The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

Discourses of Tsni’ut: Halakhic and Meta-Halakhic Perspectives

Several rabbinic authorities have employed the halakhic rules pertaining to female modesty (tsni`ut) as a springboard to generate meaning. The goal of this paper will be to illustrate how these “discourses of tsni’ut” (an expression which will be defined more precisely) serve several interrelated functions.

First, a discourse of tsni’ut makes sense of female modesty itself - what does it mean to be dressed according to the standards of traditional tsni’ut? What are the values and ideals attained by the observance of these rules?

Furthermore, a discourse of tsni’ut oftentimes serves to articulate the meaning of other fundamental concepts such as the difference between Jews and non-Jews, sexuality and the body, the significance of intergender relationships, and more.

This paper will offer a comparison of two approaches to modern modesty laws - those of rabbi Shlomo Aviner and rabbi Eliezer Melamed. It will illustrate in each case the strategies used to create meaning, reconstruct the meta-halakhic vision that implicitly emerges from their rulings on modesty-related issues, and analyze how the meta-halakhic element impacts the normative expression of tsni`ut.

In the final analysis, the halakhic rules of tsni’ut will be shown to represent a fruitful encounter between “discourse” and “halakhah” – viz, the larger theme of the panel.