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Understanding Tzniut

Understanding Tzniut

Modern Controversies in the Jewish Community

By Yehuda Henkin

In his innovative and magisterial lead essay, Rabbi Yehuda Henkin analyzes the pervasive yet little-understood area of women’s modesty. In Understanding Tzniut, Rabbi Henkin also examines the issues of handshaking, aliyot to the Torah, and dancing with a sefer Torah, as well as general topics such as questions of rabbinical misjudgment during the Holocaust and the relationship to Israel’s government in the wake of the expulsion from Gush Katif. To all topics, Rabbi Henkin brings halachic stature, scholarship and erudition.


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One need not agree with everything Rabbi Henkin says to appreciate his deep Torah scholarship, intellectual honesty and concern for Klal Yisrael. Review by JOFA Journal

Tzniut, incorporating Jewish standards of modesty in behavior and in dress is a much debated topic. The major focus of this book is a discussion of Jewish legal sources dealing with women’s dress codes and the mingling of the sexes, and an examination of how these have been implemented by contemporary halakhic authorities. Rabbi Henkin, a leading halakhic scholar and posek, considers that many in the religious community are obsessively preoccupied with details of permitted lengths and materials of clothes. In his view, this leads to the danger of “losing sight of the real basics of modesty-not to mention being so concerned about not thinking about women that one can think of nothing else”. With a firm conviction in the importance of women’s Torah learning, he dismisses the view that just as a man has the study of Torah, a woman has the practice of tzniut. One of his central arguments for possible leniencies in the area of tzniut is what he terms ‘habituation’. In cultures and communities where men and women mingle freely, for example, certain behavior no longer need be seen as provocative. He makes clear that this is not an argument for permitting activities with explicit or implicit sexual content. One need not agree with everything Rabbi Henkin says to appreciate his deep Torah scholarship, intellectual honesty and concern for Klal Yisrael. 
(Posted on 6/4/2015)
I found Rabbi Henkin's thin volume Understanding Tzniut to be a valuable resourceReview by -Shalom Berger Lookstein Digest
I am generally wary of new publications on the issue of modesty in the Jewish community, and I opened this book with some trepidation. I find the heightened concern, awareness and publicity regarding issues of dress and "appropriate behavior" that are discussed in books and articles invariably written by men about women's deportment to be the epitome of a lack of tzni'ut. I assume that this topic is becoming more and more a central concern to the Jewish community is at least partially a response to a change in values in general society, which have become less in tune with traditional Jewish values. At the same time, constant harping on a person's appearance and how a person dresses puts a tremendous emphasis on superficial issues drawing more attention to them. If the purported reason for raising these issues is to lessen focus on sensual and sexual visual triggers, pointing them out may not be the best way to do it.

With this concern in mind, I found Rabbi Henkin's thin volume Understanding Tzniut to be a valuable resource. The book opens with a straightforward analysis of some of the basic foundations of issues of tzniut as they appear in the Talmud, the rishonim and aharonim. As useful as his survey of these sources is, however, the most valuable part of the book is the general approach that he offers to this topic. Decrying attempts to codify the laws that govern these areas of halakhah, Rabbi Henkin insists that tzni'ut must be seen in the larger, cultural context of given communities, arguing that by definition sensuality is subjective and must be judged based on community norms. Thus, these are halakhot that will differ depending on what is considered sensual in different settings, and cannot be codified with hard-and-fast rules.

Practical implications of this principle may affect how Jewish law treats issues ranging from women saying kaddish and reading Megillat Esther to everyday interactions between men and women, such as handshaking in a professional setting. Rabbi Henkin deals with these topics and others, quoting primary sources, analyzing them and suggesting conclusions that can be reached about them.

These essays, together with others that deal with general issues on the agenda of the contemporary Orthodox community on topics - such as the establishment of Yom HaShoah and dealing with the aftermath of the Gush Katif evacuation - make this worthwhile reading for the Jewish educator. Rabbi Henkin, whose grandfather was one of the leading Rabbinic figure of 20th century American Jewry is an accessible individual and reading his published works may encourage teachers and educational leaders to contact him to discuss contemporary issues in the Jewish community.
(Posted on 6/4/2015)
In reaching his conclusions, R. Henkin displays a mastery of both halakhic views on this subject and sound reasoning.Review by Rabbi Gil Student, Hirhurim blog
The topic of modest dress in Jewish law is one that is very dependent on local custom. While there are some issues that are universal, most of the details are location specific. This became glaringly obvious a few years ago when R. Pesach Eliyahu Falk published a book titled Modesty: An Adornment for Life, which consistently presented practices that represent the norm in certain Charedi/Chassidic circles as the unequivocal standard.

R. Yehuda Henkin has published a detailed and devastating critique of many of R. Falk's fundamental positions. This long essay originally appeared in the journal Tradition and has now been updated and published in a book appropriately titled Understanding Tzniut: Modern Controversies in the Jewish Community. The essay is published alongside another two related essays and a second section of interesting essays on unrelated topic (e.g. whether one must show respect to a disrespectful Torah scholar and the proper attitude towards the state of Israel post-Disengagement). R. Henkin's essay on modest dress analyzes a number of relevant topics (e.g. women's haircovering, necklines) and shows that R. Falk's positions are extreme. In reaching his conclusions, R. Henkin displays a mastery of both halakhic views on this subject and sound reasoning. 
(Posted on 6/4/2015)

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Additional Info

Additional Info

ISBN 13: 978-965-524-005-4, 10: 965-524-005-3
Pages 141
Format Hardcover
SKU ktav2544
Publisher Urim Publications