YU’s Dress Code: “Against the First Amendment?”

By: Sara Schatz  |  October 16, 2018

By Sara Schatz

[We] strive to maintain a community which supports intellectual growth, learning from others, mutual respect and freedom of thought and expression.”

The above quote was taken from the opening statement of Yeshiva University’s “Bill of Rights and Responsibilities,” a statement which, to my understanding, the YU faculty and administration abide by relatively well.

Until I decided to write this article in defense of the dress code, I was innocently unaware that Yeshiva University even had a dress code. Despite my naivete, the rule was not a catastrophic shock to me; the concept of a dress code had always seemed self-explanatory, especially in a private, religious institution whose mission statement clearly states that it is “rooted in Jewish thought and tradition … [and] dedicated to advancing the moral and material betterment of the Jewish community and broader society, in the service of God.” The fact that Yeshiva University requires each student to take Judaic courses that teach halachic practicum based on Modern Orthodox standards, and has a Beit Midrash that holds some of our holiest scriptures, gives me the sense that we should give it as much respect as we would a synagogue, or any religious structure for that matter.

I recall a year ago accidentally ending up at the Baha’i Gardens whilst touring Haifa with a friend. The Baha’i religion, created by Iranian expatriate Bahá’u’lláh in 1863, promotes equality and unity, and happens to have a temple in Israel. At the temple, there was a sign requesting we take our shoes off and cloak ourselves with special scarves. Though we didn’t enter the temple, the sign left a lasting impact on my tzniut (modesty) standards when it came to any Jewish institution I’ve encountered since.

To my surprise, in comparison to those places, and to numerous Jewish schools and places of worship I’ve been in (many of which delineate sleeve length and provide detailed consequences should one break the rule), the standards held at YU seem quite moderate. The concise description simply requires female students to “wear dresses or skirts that are knee-length” and ensure that their shirts “have sleeves and a modest neckline.” It seems that the administration purposefully did not go into detail regarding sleeve-length, nor state the consequence should one break the rules.

To support this point, a statement from Dean Bacon published in a December 2017 Commentator article (“The YU Dress Code: Setting a Standard and Creating a Community”, December 3rd, 2017) states that the reason for the dress code is to reflect the “culture of a Torah U’Madda Modern Orthodox institution,” implicating that the dress code is not necessarily meant to have impose moral values, but was set in stone to create a certain environment on the Stern campus and beyond. And from my understanding, Dean Bacon and the YU administration have labored to make this the ultimate goal for the dress code. From another article I discovered in the depths of the Commentator archives, written in November 2002, (SCW Students Decry Current Dress Code”, v. 67 i. 2) Dean Bacon is quoted similarly, saying that “[the] dress code at Stern College for Women was instituted as a school regulation, not as a formulation of halacha.  Its purpose is to ensure an atmosphere or milieu that is most conducive to who and what we are – a women’s college that provides Torah education and Jewish studies in addition to a program of general studies.” This article additionally displays an eventual sense of compromise and understanding to certain students who found it unfair. And, in YU’s “Bill of Rights,” it’s quite clear under its “Expression” principle that “students have the right to examine and exchange diverse ideas, consistent with the mission of the University, in an orderly, respectful and lawful manner inside and outside the classroom.”

So, with all the reasons to support the dress code… why do the students continue to oppose it?

I decided to investigate by asking the student body itself. A couple of days before formulating this article, I posted to “Stern College: In The Know,” SCW’s key Facebook forum, requesting those in support of the student dress code to speak out and tell me their opinions. Most responses I received weren’t too outrageous and remained in line with what I’ve stated; one private poster even stated that ideally “Stern should enforce the dress code, though this would not serve as a solution and may not be very practical.”

However, what caused me to nearly fall off my chair that evening was another private poster, who chose to vent her frustrations with the dress code, indicating the following:

“I believe that the dress code is completely unfair because it goes against our rights as Americans. The First Amendment provides “freedom of expression,” and clothing is part of that. This is especially found in college, where you have the unique opportunity to find yourself. Therefore, Stern is doing an awful thing having a dress code, and I think in the 21st century it should be abolished.”

Though I had realized abstractly why this article needed to be written before I received this comment, it was that moment when I finally comprehended its practical need.

I understand if someone is uncomfortable with the standards of Stern. I can even attempt to relate to the fact that one may deem them “too strict.” But to say Stern is unconstitutional on account of its dress code is undoubtedly and universally ridiculous. The US Supreme Court has never implemented an official ruling that dress codes are against freedom of expression, and rightfully so. Even Tinker v. Des Moines (1969), the most renowned Supreme Court case regarding this issue, which stated that students were allowed to wear certain armbands and buttons for protesting purposes, clarified that these items would be against the law if they “materially and substantially interfere” with the school.

But more than just her “America” argument, what bothered me the most was something this student failed to mention: it was her choice to attend Stern.

It’s not only indecent to overtly lament about the institution one attends; it’s disrespectful to question it when one clearly entered Stern knowing its standards. Sure, Stern doesn’t really enforce these rules so well (as proven by the fact that I didn’t know Stern had a dress code until this article). Nevertheless, I sincerely believe that that’s the beauty behind it all. One should enter Stern predominantly having some sort of idea of its Modern Orthodox philosophy. Just as one arrives to their first job all spick and span in their best business-casual attire, one should enter their chosen university the same way. As the student body of Stern, we chose to be part of a certain type of community. Dean Bacon asserted in last year’s Commentator article that the true goal of our school is to “get these surface and externals out of the way so that we can focus on what is important – learning, growing, studying [and] developing habits of the mind and heart that will make all of us better people in the future.

And based on that simple statement, I imagine that this whole debate can be solved with a magnificent phenomenon I accepted when beginning my new chapter of college not too long ago: growing up.