at any cost too. And nobody with even a glimmer of intelligence will feel sorry for them. Reply

Anonymous London via December 5, 2013

"Feminism" To Shalom2U of Here - thanks for honouring and you are honourable...

As an afterthought, interesting that there is no male counterpart / wording for Feminism, that's because they (men) don't need it. They were born without the need for equality. Hence misogyny applies to men's reactions to women, but as far as I know, there is no counterpart / wording for women who "may" hate men.

On a serious note, considering Judaism should set an example in some way (having given the world the 10 or more Commandments), surely respect and equality for both genders would have been a wonderful, if not idealistic choice, bringing a feeling of subjective"wholeness" with it. Reply

Anonymous Malta December 2, 2013

Humour Anonymous of London:

Too funny. Thank you for that. That's twice in one day.

Shalom2U of Here:

"Who is honoured?

The one who gives honour to others".

(Talmud - Avot 4:1)

B"H Reply

Anonymous London via November 29, 2013

Re: Bus Seating and Feminism I have a better suggestion: Why don't men have their own bus? Then Women can sit wherever they like without the misogynistic slant of religious doctrine and fear of looking at women with temptations so that both genders may feel more in control?

Alas, then if the gender of the bus is written on the side, and a "male only" bus doesn't arrive before the "Female only" bus, they can complain again.

Perhaps it will then be permitted for women to sing.

All of the above is said, for the sake of humour. Reply

Shalom2U Here November 28, 2013

Bus Seating and Feminism If women and men are to be seated separately, a woman should not have to walk through rows of men to get to the back of a bus.

A gentleman would never suggest that a woman sit in the back of a bus while he sits in front. How absurd. Women sitting in the front and men in back is not the dictates of feminism, it's called common courtesy.

A Jewish woman should be treated like a queen of sorts, and should have the first seat available. If a man wants to sit separately from women in order to maintain his ethics, he should sit in the back of the bus, and be quick about it! Reply

Anonymous Jerusalem November 17, 2013

Feminism-- A Debate? II The most important function of women may indeed be to create a family and bear children in the context of marriage. But, looking at the spiritual reasons,one might say that this is also the most important function of men. As we live in a spiritual and material society (world), we also must address how best to live in it. Modern Feminism, which seeks to redress certain imbalances, aids this. Parts of it which get excessive are imbalanced and not helpful. This is equally true of issues/objects/entities like secular education, the military, and the Internet. Let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Reply

Anonymous Jerusalem November 17, 2013

Feminism--a debate? I Jews are known for debates,but as it says in the Talmud somewhere, if not for the sake of heaven debate is meaningless. Let us say this is for the sake of Heaven. My underlying point as it has always been is that debates among the ignorant or misinformed have little value except blowing off steam. Further, ignorant points of view sometimes tend to influence those who know little. Most rabbonim agree that man and woman were first created according to the Torah,Bereishit, as one entity. After that, social customs intervened. Check with your rav. Then,you will see women scattered throughout the Tanach doing the same things that men do, but fewer mentioned. These include: Prophets (Miriam),warriors(Devorah), ruling royalty (Sheba), shepherds(Rachel), merchants (the Eschet Chayil), scholars (Bruria). There are various opinions about why fewer women were mentioned. The fact is that they were mentioned. Reply

Shoshana Jerusalem November 17, 2013

Jewish women In the very chereidi community that I live in, I have three friends who are lawyers, one a real estate agent, social workers, authors, columnists, editors, a couple nurses and a lot of teachers. Plus there are many other women in the community who I am not acquainted with and don't know that they are doing.

Which is why I say that most of the people who are writing these comments are outside the chereidi community and don't actually know what's doing inside.

All of these women who I have mentioned are excellent homemakers and devoted wives and mothers whose family is much more important to them then their careers. They also exemplify the high level of Jewish modesty that Jewish women have always kept.

None of them are "rabbis" !

You said that girl children are "oppressed" . I have no idea what you are referring to , so could you please explain. My daughter were certainly not oppressed and neither are our granddaughters. Reply

Anonymous London via November 14, 2013

Females It's a great debate. However, debates are fruitless, however enjoyable, and change nothing. No one here is making fun of anyone else, nor their opinions, it is just that, a point of view with no right or wrong, merely an observation. I observe that female children are oppressed among st religious Jewish people, and appear to disassociate themselves from the rest of Jewish (and other) society. Perhaps it is for the best (no tongue in cheek intended). Although I personally think (and it is only my opinion) that it sounds incredibly odd that the woman is made to think she is far better off being the homemaker.... sounding more like submissiveness, bowing to her master. Alas I see this may offend - but please be assured it is only one viewpoint, perhaps others would love to change the situation but do not feel they want to be left out. Feminisim is about equality in roles, finances, and respectfulness, as well as being allowed the privilege of education. Reply

Shoshana Jerusalem November 12, 2013

There is no diminution of women in Judaism It's sad that people posting these negative comments have not lived a full, rich Torah life and only see us with the outlook that being equal means having the same jobs, as the shepherd's wife you mentioned, or today, being a rabbi.

The Jewish woman is the mainstay of the Jewish home. And the Jewish home is far more important in Judaism than the Synagogue and it's rituals.

