Sorry. I know that wasn’t very professional. But I don’t think there’s a single word in any language that can get across exactly how angry, frustrated, flabbergasted and incredulous I become when I watch a mitzvah that is not just beautiful, but sensible as well, being corrupted and usurped for the purpose of abusing and controlling others.
I know it’s been discussed to death, but here are my two cents on modesty.
First a little disclaimer: I want to make it clear from the get-go that when I say “modesty” I don’t mean the Oz V’Hadar L’vusha kind. (For those who have not had the almost imponderable pleasure of coming across the title I just mentioned, it is a 700 page volume that goes into excruciating detail on what sorts of clothing and manners of behavior women should refrain from, in order to protect men from their apparent inability to function like human beings when they chance upon, and possibly even gaze upon, a member of the opposite sex. Go click on the link, and read the table of contents, and you will understand the insanity of this book.) Also, even though the commandment of being tzanua (Hebrew for modest) applies equally to both men and women, the main focus of this piece is going to be on women, as the societal demand for modesty falls completely on them.
The whole concept of modesty needs to be re-framed in a positive light, because as of now, there’s nothing good about it. Even the word itself has a negative connotation. They bring in a modest income. She lowered her eyes modestly. His knowledge on the subject is modest at best. Modest means small, limited, controlled. But adhering to the tenets of modesty should not be something that causes a person to forfeit their autonomy, or shrinks a person to near invisibility, or limits them in any way. Modesty should be a portraiture of respectability, not submissiveness.
What seems to have happened in recent Jewish history is the meaning and purpose behind many of the mitzvot has been overridden in favor of laser-beam concentration on the minutiae of how the mitzvah is performed, and tzniut is no exception. The focus of modesty is meant to be self-respect. And I’m not saying that a woman who does not dress to whatever standard of modesty the random people on the street ascribe to has no self-respect. I’m saying that choosing less revealing clothing can be empowering. If she is the one choosing to dress that way.
Unfortunately, it was left up to men to figure out how the complex inner workings of the female psyche functions in relation to body image, and they pretty much failed miserably. Completely dismissing how this mitzvah could benefit women—how it’s an opportunity to focus on teaching girls to love their bodies, and the importance of demanding control over what happens to their bodies, and who gets to look at their bodies—they decided to focus on how it can benefit men. Because there is a separate mitzvah (that also applies equally to men and women) commanding us to refrain from seeing anything that can bring one to illicit thoughts. And somehow, the idea of modesty for women and how it should be practiced got swallowed up by this completely separate commandment, and how it should be practiced. The focus changed from women being more than just something nice to look at, to women only being something nice to look at. And because they are nice to look at, one must never look, lest the thought of this sensual creature lead him to entertain illicit thoughts.
And so men took the opportunity of deciding what modesty means in practice to simply demand that women cover any and all parts of themselves that might lead men to sin. And now that the train is on that track, we are on a never-ending journey. Because there is no end to what some men might consider to be attractive. And not only that, but now the women have fallen into this mistaken line of thinking, as well, and believe that in order to be pious Jewish women they must do their utmost to protect their menfolk from ever laying eyes on the female form.
But let’s set the record straight. Tzniut and shmirat eynaim (guarding one’s eyes) are completely separate mitzvot. One should not influence the other in any way. The only person responsible for what a person sees is…that person. It is not the responsibility of a woman to cover herself for the benefit of another. Ever. So don’t even suggest it.