I've heard it said that just as limud Torah is for men, so is tzniyus for women. I’m not really sure what that means. Does that mean just as limud Torah is the main mitzvah men are obligated in, so tzniyus is the main mitzvah women are obligated in? Does it mean that just as limud Torah is a vehicle for dveikus b’Hashem for men, so tzniyus gives that to women?

I have a son who is in yeshivah and baruch Hashem I’ve seen how the intense, full-time learning has really built him; he’s more even-tempered, more considerate, more pleasant than he ever was as a child, and I’d venture to say he has more simchas hachayim than anyone else in the house. I attribute some of this to maturity, but most of it to the impact Torah learning has had on him. 

On the other hand, I have two teenage girls — one who’s always been cookie cutter/by the book/eidel/tzanuah etc. by nature, and one who’s a little outside the box. Baruch Hashem the older one is strong and growing and maturing beautifully. The other one is struggling and at risk of disconnecting. I can’t say I attribute or blame the success/struggle of either of them to tzniyus. I don’t see how tzniyus plays a definitive role in their lives, the way limud Torah does for my son. If tzniyus is not the answer — then what is? 

I feel that girls have no immediate purpose in their lives. They split their time between being in school and chasing after fun (clubs, camps, performances, hanging out, what have you — it’s all about having a good time). They need to succeed in school so they can get a job so they can support their husbands in learning — that’s way too far off (and intimidating) to be building them now. And fun… is just fun — it’s empty, it’s gone today and needs to be replaced tomorrow. What’s supposed to be connecting our teen girls to Hashem and mitzvos?

Mrs. Dina Schoonmaker is a veteran teacher in Michlalah Jerusalem College and counsels Michlalah alumni over the phone. She also teaches in Tomer Devorah and guest lectures at other seminaries. She runs Womensvaad.com— a teleconferencing interactive mussar vaad focusing on a variety of self-development topics; the current one. 

Mrs. Miriam Russi Perr is a high school mechaneches in Brooklyn and Far Rockaway, and has been teaching for over 25 years. She also offers teacher training workshops, gives lectures, and is a kallah teacher. 

Mrs. Esther Gendelman MS, LPC, CPC, is a licensed psychotherapist and certified professional coach who specializes in relationship work. A veteran educator, speaker, and shadchan, she has a passion for helping people grow and maximize their potential. She’s the author of The Missing Peace (Menucha Publishers), slated to be released in September.

Mrs. Dina Schoonmaker 

I appreciate the sincerity of your question, and I feel that you’re representing many mothers of teen girls today. 

You seem to be asking two questions here. One is regarding the parallel between Torah and tzniyus and the other is regarding how to inspire our teen girls. 

There are many levels on which the connection between Torah and tzniyus can be explained. I will only mention two here briefly, as I can’t do justice to the depth and breadth of this topic in such a short space. 

The comparison that you’re quoting is found in one version of the Iggeres HaGra. In that context, it’s mentioned in reference to the fact that both Torah and tzniyus provide an antidote to the yetzer hara. Additionally, there’s a parallel between tzniyus and Torah in that both provide protection for the Jewish People. The Gemara in Sotah tells us, “Torah magna umatzla” — Torah shields and saves.” Regarding tzniyus, the pasuk in Devarim (23:15) teaches, “lo yireh b’cha ervas davar ushav mei’achorecha — He should not see anything unseemly among you and turn away from you.” Though the pasuk is written in the negative, implying that the Shechinah leaves us when there is a lack of tzniyus, Rav Aharon Leib Steinman shlita uses this pasuk to infer the positive: When there is tzniyus, there is more Shechinah present and therefore more protection from tragedies. 

During the height of the stabbings here in Eretz Yisrael, someone asked me to help her prepare a shiur addressing a group of young women about tzniyus. Rather than looking at it in a negative way — because your sheitel is too long people are dying, I recommended that she focus on the positive: When you are tzanuah, you can provide shemirah. 

That said, it doesn’t mean that tzniyus will provide women with all their meaning in life. 

