A new view of modesty

Yet again, modesty is in the news: Haredi extremists in Bet Shemesh reportedly ransacked a synagogue to protest the hall’s use by a teenage boy with a  laptop computer (link to the Hebrew-language article is here). Without comment on the attack (I should imagine that no comment is necessary!), it seems like a good opportunity for a short piece about the Torah’s ideal of modesty.

I would suggest that the primary source from the Tanach relating to modesty comes from Micha 6:8:

הִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם, מַה-טּוֹב; וּמָה-יְהוָה דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ, כִּי אִם-עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד, וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת, עִם-אֱלֹהֶיךָ.

What is good? What does God demand from you, if not the practice of justice and the love of lovingkindness, and you should walk humbly with your God. (my own free translation)

The prophet does not seem to be talking about modes of dress, attitudes about sexuality or inter-gender relationships. Rather, the prophet tells us to create deeply humble personalities. We must strive to become individuals who are guided by Divine command at every step. We must walk humbly with God at all times, in every aspect of our lives. Our lives must be defined by inner humility, that deep conviction that comes with knowledge of the Creator and our role in the creation.

I point out that the prophet draws no distinction between the male and female requirement to be tzanua, humble. Micha sees the goal of man’s existence here on earth to be a lifelong journey towards inner humility, related integrally to social justice (לעשות משפט) and kindness.

Primarily, then, modesty has little to do with modes of dress, and everything to do with modes of behaviour. Or, perhaps, modes of dress are at best secondary to the main point, or a means to an end. An arrogant, self-righteous know-it-all who takes care to cover his/her body can hardly be described as “modest”. On the other hand, it would seem unfair to withhold the title “modest” from a woman who does not observe the strictures of hilchot tzniut but who feels truly thankful for the blessings she has in life and who truly values the friendship and insight she gains from her colleagues, family and friends.

(As an aside: I am 45 years old. I feel it is only now – with three teenage sons – that I am truly discovering the true meaning of humility. I am not sure this topic is one that a younger man will truly appreciate. This is significant because the argument could be made to enforce modest standards of dress for young people, not as an end but as a “temporary” measure to encourage the eventual development of true, inner modesty. But I digress…)

How, then, to reconcile of our traditional laws of modesty (הלכות צניעות) with my understanding of tzniut as a lifelong process of “humbleisation”? Indeed, the halacha (Jewish law) details different requirements for men and women in this regard.

I suggest that the discrepancy in halacha, and specifically the stricter requirements of dress for women, is correctly viewed as a reflection of the difference between a woman’s inner psyche and that of a man. In the former case, I suggest that modesty laws reflect a sense of inner modesty that is more natural to women than it is to men. In the later case, I believe that our rabbis instructed men (to the extent that they instructed men at all in this realm) to dress and act modestly in order to create a sense of inner humility that comes less naturally than it does for women.

This is illustrated more clearly by an the laws that govern an area of life that is even more extreme than the fashion: The laws of marital intimacy (אורח חיים סימן ר״מ). In the correct context, both men and women are expected to convey their pleasure to one-another, but even at that most private of moments, we are commanded to act with holiness and sanctity. The Hollywood image of an out-of-control orgasmic woman screaming loud enough to awaken a full city block is very far from the Torah’s ideal.

For women, I suggest this means the freedom to enjoy intimacy without feeling they have to “let it all hang out.” For men, it means enjoying intimacy without announcing it to the entire neighbourhood.

So, too, with modes of dress: I propose that the halachic requirement for women to “cover up” more than men is a reflection of our sages’ understanding of the female psyche. In the modern-day context, we tell our daughters, “Don’t allow popular culture to destroy something beautiful about you. You have every right to be modest, regardless of the way “everybody else” dresses.

In both cases, I believe, modest dress is a tool towards the Torah’s ultimate goal. We turn ourselves into “holy” people by developing our inner tzniut and walking humbly with our God.

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