Hassidic tzniut: do not overdo it, nor misapply it

One of the major dilemmas facing Jewish education today is the challenge of teaching tzniut – modesty. I believe that the study of Hasidism, although it may seem an unlikely source, can aid in our understanding of tzniut and help us develop a broader and more nuanced approach to teaching it in our schools.

Most Jewish educators would agree that teaching tzniut with tact and sensitivity is fraught with major obstacles. It is difficult to strike the right balance between being firm in matters of principle while at the same time communicating these principles in a sensitive, respectful, and non-threatening manner.   

Of course, one can always adopt a traditional approach to teaching tzniut. This approach entails learning the pertinent halakhot with the students and inculcating them with a proper sense of yir’ah (trepidation), thereby ensuring that they fully appreciate the severity of the associated transgressions and violations.

However, for most contemporary educators, this approach is difficult. Educating about modesty in a coercive manner is both anathema to our modern sensibilities and an ineffective means of education.

There are many obstacles to teaching tzniut properly. Two problems, however, stand out:

1) Tzniut calls for modesty and demands temperance. The requirements of modesty in external appearance often necessarily demand that students temper their desire to express their natural beauty and present themselves in an attractive manner. At times, the requirement of modesty can curtail and inhibit self-expression. Thus, an unreflective approach to teaching tzniut often calls for a prioritization of values: the value of modesty trumps the value of self-expression and the resulting cultivation of a positive self-image.

A sensitive approach to tzniut renders this approach untenable. It is wrong to teach our students that proper tzniut can only be attained by sacrificing one value for the sake of another. A healthy sense of self and the sense of pride in one’s appearance is a God given right and blessing that no one should have to forfeit.

2) A tacit assumption underlying the prevailing understanding of tzniut is that the onus of creating a holy society is solely on the attractive individual- in practical terms, on the female. Usually this is translated as follows: because women may arouse inappropriate thoughts in men, it is their responsibility to dress and behave in a way that limits the potential for undermining the kedusha of the public sphere.

This view suggests that modesty is the exclusive responsibility of women and it shifts responsibility from the “transgressing viewer” to the women being viewed. (Unfortunately for the most part, tzniut is considered an issue that only concerns women. Indeed, it is only recently that schools have started to emphasize that tzniut applies equally to men and women and should be taught to boys as well as girls.)

Having addressed some of the problematic issues concerning the teaching of tzinut, I would like to suggest that some of the solutions to these problems may be found in Hasidic texts which provide a rich body of largely overlooked material.

Conventional wisdom may suggest that Hasidut has little to offer a person with modern sensibilities. Indeed many scholars believe that Hasidism, in general, has a negative view of women. However, a perusal of Hasidic texts on tzniut shows that this generalization is shortsighted. One can certainly find a few Hasidic texts regarding women that are difficult to reconcile with progressive and modern values.  Nevertheless, since Hasidic literature has developed for more than two hundred years, in diverse geographical locations, one should not generalize about this vast body of texts on the basis of a few troubling citations. Hasidic masters do not speak in one voice. Rather, there is a multiplicity of opinions in Hasidic texts and lore. While some teachings are incompatible with modern notions, others offer more egalitarian views, which can serve to deepen our religious experiences.   

My own experience of teaching in Modern Orthodox high schools and other settings has made clear to me that Hasidic sources can also help us enrich our discourse on tzniut and allow us to develop a more nuanced vocabulary when teaching our students the value of living a life of kedusha -, even though for historical and sociological reasons these sources have not been influential in shaping thinking about tzniut in contemporary Hasidic educational institutions. The evolution of Hasidism from its early writings is a complex issue which is beyond the scope of this article.  

When exploring Hasidic teachings it is important to bear in mind the debate between Gershom Scholem and Martin Buber as to which texts should be analyzed when studying Hasidism. This debate was played out on the pages of Commentary magazine during the 1960s. Gershom Scholem strongly believed that the core of Hasidic teachings is to be found in the theological writings of its founders, while Buber believed that it is the legends that best convey the creativity and essence of Hasidism.  (See Commentary Magazine, October 1961; September 1963. See Also Scholem’s The Messianic Idea in Judaism (New York, 1971) pp. 228-250) 

Adopting the positions of both Scholem and Buber, I hereby present two Hasidic texts on tzniut: one is of a theoretical nature and one is a legend. Taken together they offer us novel insights about tzniut and kedusha.

The first source is a text from the volume Tsava’at ha’Rivash, “The Will and Testament of the Baal Shem Tov” an anthology of teachings and instructions attributed to the Baal Shem Tov and his successor, R. Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezhirech (Kehat Press. (Brooklyn, N.Y. 1998). In this volume, (p.41) R. Dov Ber is quoted as saying the following:   

However, this is the way one should conduct himself in matters of gazing (at women). If he suddenly glanced at a beautiful woman, he should think to himself “from whence did she acquire such beauty”? …Surely, it comes from a divine energy that manifests itself in her, which endows her with beauty and rosiness.  Thus, it emerges that the source of beauty is a divine energy.

