As a woman living in a modern Orthodox community, I have a question. If immodesty and suggestive clothing is such a terrible thing, why don't we hear rabbis constantly warning about its dangers? I have never heard the rabbi at our shul address the issue at all.
First of all, in the hareidi world, sometimes referred to as ultra-Orthodox Jewry, the rabbis do speak about the issue more frequently. When we asked a rabbi this very question, he answered candidly that at the beginning of his tenure, he did indeed lecture about the dangers of immodesty but nobody wanted to listen.
The elder Kabbalist, Rabbi Eliahu Leon Levi, takes vehement exception with this approach, saying that an attitude of permissiveness on the part of the rabbis is what caused the Temple's destruction. He quotes the verse in the Book of Lamentations, "Thy prophets have seen for thee vain and foolish visions, and they have not exposed thy iniquity to restore thy captivity, but have prophesized for thee burdens of falsehood and deceit" (Lamentations, 2:14. See, "Tzahakat Yisrael," by Rabbi Eliahu Leon Levi, Pgs 22-26).
In the previous generation, one of the most outstanding Torah giants was Rabbi Yisrael Meir Cohen, known as the Chofetz Chaim. In addition to his classics "Shmirat HaLashon," "Chofetz Chaim," and "Ahavat Chesed," he is the compiler of the Mishna Berurah, one of the definitive treatises of Jewish law.
In the year 1927, at a time of world depression and widespread persecution of the Jews, he wrote an appeal to the rabbis of world Jewry to speak out on the dangers of immodesty, in order to stem the sufferings of the Jewish People. We quote from his letter:
"With the help of the blessed G-d, the beginning of the month of Tammuz, the year 5688 from Creation, written in the city of Radin.
The Chofetz Chaim
"To the honored Rabbis and Admorim, in every location, perhaps it is in your hands to rectify this matter, may your reward be great from the L-rd.
"Behold, I have great anguish over this matter, and great wonder. Even though everyone believes that all that is written below is from the Blessed One Holy Be He, nevertheless, everyone is perplexed, and it is an enigma in his eyes why times have changed so dramatically for the worse.
"In addition to the fact that all of the Jewish People, in every place of their dispersion among the nations, have fallen to a state of subservience, the cost of living also rises daily, taxes and rents also greatly increase, terrible decrees hampering the observance of Torah and mitzvot have fallen on everyone, causing the Torah study of children in many cities to be abandoned, and earning a living comes at great toil. In summary, each Jew complains, each in his own fashion, over his difficult situation.
"Regarding these years, even though they be filled with suffering and decrees, nevertheless, a person with a pure heart could comfort himself and say that even though the externalities of life are not to his liking, nonetheless, regarding his spiritual situation, he is certain that he is not far from the Holy One Blessed Be He, and that certainly, when all is said and done, G-d will stand at his right side and save him.
"Indeed, so it is written, "For He stands at the right hand of the poor, to save him from those who would condemn him to death" (Psalms, 109:31). However, today, because of our great sins, bitterness surrounds us, and when a person looks around him at the state of his life, there is not a day that is not cursed more than yesterday. And when he examines his situation regarding Torah and mitzvot, he sees that there also he has absolutely no success. And even though every Jew beseeches the Holy One Blessed Be He to answer his pleadings and to grant him respite, no one hears - this is the true situation.
"I have said that the main reason is that we ourselves distance the Holy One Blessed Be He from us.
"He commanded us, "Sanctify yourselves and be holy" (Vayikra, 20:7), and our Sages have taught us that everyone who sanctifies himself on earth will be sanctified from Above. If he sanctifies himself a little, he will sanctified a great deal from Above (Yoma 39A). When he sanctifies himself in this world, he is sanctified in the world to come. It is also written, "For the L-rd your G-d walks in the midst of your camp to save you, and to conquer your enemy from before you" (Devarim, 23:15).
The meaning of "to save you" includes many things, to save you from the sword, and from hunger, from imprisonment, and from humiliation. The verse continues, "Therefore your camp shall be holy, that He see no unchaste thing in thee and turn away from thee." The Torah explains the matter explicitly, that when we conduct our lives in a holy manner, then He walks in the midst of us to deliver us from every evil thing. However, if He sees in us some unchaste matter, He turns away from us, and this brings upon us all of the tribulations, G-d forbid.
"Behold, our Sages stated, 'A handbreadth exposed in a woman, in a place that is usually covered, constitutes sexual unchastity' (Berachot 24A). And today, due to our many sins, this matter has very greatly spread, and the evil inclination seduces women to walk around without covering their hair, and to go out with their arms exposed in sleeveless dresses. And many of their garments expose the chest. Everything is exposed so that in whatever place a man should look, he is confronted with unchastity....
"In summary, this terrible fashion of the times brings a man to have evil imaginations, and sometimes also the emission of semen in vain, G-d forbid, (and in doing so, he endangers his small children, as the brilliant Torah scholar, the Yaabetz, wrote in his prayerbook). And almost because of this terrible fashion alone, we ourselves negate the admonishment of the Holy One Blessed Be He, as it says, "Therefore your camp shall be holy, that He not see in you any unchaste thing."
"And behold, it is known to everyone that when a fire bursts out in the vineyard of the king, a proclamation goes forth from the ministers of the king to the inhabitants of the city, saying: "Everyone be strong to extinguish the fire in any way you can, for the vineyard of the king is burning, and if you are lazy in this matter, know that you will be held responsible with your lives, and you will be labeled rebels, because you did not take heed for his honor. And if you take courage, as is fitting, and put out the fire, then everyone shall receive his reward and honor according to his efforts." So too in this matter, for it is known that all of Israel is considered the vineyard of the L-rd, as is written, "For the house of Israel is the vineyard of the L-rd of Hosts" (Yisheyahu, 5:7).
"And due to our many sins, a great blaze has erupted in His vineyard in several places because of this terrible fashion. For the power of impurity has considerably strengthened because of this. As our Sages have said on the verse, "And you shall guard yourselves from every evil thing" (Devarim, 23:10), that a man should not have sexual thoughts during the day and come to pollute himself at night (Ketubot 46A). For if this should occur, all of the blessing and Divine flow to this man's deeds will be cut off, and because of this he will be surrounded by evil tribulations, as is written in the holy books of wisdom.
"Therefore, every man has the obligation to extinguish this terrible fire, and to rectify the situation in his home so that everything will be according to the law, and not to allow licentiousness, G-d forbid. And in doing so, he will merit to have upright and exalted holy children.
"And more than anyone else, this obligation falls on the rabbis and on all those who are zealous to fulfill G-d's words, that in every city and village, the importance of this matter must be publicly explained, in that it directly effects our survival and our success, both physically and spiritually, in this world and the next. Thus will the verse be fulfilled, "And your camp shall be holy."
"These words are written in the honor of G-d and His Torah, out of anguish over the tribulations of His nation Israel, with the longing for redemption, speedily in our time, Amen.
Yisrael Meir, the son of Areyeh Zev, the Kohen
Author of the book "Chofetz Chaim" and the Mishna Berurah.