“I think it was the earrings that were the final straw for me.”
The young woman is explaining to me how she went from being a scrupulously rule-following Bais Yaakov high school junior, to the 19 year old who’d lost track of how many men with whom she’s slept.
“The earrings?” I repeated.
“Yeah. My high school principal came up to me after davening one day, and told me that my earrings weren’t tniyusdike (modest). They were too big. He* made me take them off on the spot and give them to him. I was humiliated in front of my friends. But it was more that I felt like a failure- I had honestly thought I was already as tzniyusdike as I thought I could possibly be. And it still wasn’t enough. That night, something just snapped inside of me. I was like: ‘You know what? If I can’t ever be good enough, frum enough, modest enough, then what’s the point in trying?’ I realize that’s not exactly logical. But it got so that there were so many rules, I couldn’t even tell which ones really mattered, and so one day, none of them did anymore. And I decided to just do what I wanted. Everything that was off limits, that was taboo or forbidden became a possibility to explore. It was liberating, exciting, and empowering. Until it wasn’t so much anymore.”
In a way, it’s a story as old as time.
“Don’t eat from the tree? We won’t even touch the tree. Well… we touched the tree and nothing happened, might as well eat from it.” If you make a fake rule, then break it, it becomes easier to break the real rule.
The more rules there are, especially ones that have little or no rationale or source, the more devalued all the rules become, even the ones with reasoning and sources.
This is human nature. A certain amount of structure, expectations, and boundaries is necessary for healthy functioning.
But too much of it, especially when extreme and excessive, yields discouragement or rebellion. This is true of families, institutions, communities, and countries. Parents, educators, leaders, governments, and other authority figures who create systems that work well, that make sense, that leave room for human error and repair, are more likely to respected. Ones that create totalitarianistic systems and too many rigid rules are eventually ignored, overturned, or dissolved.
In Halacha this issue is complex. We believe in the idea of bal tosif (don’t add on to mitzvas) and kol ha mosif gore’ah (one who adds, detracts) but we also have a concept of asu syag l’Torah- making “guardrails” against transgression. It’s not always easy to know which it is. But some institutions and families create so many guardrails that it can feel like there’s nowhere to walk anymore. And then they all get broken down, including what they’re supposed to be protecting- both the values and the people.
What’s the solution?
It’s always easier to define problems than solutions.
But I think #1 is to teach real sources. Instead of simply telling people that everything in a particular area of practice is forbidden (or mandatory), give actual, primary sources, reasoning where available, and label instruction as “d’oraissa, d’rabbana, machlokes, chumra, minhag, sensitivity, and kula/ al mi l’smoch” (translated: straight from the Torah, extrapolated by the Rabbis, a matter of different opinions, stringency, and leniency/ someone on whom to rely.)
I think #2 is to choose battles: Rather than impose the most stringent interpretation of difficult customs on young people, (or completely fictitious or extremist ones) we can prioritize values, and focus on the ones that matter most. The more room there is for free will, the more people can own and appreciate their autonomous choices, and focus on what matters.
#3 is to inspire rather than intimidate. Choose language, messaging, and role modeling that uplift rather than threaten. Praise the behavior we want to encourage rather than shaming the unwanted ones.
#4 might be to inform rather than to instruct.
I remember once a student asked me a question about whether something was permissible on Shabbos. I replied that I believed the Shulchan aruch said that is a violation of a certain melacha (creative work forbidden on Shabbos). She told me that she appreciated hearing the answer phrased as: “this is what the source says” rather than: “you’re not allowed to do that.” I hadn’t phrased my answer that way intentionally, but I’ve definitely tried to do so since then. Most people don’t appreciate being told what to do; they want to be educated and then empowered to make choices on the basis of what they’ve learned.
Our job is not to “make” people do the right thing. Good education helps them decide that on their own.
It’s more comfortable to talk about these issues in the context of educating young people. But this is human nature, and happens to be a healthy and more accurate way to relate these ideas and practices within our own learning and Halachic dialogue as well.
When we forbid the permitted, we often inadvertently end up permitting the forbidden. So focusing on accuracy and what really matters, ends up strengthening value systems.
*Tangentially, the common practice of male educators commenting on female students’ tzniyus seems to be a most egregious and disturbing breach of tzniyus, but we can leave that for another day.