When your son is learning Torah, he’s in a constant state of interaction; it’s demanding the resources of his brain, his attention, his very being. Wearing an appropriate outfit is crucial, but you can’t just sit on the couch in your tzanuah outfit all day and feel fulfilled. So what do girls have to offer them fulfillment? Mrs. Batya Gallant, in her book Stages of Spiritual Growth, suggests that just as physical health is established through ingestion (eating healthfully, etc.) and exertion (exercise), so too, spiritual health requires ingestion and exertion. The ingestion would be inspiring experiences — going to a shiur, listening to inspiring Jewish music, even appreciating nature. The exertion would be making good choices in areas of middos, chesed, and in general situations that require applying what one knows and stretching oneself.

It’s a mother’s role to help her child find meaningful activities that engage the mind, the heart, the neshamah. Every pleasurable experience creates a neuro-pathway in the brain; when you find a new source of pleasure, it creates a new neuro-pathway in the brain. If you have never had an iced coffee, it won’t pull you, but once you have one and enjoy it, you may be tempted to have more. This is because the brain works to keep a pathway open once it’s been established. 

The pursuit of spiritual pleasure can open up new neuro-pathways that may weaken the need for other, lower-level forms of pleasure. We need to give our children such experiences. It can be an engaging shiur, a chesed opportunity, tefillah. A woman in one of my vaadim was working hard on a specific middah. One day, she had a big victory. She shared that the spiritual pleasure she got from stretching herself was so great that she didn’t need her daily iced coffee fix. Once a teen has felt the pleasure of spiritual achievement, she’ll be able to find pleasure in meaningful activities and that will lessen the race for fun. 

Helping other people can feel very good and give a lot of meaning to one’s life. We need to create more “fun” chasadim. Look at some of the special-education camps in the States. They have dozens of teens waiting eagerly to spend the summer shadowing a handicapped child in the heat. They do this by creating great spirit, a strong social structure, excitement, and energy. Yet once the kids go, it’s the joy of stretching and helping others that gives them their thrills. 

The same is true regarding the mental and spiritual stimulation provided in seminaries. Partnered with great programming and “chavayot,” many girls learn to love Torah study. This creates a desire to attend shiurim even after they return home and the fun context isn’t present. 

Ramchal tells us that the ultimate pleasure is coming close to Hashem. One way to do so is by emulating His kindness. Another is by learning His Torah and keeping His mitzvos. All of these lead to higher forms of pleasure. At first, you may need incentives, but hopefully, once your child gets into it, she’ll want to do it on her own. Do whatever you can to help your teen find something spiritual she enjoys. As she creates new, higher-pleasure pathways, she’ll slowly change, and hopefully you’ll soon have more people in your home with your son’s simchas hachayim and level of accomplishment. 

Mrs. Miriam Russi Perr 

Your question is understandable; there seems to be a misconception about the parallel between Torah and tzniyus. 

Every person’s tafkid is to get close to Hashem to whatever degree he can. A man has a very direct route through Torah. Torah is a man’s tafkid; he should spend as much of his waking hours as he can learning Torah. In addition, Torah helps a man curb his yetzer hara and refine his character. 

The Akeidas Yitzchak in parshas Bereishis tell us that the first woman’s two names represent the two strands of her tafkid. Ishah is the counterpart to the intellectual aspect of man, and Chava, eim kol chai, describes her job as a nurturer. Perfecting these aspects of self is the most direct way for her to get close to Hashem and accomplish her tafkid. 

Tzniyus isn’t our tafkid, yet it is considered the essence of a woman; Hashem told her “tihei tzanuah” when He created her (Midrash Rabbah 18:3). It was not just a command, but a brachah. Tzniyus is an approach: How do we view the world, internally or externally? We cover our bodies so that we can relate — and be related to — in an internal way. Tzniyus parallels Torah since it’s also a way to combat the yetzer hara, but it differs because it’s not a woman’s full-time tafkid. 

There’s another question you’re asking, and that’s about how we can infuse our teen girls’ lives with meaning. It’s definitely true that fun is overrated and the enjoyment it engenders is fleeting. What your son is experiencing is both the power of Torah and the joy of accomplishment. Learning is challenging, and if your son is successful at learning, that can give him a sense of self-esteem and fulfillment. 

