Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Question & Answer With Miriam Woelke - Retaining One's Essential Character

(Picture courtest of ubcbotanicalgarden.org)

A Simple Jew asks:

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz wrote,

"A person who retains his own essential character can never completely be enslaved; and, conversely, a person who has no independent self-image can never truly be free."

In the past, you wrote about your hesitations about wearing only long skirts and no longer wearing pants. After I shared Rabbi Yissocher Frand's story about Chiclets, you responded, "It is very true that we all stick to our little Chiclets and as soon as someone is trying to take them away fom us, we are afraid to loose our personal freedom….I am probably thinking too much about loosing all my little Chiclets and therefore, I am still unable to move into any direction."

Now two months later, do you still think that changing your external appearance will change who you are on the inside? Do you acknowledge that there is a possibility that you still could still maintain your own essential character and independent self-image after giving up wearing pants?

Miriam Woelke answers:

Jewish Orthodox society wants a woman to wear long skirts and her sleeves should at least cover her elbows. In case a woman doesn't obey these modesty laws, she is not considered religious. At least not in haredi society. And there is no further discussion about it, as Torah law says so.

But what about religious women who do wear pants and see themselves as religious ?

Someone like me, for instance ?

I always liked to wear pants. I remember that very well because my mother used to force me wearing skirts as a child. And already then I promised myself that as soon as I will be old enough making my own decisions, I am only going to wear pants. Just dump all the skirts into the garbage.

My plans worked out fine. For many years I wore pants only, but one day I was again confronted with my old dislike. When I was about to enter an Israeli national religious preparation class, our litvishe teacher told me in a quite rude way that I am expected to show up in a modest skirt. "Tomorrow you come dressed in a long skirt or you are out".

Afterwards I joined many different religious programs; national religious and later on haredi. I did wear a skirt and even got used to it after a while. However, my dislike never disappeared. I could try as much as I wanted and as hard as I wanted, I just didn't get rid of preferring pants. The streets of Jerusalem are crowded with women wearing pants and nowadays there is a new style. It looks like Carlebacher or at least national religious. Young women wear pants underneath their skirt. A rather hippie style and very modern but still religious. It goes without saying that haredi society wouldn't be too pleased recognizing such women as religious. Nevertheless, especially in Jerusalem, everybody somehow religious can find her niche.

Once a friend said to me that I should join the hippie stylists, as then surely everything would be easier for me. But when I decided doing something, I do it the right way. And I am definitely not a hippie style person. Or in other words, this way of dressing is not religious enough for me.

Sounds funny?

In many ways I am totally haredi but I am simply not prepared to constantly walk around in a skirt. Sometimes yes – when I have to. Synagogue or I am meeting certain kinds of religious people. As soon as I am back home, I pull of my skirt and go back to my pants.

People say that religious women feel different while wearing modest clothes. Many chassidic Rabbis write about it and, by the way, claim the same about religious men. Wearing religious modest clothes should always remind you of who you are. Not listening to your Yetzer etc. However, wearing pants doesn't mean that I am anxiously running after my Yetzer. It has nothing do to with a danger of not keeping Halachot as soon as I am in pants. What I honestly admit is that modest clothes do give me a different feeling and they make me more aware of being religious. And suddenly also other people recognize me as being religious and treat me differently. But keeping or not keeping Halachot is not a matter of wearing a skirt or pants. At least not for me.

Sometimes I am really fed up with myself. Why can't I just get up one morning and lead a different life ? Going back to haredi lifestyle including skirts. There were times when it bothered me a lot and it still does bother me sometimes. On the other hand I keep on telling myself that maybe I am meant to be in different societies and not only in one (haredi society). This might sound totally schizophrenic and some of you might think that I am just too lazy or still like certain secular ways; that I don't really want to change.

The answer is that sometimes I seriously want to change and at other times I don't. Let's call it: I am happy with both ways. The only problem is finding a right Shidduch. Who wants a wife wearing pants? Well, if I was married I would probably behave more often. On the other hand, the pants are not the only Shidduch problem. I am having a whole list such as studying Talmud, writing on the Internet about different societies, going to the cinema, etc.