While the ideas discussed in this text are frequently cited by those interested in Hasidut, never before has it been appreciated for its potential to offer a unique approach to tzniut.  It promotes an appreciation of physical beauty and its divine essence as something to extol, not ignore.   

Interestingly, Scholem and Buber also argued about the proper understanding of the idea this text is espousing. While Scholem believed that Hasidic spiritualization of all of creation is a means towards transcending the material world, and that finding the divine core is a means of getting past the material essence of the world, Buber argued that Hasidic philosophy affirms the intrinsic holiness of the material world; beauty as it is physically experienced has inherent kedusha.

Contemporary scholarship largely sides with Buber, and following this view, the text from Tsa’avat Harivash, can offer a radically new approach to teaching tzniut. Instead of physical beauty being an obstacle, it becomes a vehicle through which one can attain religious heights. Moreover the Maggid of Mezhirech teaches that physical attraction should not be demeaned but rather elevated and spiritualized. Such an orientation towards beauty has the potential of providing an antidote to the hyper-sexualized society in which we live today. It allows us to retain the sensuous quality associated with physical beauty, while at the same time transforming it from a mere hedonistic indulgence and lustful passion into a spiritual and sublime aesthetic experience. Adopting this orientation would provide educators with a more sensitive approach to tzniut than is currently in vogue in most schools.

As for the legend, Avraham Kahanah, in his book Sefer Ha’hasidut quotes the following story. The Seer of Lublin once spent a Shabbat with Rabbi Barukh of Mezhbizh, the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov. On Shabbos afternoon, when the family was having lunch together, the Seer was seated next to one of Rabbi Barukh’s daughters. The Seer was not happy since he felt that it was not tzanuah (modest) for a woman to be seated next to him. According to the story, R. Barukh sensed the Seer’s thoughts and angrily asked him why he was upset adding “the verse (Psalms 119:37) states: העבר עיני מראות שוא; avert my eyes from seeing falsehood. It says “avert my eyes from the falsehood,” it does not say “avert the falsehood from my eyes.” In other words, why are you angry at my daughter? It is not her responsibility to prevent you from sin. The onus is on you to avoid sinning. (Variations of this story and motif can be found in other biographies of R. Barukh. See, for example, Botzina de’nehora, p186)

This story offers a novel approach to tzniut. The Rebbe of Mezhbizh argues that preventing temptation is not the sole responsibility of the woman.  According to his reading of the verse in Psalms quoted above, the recipe for creating a holy community does not require keeping women out of sight.  Rather, it is the responsibility of the one who is tempted to avert his eyes and avoid temptation.


Taken together, the two early Hasidic sources can refine and enrich our understanding of modesty. Beauty is not a religious impediment to avodat Hashem. On the contrary, with practice, we can train ourselves to spiritualize our encounters with beauty and all that is aesthetically pleasing. These texts also place responsibility for tzniut and holiness on men. Accordingly, we can begin to teach that tzniut provides us with an opportunity to see beauty as holy, and to realize that the task of infusing the public sphere with holiness ought to be a joint task undertaken by both men and women.  

The general attitude of Hasidism towards women and the scholarly treatment of this topic is a large subject and beyond the scope of this essay. Samuel Abba Horodecky, the nineteenth century scholar, wrote in his book Ha’Hasidut Ve’Ha’hasidim (Tel Aviv, 1943.) vol. 4, p.68, that “the Jewish woman was given complete equality in the emotional, mystical, religious life of Beshtian Hasidism.” Contemporary scholar of Hasidism, Ada Rapoport–Albert, however, refutes Horodecky’s claims and considers his arguments unconvincing. See “On Women in Hasidism: S. A. Horodecky and the Maid of Ludmir Tradition” in Jewish History: Essays in Honour of Chimen Abramsky, (London, 1988) pp. 455-529. More recently, Nehemia Polen has contended that Horodecky’s assertions about Hasidic philosophy being open and inclusive have considerable merit and that, indeed, Hasidism was not only inclusive but occasionally even radically egalitarian. See “Miriam’s Dance: Radical Egalitarianism in Hasidic Thought” in Modern Judaism 12 (1992) pp. 1-21.

(First Published in the Jofa Journal, Fall, 2009)

About the Author
Rabbi Ysoscher Katz is the Senior Rabbi of PHS, a Modern Orthodox congregation in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, and Chair of the Talmud department at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. He received ordination in 1986 from Rabbi Yechezkel Roth, dayan of UTA Satmer. Rabbi Katz studied in Brisk and in Yeshivat Beit Yosef, Navaradok for more ten years, and is a graduate of the HaSha'ar Program for Jewish Educators, Rabbi Katz taught at the Ma'ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls and SAR High School, and gave a popular daf yomi class in Brooklyn for more than eight years.
Related Topics
Related Posts