To button or not to button? That was the question I asked myself as my fingers paused on the ivory button of my blouse.

Button. I’ll try buttoning my blouse one inch closer to my neckline.

There. Not so terrible.

I can still breathe. In fact, it feels kind of good. No strap peeking out, less skin showing. Not my usual look, but I’m not doing this for life—just trying it out. Like on a trial basis. I can always go back to the way I’ve dressed for the past 20-plus years. My rules, my code of law and no one else’s.

This argument in my head took place many years ago on a street corner in Jerusalem.

I had come to Israel in the summer of 1989 to rescue my previously agnostic Jewish boyfriend from the clutches of Orthodox Judaism. With my hopes to draw him back into secular sanity, I enrolled in classes myself in order to arm myself with what he was learning and become the enemy from within. I thought I would argue with him regarding the restrictive traditional Torah dress codes, and yet, here I was arguing with myself.

I was a graduate of Grinnell College, a small Midwestern school amid the cornfields of Iowa. There, I had honed my liberal philosophy of life—truth is relative, dream big, save the world and challenge the status quo.

And I had been doing that since finishing college and living in Berkeley, Calif., working in the resource library of UCB and enjoying weekend trips exploring the vast coast of the West. Up until landing in Israel and attempting to free my boyfriend’s mind and heart from religious Judaism, I was convinced that my dress codes were independently decided upon by me.

On this street corner, I was challenging that. Wasn’t it only me who decided how to dress my body?

As a hippie and somewhat of a rebel, I certainly didn’t believe that society or Hollywood dictated how I should dress. I was my own woman. An independent and free thinker. An individual down to the last drop.

Fashion Whim Changed With the Times

But the rebbetzins—the women teachers of the classes I was enrolled in—were encouraging me to explore my present identity.

Where did my fashion style and way of dressing come from? Was it truly my own, independent of others?

Or was it dictated to me based on the values of others whose fashion whim changed with the times, like the wind that blew in different directions based on always changing Hollywood values or lack thereof. Wasn’t I just a puppet of the media and of people who either worshipped women’s bodies or degraded them based on how they saw fit? Didn’t they shame and disgrace, didn’t they use and abuse the female from the beginning of time, dictating to the women of the world how they “should” dress to attract the male species?

I didn’t know the answer to those questions, but I was in the midst of exploring hitting the reset button on my life. Stepping into the Orthodox shtetls of Israel was not on my bucket list as a 23-year-old. But when a strange letter from that boyfriend arrived at my funky Berkeley rental one morning, my life turned upside down.

I took myself and the letter to a rabbi whose name I found in the Berkeley yellow pages. He took one look at the return address on the envelope—the Jerusalem yeshivah’s address—and told me the alarming news.

“Your boyfriend is in a cult.”

“What? He’s in a cult?” my mouth dropped open in shock and response from the other side of the rabbi’s large wooden desk.

As far as I had known, my boyfriend was traveling around Europe after his junior-year-abroad studies had finished. The letter showed differently. He had gone to Israel and winded up enrolling in some yeshivah, learning ancient biblical texts. Not just learning, but doing things that were outside the realm of the secular, liberal upbringing he had. In the letter, he spoke of observing the Jewish Sabbath, eating a kosher diet and dressing differently.

The Yellow Pages rabbi responded back, “Yes, he’s in a cult. Those schools that they call yeshivahs? They’re actually places where they teach secular Jewish youths all about religious Judaism in hopes that they’ll choose to live according to the biblical commandments that many Jews like you and me find outdated and restrictive.“

“But you’re a rabbi,” I said. “Don’t you live that way?”

“No, I don’t. I like the teachings of the Torah, the Old Testament as the Christians call it, but I don’t believe it comes from G‑d. I believe it was written by man. But those rabbis who are teaching your boyfriend will probably convince him that the biblical customs are from G‑d. That’s why I call it a cult. Your boyfriend will change in ways that you won’t be able to recognize him. If I were you, I’d hop on a plane and get him out.”

I told the rabbi that I had plans to go to Guatemala and do volunteer work with refugees. The rabbi’s words convinced me that my boyfriend was a much greater cause.

Which Was More Oppressive?

I was actually a bit familiar with Torah Judaism—in a superficial, disdainful way. Growing up in a suburb of New York on the outskirts of a very religious, quickly expanding Orthodox/Chassidic neighborhood, I had seen religious Jews. But growing up secular and liberal, worshipping no higher power, I was not impressed by what I saw. Especially the way the religious women folks dressed. Long sleeves in the summer, socks and tights underneath long skirts. All I could think of was how oppressed they were to cover themselves up that way.

And yet there I stood on a street corner in Jerusalem arguing with myself about a button.

What was in that button? A lot.

Which was more oppressive? To button or not to button?

I had hopped on a plane six weeks earlier to convince my boyfriend to come back to the States and leave this crazy notion of biblical Judaism behind. I hadn’t been too successful battling him with our liberal ideas from college. I didn’t understand his side of the battle and so enrolling in classes seemed like a good idea. And a safe one—this cult wouldn’t get me because I was too smart to be convinced of a G‑d who cared about what someone ate and how they dressed.