Maybe I should become Chabad, Breslov or Carlebach. But, as I said before, in those groups I don't really feel too comfortable. My views are far too extreme for - and here we are again: I am a haredi extremist but unable of making up my mind. This has been going on for years and, so far, there is no solution at sight.

At least not at the moment.

And at the moment, I am not unhappy with it but I keep on trying.


At May 13, 2008 at 7:47:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This may be a side issue, but i realy don't understand the problem with wide, faminine cut pants. They're even more tzanua than skirts (definitelly less revealing). And if it's a specific feminine cut, it's not kli gever. Seems to me, they're much more prefferable than skirts without socks (which are mutar by minority opinion only) or with thin socks (which are subject to machloket) So why assur something that would make a woman more physically comfortable while following the highest standard of tzniut?

At May 13, 2008 at 7:59:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yay for Miriam. How many times I see people being judged because they dress a certain way--I for one am sick of it! My problem, I too would prefer pants, but have given in to skirts. My bigger problem--head covers! Many years ago I married a non-jew (it didn't last of course) and I have been single ever since. I have not covered my hair because I am one of those who is always too hot--even in cold winter I can't stand a hat. So the result? Because I am not young, when I go to a synagogue I am told that I should be covered because it is immodest, my prayers will not be heard and many other dumb things. Fact is, when I do cover I can't even concentrate on my prayers because I am tring not to faint. Besides that, I notice that the women who wear beautiful wigs look more like fashion models than modest religious women--so who is right? I am with Miriam on this, just because I do not follow the norm, doesn't mean I have no religion!

At May 13, 2008 at 9:00:00 AM EDT, Blogger Alice said...

I am not obliged to dress in skirts, but try to dress modestly. By that I mean I cover up more- higher necks, longer sleeves, cover the legs more, less clingy clothes in general. I have come to the conclusion that I actually feel less covered up in skirts than in trousers. There are wind issues, climbing into car issues, needing to be very physical with a toddler on the playground issues that make skirts feel more revealing, even with stockings.

Could it be that the rules about modesty, about which I only have a very surface understanding, are really not so much about how anyone feels and are not so much about practical realities? Because it's a very practical reality that I will be climbing up a jungle gym in a skirt to rescue my two-year-old which is definitely immodest.

How are leggings under skirts received, by the way?

I realize that what you are writing about is much more profound than a discussion of clothing, but I was just curious. Not that a discussion about clothing is a bad thing. : )

At May 13, 2008 at 11:20:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

IIRC one of the primary problems with pants for women is the issue of pisuk raglaim...

At May 13, 2008 at 11:27:00 AM EDT, Anonymous AF said...

The word "G-d" was not mentioned once in the whole post. In case you think this is a stupid comment, I think it is indicative of something else: when a person is so focused on what he or she wants, on his or her self, where is the place for G-d? "Is Judaism providing enough for my self-fulfillment?" "Do I feel connected enough to G-d?" How about asking, am I doing enough in my service of the Creator of the Universe?

The question is not even asked as a Halachic issue. It's asked as a social issue. And those that do ask it as a Halachic issue -- what is their motivating force? There are two types of people that look for loopholes and heterim in Halacha. One type wants to make Halacha as comfortable for himself as possible and looks for loopholes (hence trying to split hairs about skirts, mechitzas, shaving during the Sfira, shaving in general, etc.) The other type wants to connect to Kadosh Boruchu as much as possible (hence finding a heter not to wash for seuda shlishis etc., since it is preferable al pi Kabboloh).

The moment your "I" disappears in your equation and worldview, and there only G-d (literally, only Him), and in a small chance there is an "I", it is only in a sense of "how ridiculous is it that He limits Himself and allows this 'I' to exist -- but now that this happened, how can this 'I' fulfill the role for which He created it" -- the moment such a shift in thinking happens, things will become much easier. It's not that you will start liking skirts or I will start liking my ridiculous looking beard. It's that these questions will disappear due to total insignificance.

Perhaps the poster should join one of the groups she mentioned. It's not about a group one joins, however. It's about whether this group puts "Ein od milvado" in the center of its theology and practice, down to minute details.

At May 13, 2008 at 11:44:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Yirmeyahu said...

