A couple of weeks ago I posted about my conversation with the principal of the girls’ high school that we were most interested in for our dd15. At that time, the principal closed the conversation by telling me that although she felt it was forbidden to allow a girl into their school from a family that used the internet, she would send us their ‘takanon’ (school rules) and if we felt we could abide by them, she’d ask a rabbi a personalized question about our family.
We got the takanon, seven typed pages of mostly rules about modesty in dress. I personally found this very off-putting – our approach to modesty is to model it and talk very little about the technical ‘rules’ with our girls. Last year when I was visiting Israel, a friend who was a seminary teacher mentioned at a get together in honor of me visiting that ‘you can’t pay girls to look like this nowadays’ (referring to our oldest two girls who were with me). While I was uncomfortable with this being drawn attention to publicly, modesty is something that isn’t a struggle for dd15. (Not implying anything about our other girls but this high school situation is about her.) She has a very strong intrinsic sense of modesty and there’s nothing in her clothing choices that has ever given me pause.
However, despite every single item she owns being in accordance with Jewish law, nothing in her closet was suitable for the takanon. Her skirts are too long (skirts can only be between the knee and mid calf and hers are a couple of inches above the ankle), her shirts are made of the wrong material (no cotton knits/tricot allowed), her legs aren’t covered with thick enough material (stockings must be 40 denier thick), her hair isn’t modest enough (no bangs allowed or hair partially pulled up), and the list continues.
Why, why, why do schools think that imposing increasingly strict rules on girls makes them more sensitive to modesty? Modesty isn’t something I struggle with, but I still felt like screaming and running in the other direction when I read this long and burdensome list of rules, which are binding on the student both in and outside of school, in every social situation. Dr. Gordon Neufeld has coined the term ‘counterwill’ to explain the pyschological phenomenon that comes into play when a person feels coerced or controlled beyond the limits of the relationship. That means that if you feel very close to someone and they make a suggestion to pull your hair out of your face, you’re likely to do it. But without that connection, having someone make the same suggestion causes you want to dig your heels in and do the exact opposite. I believe that a lot of the resistance to modesty that we see today that the schools are trying to counter with escalating rules, are ironically actually caused by those rules.
Years ago I was in a small shiur with Rebbetzin Heller when she spoke about modesty. She stressed the importance of an inside/outside approach – you teach the meaning and beauty of it, and trust women to make external choices that match their inner sensitivity. At that point, I asked her why it is that virtually all charedi schools teach from an outside/inside approach – stressing the rules and obsessing over minor details, while glossing over the deeper meanings and inspiration about this. She told me, ‘it’s a problem’.
No kidding it’s a problem. I actually wonder how many girls with strict school rules regarding modesty would be inspired to dress in the dictated manner if left to their own discretion. A day after receiving the takanon and going through it together, dd was babysitting for someone and took their children to the park that is frequented by the local kollel wives. When she came home, she asked me at what point the Bais Yaakov modesty standards that are expected of charedi girls stops being binding – because she noticed that almost all of the kollel wives were dressed very similarly to her (ie fine halachically and in the spirit of modesty, but not meeting these specific rules). I recently spoke with a couple of Israeli charedi teachers about this takanon, and they both told me that their clothing would also be considered inappropriate by that school.
During another conversation, dd15 also told me that in her current school (which has a very reasonable takanon), they regularly have inspirational speakers come in to talk to the girls. And she told me she’s so sick of hearing the conclusion to almost all of these talks - ‘so the next time you’re in the store and buying a skirt, be sure to make sure it’s long enough’. It’s pretty bad when someone who is naturally so sensitive to this topic is fed up of hearing about it after just nine months in school! She asked me, isn’t there anything else in the practice of Judaism that they care about? Don’t they care if someone is trying to be a good person and grow closer to Hashem (G-d)?
Personally, if I were teaching high school girls, the last topic I would broach is modesty. I think it gets shoved down their throats for years and made into an unnecessary power struggle. When I give my weekly classes on the parsha (weekly Torah portion), I share messages that I find inspiring about how to live our lives in a meaningful way using the Torah as our guidebook. That’s what I like hearing now and that’s what I would have wanted to hear more about when I was a high school student, not about long lists of rules and the punishments awaiting me in the next world if I put a finger out of line. (I recently had a burst of desire to give a weekly class to the high school girls in the local school along these lines – if the principal asks me again to give a class there, instead of refusing her like the last three times she asked, I’m going to suggest this.)
In case you’re wondering about what happened with dd’s school acceptance, we called the school to let them know we were willing to go along with the takanon. We gave them number of five teachers as well as the city rabbi who were ready to give very warm references about dd and our family, and two other teachers in the community offered to call personal contacts in that school to recommend dd. However, this clearly wasn’t enough since I got a call from the secretary yesterday telling me they won’t take dd since she comes from a home where there is internet. (I don’t believe that they called any of the references or asked the personalized rabbinic shaila as I was told they would but it’s their loss.) It left me wondering why we wasted two weeks following through with this school after our last conversation if it was going to come back to the internet issue anyway!
Though this was frustrating, it’s obvious Hashem doesn’t want dd to be attending this school and He has a better plan and place for her. We’ll see where that will be and how things will play out for her in the short and long term. One positive thing is that now I don’t have the internal struggle with going along with an approach to modesty that I find inherently problematic and demotivating.