And yet that was at the core of my battle with my boyfriend. If man wrote the Bible, then who cares what they said about dress codes. But if G‑d had dictated the Torah to Moses, then a paradigm shift needed to take place in my mind.

And that’s what was happening on that street corner over the decision of a little button. A paradigm shift. All my values were being questioned—not just the way I dressed. But the dressing was a biggie to me and represented a lot.

I had sat in my seat in class staring up at the rebbetzin. Her hair was decoratively covered by a floral scarf. Her elbows covered by sleeves and her long, billowy skirt brushed her ankles. I would say the style was bohemian hippy. And yet the words coming out of her mouth were unlike any hippy talk that I’d ever heard.

“In the Torah, anything that is precious and sacred remains private. This is completely opposite to what society teaches which is ‘let it all hang out’ and ‘expose it all.’ The secular social values that we were raised with, for I was also raised just like you,” she gestured to me and the other women in the class, “tell us that if we cover certain parts of our body it is because we are ashamed of our bodies. But according to the Torah, just as a Sefer Torah, which is one of the most holy and precious things in the Jewish faith, is wrapped lovingly in velvet and not to be shown off, so is a woman’s body wrapped lovingly in clothes and not meant to be on display. Her body is holy, and it is a matter of honor to treat it as such. These women don’t hide their bodies out of shame. They cover them out of love. They dress attractive, yet not attracting.”

“Whoa. What’s the difference between attractive and attracting?” I called out from the back of the room.

“Dressing attractive is representative of your dignity and worth. Dressing attracting is just as it sounds—wanting to dress in a manner that attracts attention. Unfortunately, the attention would be on the external rather than the internal. If someone is trying to attract attention by showing off something external, then what does that say about their self-worth? If all a woman wants to be is body parts rather than a person with ideas, personality, values and integrity, then what does that say about how she views herself? Who is she truly dressing for? Others or herself?”

“Well, I don’t really care what others think about my clothes, I just want to be comfortable. If it’s hot out, I want to wear shorts and tanks. If I’m hiking, I want to wear pants.”

“Yup, that makes sense in a human centered world—to dress as you please. But in a G‑d-centered world, with a belief that G‑d is the architect of our modern world, then dressing as you wish is like building a home in contradiction to the architect’s plans. And then you’ve got a rocky foundation. Something will be off-kilter.”

Willing to Question My Values

Often during those weeks in Jerusalem, my mind replayed the image of Charlton Heston holding the tablets on the mountain, Hollywood-style. Could it be true? Was there really an infinite Being who created the world and us humans? Was there really a grand architect? My college educated boyfriend had come to believe that. And the people I was meeting in yeshivah? Many of them had grown up secular and open-minded like myself and then had immersed themselves in the words of the living Torah, coming out the other end dressing and living as the religious neighbors who I had so disdained and distanced myself from growing up.

During my classes, I struggled greatly with having been raised too rational to entertain the existence of an Infinite Being who was invisible to my eyes yet had created the world. When I slowly came to realize that my boyfriend was not in a cult, I made a commitment to myself. With a youthful and open mind, I was willing to at least take a leap and consider a different reality than the way I was raised. I was willing to look again at the effects that secular media had on me as a woman. I was willing to question my values.

I explored the values of the Torah—teachings that may have come from an Infinite Being who had created and continues to create my body. And I played with that. On that street corner, I played with the notion of dressing according to the values of this Infinite Being. An Infinite Being who created my body as holy and desired for me to treat it as such by dressing with less exposure.

Kind of like a science experiment with nothing to lose, I played with buttons and skirts. I played with elbows, knees and necklines covered. And what I discovered was something that I never had touched on before.

Dignity. Dignity of my body. A dignity touched upon by exposing less skin. Not from shame, but from boundaries. G‑dly boundaries, not human boundaries. What’s mine is mine and not “yours” (the outside world). Not yours to see, not yours to dictate fashion to, not yours to dress.

Unlike secular society trying to smoosh the gender lines to be the same, Torah Judaism makes distinctions between men and women. G‑d-centered rather than human-centered distinctions.

I was willing to explore that men and women had been created with different biologies and different spiritual makeups as well. Male and female come from different aspects of the Divine. Testosterone and estrogen make a difference. Not one better than the other, but different and distinct. Again, a paradigm shift of non-defensive exploring led to eye-opening revelations of the world around me.

Both men and women are expected to show up in their Divine image. No one—not men or women—is a body without a soul. A woman’s beauty is not on display for men nor should a man’s be. To be honored, recognized, respected, yes. To be objectified, degraded, stared at, no.

And that is what I came to with that little button. Eventually, over time and much learning and exploring in both Israel and in America, I became more observant of a G‑d-centered Judaism. I came to observe what I have come to believe are G‑d’s values regarding my dress. I have many beautiful parts of my body—some meant for the public eye and others only meant to be shared with my husband, my partner in life. G‑d has also become my partner in life. A G‑d that cares for the dignity of my body.

I reset my button many years ago, choosing different values than the way I had been raised.

I chose a more modest path. I am the modest goddess.