Chessed and Tzenius

There was one movement in the Twentieth Century CE that was definitively established as an Other-Focused Orthodoxy (OFO). From its founding by Sarah Schenirer in 1917 until the late 1990s, the Judaism girls were taught in typical Beis Yaakov schools was one of chessed (Lovingkindness) first and foremost and only then the other mitzvos.

But I noticed that there has been a shift in many quarters of girls’ Torah education. It started slightly before the publication of a certain well-known book on the subject of tzenius (to be defined below), but has accelerated since to be dominant by 2010 or so.

Ad for Project Elevate 11 Day Tznius Program

Tzenius is about more than rules about non-revealing clothing. It is about realizing the difference between having value because I have a unique role to play that if I live up to it, is a critical part of history only I can do. Rather than seeking the limelight and trying to get my validation from others.

The concept of tzenius is only related to the clothing one wears (as in the call to dress modestly) in that sexiness is a cheap and easy way to get some of that limelight.

And I assume the program whose ad I copied (right) will make this point.

We can see tzeni’us as the flip-side of chessed. Tzenius is -making sure the story is not all about me. Chessed is about making the story all about us. This definition of chessed is particularly true from within Rav Shimon Shkop’s hashkafah, where the drive to be of benefit to others comes from being invested in the other and acknowledging their investment in us. Making their otherness one of degree rather than kind. The desire to give to my children comes from an “ani” (“I”) that is broader than just my physical self, that sees myself in them. So too a greater soul’s relationship to their community, the Jewish People, humanity and creation as a whole.

Still, Sarah Schenirer’s derekh (path) focused on chessed itself. It was more overtly OFO. By focusing our girls’ attention on whether or not they are striving for the spotlight, we are still turning attention inward. Making sure I don’t make the story all about me means my internal story is still all about me.

Meanwhile their brothers are being taught a Judaism that is centered on their own learning. Again, a Judaism that is all about the self. Again a drift from the OFO taken for granted in so much of pre-war Jewry is replaced with a more modern focus on self.

Mussar also requires this caution. As someone trying to follow Mussar’s path, I have to make sure I don’t get so caught up in fixing my middos that I don’t focus my attention on what I am becoming a better person for.

But here it doesn’t look like they’re fighting that battle. We took the message of OFO, and made it a form of frumkeit, complete with rigorously defined shiurim. And we lost sight of Beis Yaakov’s original message.

A Judaism built about chessed and looking out for others’ needs was replaced with one built about tzenius and looking at one’s own appearances. And even in the ideal, about one’s own need for the spotlight. All self-centered. Like the boys are being taught to spend most of their religious thought on their own learning.

We have to check and rethink the path we’re on. Frumkeit is a narcissistic spirituality.

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  1. barzilai says:

    I’ve always like the Shelah on the topic,
    עוד מעלה גדולה ונפלאה רמה ונשגבה הנכלל במדת הצניעות, הצנע לכת עם אלהיך היא מעלת התבודדות, שיתבודד האדם וישב בדד בד’ אמות של הלכה שלו סגור ומסוגר מן המקדש לא יצא, רצוני לומר מבית הקדושה שלו

  2. Shlomo Zalman says:

    1. What’s your source claiming that Sara Schenirer focused any less on the obligation for women to dress modestly than today’s Beis Yaakov’s focus on that obligation?

    2. Isn’t it a tad unusual for you, as being from outside the communities operating Beis Yaakov’s, to claim more authority in interpreting the original or current goals or intentions of the Beis Yaakov’s than members and faculties of Beis Yaakov’s?

    3. In the past quarter century the observance of tznius in dress by women among the more right-wing Orthodox communities that utilize the Beis Yaakov’s have notably weakened. This may explain and justify any greater focus on this obligation.

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