Saturday, May 22, 2010

Skirt Lengths

I haven't been writing much recently it seems; I keep seeing my name fall lower on the "recently updated" blogrolls of my friends who were kind enough to include me in their lists. It's mostly due to lethargy I guess, a trait I unfortunately have an unusually intimate relationship with. By the way, hope to see you by the Israel Day Parade today!

Anyway, one thing that's been plaguing my mind recently has been the issue of skirt lengths for females. My opinion about the subject has always been that longer is better, partially for reasons of tzni'ut and partially because I simply find that to be more attractive (and thus do what I can to promote such a manner of dress). Recently though, a learned friend of a friend asked me for a Talmudic source for this idea, and I couldn't think of anything offhand. Though with a lit bit of thought I came up with something very simple; the "kol Isha" Sugya. Which itself happens to be very contradictory....

Proving That Girls Must Wear Long Skirts:

It says in Brachot 24/a, discussing what one can be facing while reciting Kri'at Sh'ma, quotes Ribi Yitzchak who says "A tefach (of revealed flesh) in a woman is 'erva'", and then quotes Rav Hasda who says that "The 'leg' of a woman is 'erva', the hair in a woman is 'erva' and the voice of a woman is 'erva'".

I do not wish to discuss Kol Isha for the moment, so let's stick with the leg prohibition: The Hebrew word used is "שוק". The definition of שוק is not clear; many poskim understand it as meaning the thigh (upper portion of the leg) until the knee. Based on this understanding they not only allow men to recite K"S in the presence of women who's upper legs are covered, but in general allow skirts for women as long as they cover the thigh (and knee). What many don't know though is that other poskim understand שוק as the calf (the lower portion of the leg)! Which would mean that not only must that part of the leg be covered for men to recite K"S facing it, but that a woman must cover her entire leg in general (stockings are not considered a covering in halacha unless they are 100% opaque, so it's as if they're not there).

Proving the Exact Opposite:

In my struggle for a more Egalitarian Judaism, one thing I always feel bad about regarding the dress restrictions on women is dressing so properly that it's at times absurdly out of place. For example, my mind always told me that if an Orthodox woman is doing something like mountain climbing, a little more leniency should be provided than just being able to don trousers under a skirt, which is as far as most authorities are willing to allow. The funny thing is though that based on the reasoning of one explanation of this statement, woman's dress restrictions lessen greatly.

To begin, it would seem that this statement is extremely restricting; we just stated that a woman's lower leg cannot be revealed because it's mentioned in this statement. But isn't this part of the Gemara's statement only discussing K"S? If the leg being erva means that you can never reveal that part of the body in the presence of men, wouldn't that mean that a woman cannot speak or have her hair uncovered in front of men?

First of all, the Gemara later says that one can never gaze upon a woman's calf (if he is not married to her etc). But in regards to hair the commentators say that only a married woman's hair is considered erva, but in front of an unmarried woman's hair you can say K"S, and she does not have to cover her hair in general. And the reason they give is that only a married woman's hair is alluring. The hair of an unmarried woman is a usual sight.

We see, therefore, that much of tzni'ut (even against what in says in the Gemara) is based on what people today find alluring. So something such as wearing shorts, for example, for a girl, during mountain climbing, might have a היתר based on this mode of thought. I'm obviously not saying I find it to be ok, I'm only saying that these are not clear-cut proofs, and can be used in either direction.

On a similar vein, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein actually has a Tshuva speaking about how tzni'ut in general is dependent on what is acceptable in that place. He says, for example, that if a man lives in a place where everyone walks around with bare arms, even before kings, there is nothing wrong for him to have his arms exposed all day, even in prayer. On the other hand, he also says that if one lives in a place where ankles are always covered, it would even be prohibited for a man to have his ankles exposed. Or even if one generally has his arms or ankles covered outdoors, he may not have them bare at home.

Which is a problem for me at times: For example if I wish to go biking in shorts, I often go from a community where shorts are unacceptable for men (Ultra Orthodox Jewish communities) to a place where everyone is wearing shorts. My opinion is that in the Jewish community one must wear long pants until one reaches an area in which it is acceptable. ועוד חזון למועד.


Some good sources to use in researching this subject:
1)Yabia Omer 6/14.
2) Tzitz Eliezer 1/62 (though compared to Rav Ovadia it just seems like a lot of unsourced Haredi ranting).
3) Igrot Moshe Y"D2/62
4) Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society Number IV/May Women Wear Pants?
5) And this shiur from Rav Willig of Yeshiva University, who seems to have come to similar conclusions about lower leg exposure (at 22:10).

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