To help your daughters tap into the same feelings, you need to find ways they can be challenged and stretched — and ideally the school would be your partner in this. The first level of building self-esteem is to help a teen feel competent. When she sees that she can run a choir or manage the yearbook or do some other difficult task, it builds up her confidence in herself, and helps her feel that she can tackle other difficulties in the future. 

The next level is helping a teen feel like she’s a good person and giving her a sense of purpose. If she’s intellectual, that may be achieved through high-level learning. If she’s a doer, she can benefit from getting involved in chesed. Helping another can give a girl a sense of fulfillment and meaning. 

Try to see what chasadim your daughters can get involved in. Can they befriend a classmate who is struggling academically and socially? Can they volunteer in a chesed organization? Any talent can be channeled into a chesed: baking, writing, drawing, even sports (coaching younger children), can be used to help others. See what your daughters like to do and then try to see how that can be utilized to help people. They may not be interested at first, but once they start helping people, the good feelings it will engender will help them keep doing it. 

Back to the tzniyus element of your question. A girl who has self-esteem based upon things that endure will be drawn to tzniyus. She’ll want to be recognized for her accomplishments, not her external appearance. The reason teens so often struggle with tzniyus is because they haven’t yet developed themselves, so they relate to themselves through their bodies. Once people get involved in activities that give their lives meaning, they will usually become more tzanuah. Tzniyus is not the cause but the result. Help your teens find the path to fulfillment through accomplishment and chesed, and you’ll find that tzniyus won’t just be how they dress, but who they are: refined, fulfilled ovdei Hashem. 

Mrs. Esther Gendelman 

I love when questions reflect a parent’s heartfelt desire for her children to grow close to Hashem and her wish to understand and facilitate growth. 

There seem to actually be several questions here: 

Question 1: What’s the meaning of “as limud Torah is for boys, tzniyus is for girls”?

Question 2: How does this work, practically speaking? (It doesn’t appear to be that way to you when you compare the transformative impact of Torah study on your son and the effect tzniyus has on your daughters.) 

Question 3: How do we help our teen girls connect to Hashem meaningfully? Your question is built on the concept that tzniyus is little more than a dress code. If tzniyus is defined as a list of permissible attire, then your question is very strong. How can the transformative impact of active Torah learning be even remotely similar to a path of passive avoidance? 

However, if we reframe tzniyus as the Torah defines it — “hatznei’a leches — walk with modesty,” an active, all-inclusive approach to living with Hashem — that changes the picture. 

Tzniyus is about developing a focus on internal development, binah yeseirah, emotional maturity, and refined middos. Tzniyus in dress assists us to focus on our inner being rather than emphasize the external part of ourselves. Tzniyus in speech helps us to cultivate awareness of how much attention we draw to ourselves and how important it is for us to respect every tzelem Elokim. Tzniyus in behavior guides us to be always cognizant of Hashem Who grants us the abilities to achieve all we accomplish. 

However, far beyond the list of “do nots,” the lifelong study of development in hatznei’a leches teaches a girl how to connect with Hashem and others. Realize, that what we may feel are frivolous pursuits can actually be giving our daughters skills they’ll then utilize throughout their lives.

Although they appear to be schmoozing and planning activities, our girls are learning about relationships. They step on each other’s toes, and need to learn to accept responsibility for their part in the discomfort. They learn that communication needs to be a two-way street — a vessel for giving and receiving — or they face rejection and exclusion. They learn that striving exclusively for peer approval and popularity status does not create lasting limelight. They experience the inner struggle of wanting to find their place in their peer group yet not wanting to compromise their values or become mindless cookie cutters in the process. They strive to feel positive about themselves as they see others who appear to be better in so many areas, e.g., smarter, thinner, prettier, more popular. 

Although our daughters seem to be living more superficially, they’re actually working on developing an internal sense of self and understanding connection, developing the capacity to empathize and the ability to share and to look beyond one’s own needs. Realize that in the process of “chasing after fun,” a great deal can be learned. Underneath your question, I hear genuine concern for your daughter who you describe as out of the box. What strengths does she bring to the table? How do you show her how much you value her strengths and that there is room for individuality within the box? 

You, as a loving mother, have the unique opportunity to model for your daughters the beauty of a life filled with hatznei’a leches, and to show each one your appreciation for the unique gifts Hashem placed within them.

I wish you much nachas from your sons and your daughters!