I applaud you for honesty trying to come to terms with a concept that is difficult for you but:

Shiduchim are Hashem's job. Your job is to do the ratzon of Hashem, which is halachah.

Identifying with a particular shita doesn't change the fact that the Poskim say pants are assur.

At May 13, 2008 at 12:11:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't understand. Where is halachah? What do you mean when you write "At least not for me"? You can't pick and choose the goodies of judaism- like you said you like studying the talmud, chassidus... and keep whatever halachos are comfortable and pleasant for you, and the ones that infringe on your comfort, disregard. There is a G-d that commanded you to be tzniut. It is not the chareidim that made up the concept. Sometimes we must give up some of our comforts for the sake of doing G-d's will. At first it will be hard. But if you work on making G-d's will, your will, you will actually feel joy in doing wants G-d wants of you. G' luck.

At May 13, 2008 at 12:52:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another issue is beged ish.

At May 14, 2008 at 8:16:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

After reviewing all the comments it appears to me that it is mainly the men saying forget about "I" and just do what Gd want and wear skirts. Well, why don't the men put on a skirt, long sleeves, high neck shirt and then try lugging groceries, climbing a ladder, scrubbing floors and chasing kids--I don't know how much is Halacha and how much is custom handed down, but I do know that there is no practicality in much of what applies to women.

At May 14, 2008 at 8:20:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Menatzpach said...

Anonymous: Doesn't a man have more external signs to display his Jewishness? (ex: yarmulke, tzitzis, beard) It would seem to me that a man has more to complain about than a woman....

At May 14, 2008 at 10:40:00 AM EDT, Blogger William Kolbrener said...

I don't think simple affiliations with a group solves the problems of finding oneself in relationship to G-d. Having said that, altering one's external actions or even appearances can have significant external effects, but we have to make sure that the internal keeps up, as it were, with the external. Otherwise, it turns into frumkeit--something more for others than for oneself. Finally, it's probably a process of finding oneself in relationship to Gd. The true ben or bas Torah does not m'vatel oneself--nullify oneself--completely, but finds oneself in that relationship. This is probably a subtletly which is lost on our generation of extremes: in that worldview, you either find yourself or find Gd... Which is to affirm what R. Steinsaltz, not compromising on one's inner self is ultimately a way affirming a connection to the divine...

At May 14, 2008 at 12:17:00 PM EDT, Blogger Miriam Woelke said...


I think that in all the comments there is a kind of a truth.

Before publishing this article, I was told by friends that I would find many religious women agreeing with me. And I think this is the point. It is mostly men who don't agree with me because they have their little religious world where everything has to fit in.
Maybe women need some more courage to change their lives to the better.

I am not saying that from now on, all the women should rebell and wear pants. However, I think that it is important to be honest; men as well as women should be honest about their relgious life. At least to themselves.

I don't think that G - d sees you as evil when you face difficulties with some Halachot. Well, one should at least try but admit that sometimes it just doesn't work for him.

All of us were created with different potentials and the ultimate goal is to fulfill OUR OWN potential. For my part, I am trying my best but do have difficulties and are honest about it.

The comment from William Kolbrenner expresses all the different thoughts perfectly.

But also some better news:
Male Haredim who do know me talk to me and usually don't refer to my pants.

At August 22, 2008 at 6:12:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My friend started wearing pants around Jerusalem and lost friends over it. It makes me absolutely sick. The 'judge-mentalism' in the 'religious' Jewish world is astounding.

You could be a 'frum' guy watching porn all day and no one would know. But put out some sort of art or media that isn't tsnius enough (like an American soap opera) and you will catch hell from people.

Its driving me away from Judaism.

-A guy

At August 25, 2008 at 9:03:00 AM EDT, Blogger Miriam Woelke said...


Especially Jerusalem is full of stereotypes. So, is Israel in a whole.

As soon as you wear a long skirt or a Kipa (as a guy) and long sleeves, you must be religious. If you go against the rules you are secular. No matter what your thoughts are.

At June 20, 2012 at 1:35:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Old Hippie said...

Why do people can't forget about all this stereotypes and just become free. Eh...

At November 9, 2012 at 1:16:00 AM EST, Anonymous Leather Pant said...

nice post love reading it.


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