To us is entrusted the future of the generations and just as in the merit of the righteous women in Egypt the redemption came, so in our merit will come the future redemption.

Our modesty, (decided by Jewish law) which you make fun of, is the reason that the Devine Presence (Shchina} rests on the Jews. Immodesty causes it to depart.

The Sages and all the Rabbonim have said that the prayer of the women is far more potent than of the men. The holy Chafetz Chiam credited everything he became to his mother's prayers for him. And so it's been with Jewish women all through the ages.

We are much more than equal. Reply

Anonymous Jerusalem November 10, 2013

What is Feminism? 1)Feminism is not a leftist ideology that undermines Judaism although there are leftist feminists and scholars
2)Being a rebbetzin is not equivalent nor does it have the same obligations as being a rabbi; although there are some rebbetzin scholars and ba'alit chassidim among rebbetzin, it's not a mandated role
3)Historical models of Jewish womanhood are fine and useful examples but they do not speak to current day social issues unless they are addressed actively. For example the fact that Rachel was a shepherd (as was David ha Melech) should speak to some women doing equivalent work to men in the biblical era.
4) Jews have been oppressed and not truly self governed for over 2000 years;have not had our national homeland for 2000 years and this wandering among alien nations has told on people's psyches and behavior. The ensuing diminution of women, especially among Jews in Arab-dominated countries, is not part of the core ideas of Judaism. Reply

Anonymous London via November 10, 2013

Jewish Feminism Women are covered for modesty, alas, this includes the ridiculous wigs which make them look even more attractive sometimes, than their own hair. Religious female children are not supposed to show their chest collar bones, nothing above the wrist, in the heat of Summer, oppression, and choice to be oppressed, by clothing, role playing for women and female children, is not a fair way and as many Jewish men have commented to me, is brainwashing, and displays a lack of individuality.

For every one great prophetess mentioned, there are hundreds of male Tzaddikim. Reply

Shoshana Jerusalem November 9, 2013

No equality or fairness? answer to anonymous - Nov.7 Just because people's roles are different, and people have different jobs does not mean that there is a lack of equality or fairness.

Sarah Imeinu, for instance, was on a higher level of prophesy than Avraham Avinu. which is why G-d told Abraham, "Listen to everything that Sarah says", because she was a greater prophet., but her role was different. Avraham was a public leader, recognized a great king by the whole world. And he used to go out to the market place and talk about the One G-d,and convert people. Sarah, that great princess, stayed home and women flocked to her, and she spoke to them about G-d and converted them also. Unequal or unfair? I don't think so.

Today we have examples of great rebitzens, like Rabanit Kenievsky of blessed memory, who influenced the lives of hundreds of women, literally saved them. Her husband, Rav Chiam may he live until 120, is one of the greatest Torah scholars of our generation. She's unequal because she's not a rabbi? Reply

Anonymous Malta November 8, 2013

Jewish Feminism B'H

Isn't the female pre-eminent in Judaism? Reply

Anonymous London, United Kingdom via November 7, 2013

Jewish Feminism If a very religious Jewish married woman were to consider her position, her feminity is not in question, however the feminists would say she is completely the underdog of the man. No female Rabbi's, No female Messiah, No participation in many things, faced with praying in a different room to the men, for fear of attracting and distracting. All a bit weird. Yet, comforting to be involved in the family values, especially a feeling of security even if there is no equality and fairness in the religious Jewish situation for women. Reply

Daniel Baltimore MD November 4, 2013

THE FEMINIST LIE If a person were to pick up a Dictionary in America and look up the word suffragist, the definition would likely tell them that it is a person who advocates extending the right to vote, women. It is probable that, if they were to look up woman suffrage, they would have no problem finding it. Now, if that same person were to try to find the word manhood suffrage, it is also probable that they would be at a loss, because it's not there. I would be willing to bet that most people have never even heard of the manhood suffrage movement. How many people are aware of the fact that, before the woman suffrage movement, in the early history of America, not only did women vote, they were property owners? This is a very inconvenient fact for Feminism. Talk about propaganda. Talk about mind control. By the way; why should a woman's vote be any more important than anyone else's? women? Seriously? Reply

Anonymous Malta November 3, 2013

To Anonymous from Jerusalem B'H

Feminism is NO-THING or NOT NO-THING depending on one's point of view. Reply

Daniel Baltimore MD November 2, 2013

TO FEMINISM What is Màsculinism? How can the Feminist movement exist outside of the Feminist movement? See Charles Fourier. Reply

Anonymous Jerusalem November 2, 2013

Feminism There were plenty of early feminists in the 18th c, Fanny Shelley being one of them. As I see you have cut women completely out of your version of feminism, it hardly pays to discuss this with you. Whether or not Marxists taught feminism, it is not restricted to them nor do they or any other political group define feminism any more than the Sabbatean movement defines Judaism. Reply

Anonymous Malta November 1, 2013

Jewish Feminism B'H

Feminism needs to be redefined so that G-d's idea of femininity can be revealed.

Step 1: Identify and remove the "chametz" before Pesach (i.e. marriage).

Step 2: Light your Shabbat candle from "within" (i.e. faithfully) Reply

Related Topics