Rethinking tzeniut (modesty)

What is the goal of tzeniut, of modesty?  So often, conversations about tzeniut tend to fixate on feminine dress with the stated intent of keeping men from sin. Recently, this approach was reinforced by claims made by some that sexual harassment in Hollywood is the unfortunate consequence of a sexually permissive culture that halachic notions of tzeniut deride. While we do believe that we are all to an extent responsible for one another’s halachic behavior, putting the onus on women to dress or behave in a certain way so as not to elicit the bad behavior of men can often have the effect of ignoring men’s responsibility to control their own behavior. More importantly, though, I believe that there is much more basic reason to practice tzeniut.

The Biblical source for the concept of tzeniut is found in the book of Micah (6:8) when the prophet tells us that God requires it of us:  v’hatznai’a lechet im Elokecha – and walk modestly or privately with your God.  This verse is directed to both men and women, and contains no reference to dress. The Gemara’s discussion of the values of tzeniut echoes this theme. As in Tanach, the Gemara describes behavior, such as acting modestly when you attend funerals and attend to a bride’s dowry.  The Rambam discusses the custom of tzeniut with regard to the clothes scholars wear and how they relieve themselves and in this context, the Rambam then writes that a scholar should not scream like an animal when he speaks but his speech should be pleasant.  It is clear that in the eyes of the Rambam, Tzeniut is not merely a halacha but it is a midah, a character trait.

So then we must ask, what is the goal of this midah?  Are we to be so modest in our presentation that we do not appreciate one another’s physical beauty?  Why not?  Didn’t God create so many things in the world which we bless for their beauty?  There are countless blessings that we recite specifically when we witness the beauty that God created in this world, from rainbows, to shooting stars, to towering mountains.  When we see a beautiful creature, we are commanded to recite a bracha, as well.  So what’s wrong with appreciating someone’s physical beauty?

I believe that when it comes to appreciating the beauty around us, human beings are different than every other creation of God. Each one of us was created b’tzelem Elokim, in the image of God, with a Divine spark. Each one of us has a uniquely Divine identity and we were created to express it.  The goal of tzeniut, of modesty, is to make sure that it is that Divine quality that beams from within us. The goal of being private, of not being overly flashy, is to foster self-expression of our essential Divine spark. Allowing ourselves to be objectified by the way we are dressed, to be defined by our flashiness, our inappropriate language or our inappropriate behavior, obscures the tzelem Elokim that is within us.

Indeed, it is so critical that we express our true identity and our very essence.  From a psychological perspective, developing a strong sense of identity is related to positive self-esteem and overall mental health.  Individuals who lack a strong sense of identity may be easily influenced by others.  They may have trouble making decisions and may be more drawn to unhealthy relationships.  As Rav Soloveitchik has written, one of the goals of halacha and Torah values is pragmatic – to create a healthy human being. Exhibiting the midah of tzeniut is critical in this regard. This midah keeps our focus on who we truly are, and prevent us from getting overly diverted by external distractions.

Additionally, we have a halachic responsibility to promote our Divine essence and to share it with the world.  There’s a famous story that the Chafetz Chaim was once traveling on a train to Radin when he was talking with another passenger who was unaware of the Chafetz Chaim’s identity. The passenger praised the Chafetz Chaim, but the Chafetz Chaim downplayed his greatness to the point when the passenger got very angry that this person was disgracing the Chafetz Chaim.  Upon reflection, the Chafetz Chaim realized that a person shouldn’t even say lashon hara about himself. Rav Soloveitchik underscored this claim, explaining that our reputation is not our own and therefore, we have no right to harm it. In fact, each of our identity is tied to God’s identity via the Divine spark inside each of us and therefore, we have a responsibility not to obscure this holiness. Our sense of self is impacted by the way that others see us, and as such, halacha recognizes the concepts of mar’it ayin and chshad. We must concern ourselves with how we are perceived by other reasonable people, because their perception is reflected in the way we perceive ourselves.

If we are so concerned with presenting ourselves modestly so that our Divine spark can shine through, must we ignore our own and others’ physical beauty?  Perhaps we can use the concept of “hiddur mitzvah” as a model to answer this question.  There are certain mitzvoth where there is an obligation or an opportunity to elevate that mitzvah through hiddur, through beautifying it. Having a beautiful Sefer Torah or a beautiful Etrog are two examples. In these cases, the role of hiddur is to enhance those mitzvoth.  The hiddur is an accessory but not the essence of the mitzvah.

Similarly, halacha recognizes that human beauty should be appreciated provided that it serves as an accessory to the person’s essence as opposed to obscuring it. After all, why may a husband and wife be physically intimate with each other and appreciate each other’s beauty in a more intense fashion than anyone else?  Because in the relationship of a husband and wife, each spouse is so connected to the other and so in touch with each other’s essence, that the physical beauty serves as a hiddur, as an accessory, to their appreciation of one another. However, if a stranger was to appreciate a person’s beauty to that extent, it would overwhelm his perception and obscure his ability to see that person’s true self. This idea is highlighted in a comment that Rav Herschel Schachter made about the end of the “Aishet Chayil” psalm that we sing every Friday night. When we sing, “sheker hachein v’hevel hayofi,” it does not mean that charm and beauty are definitely false; rather, they can be misleading.  However, “isha yir’at Hashem he tit’halal,” a woman who is God fearing will be praised. When a woman is God fearing, her “chein” and “yofi,” beauty and charm, serve as accessories that only highlight her beautiful essence.

There are many technical halachot related to dress which reflect these values of tzeniut, but tzeniut is more than technical halachot.  It is a midah, a character trait and, in addition to the technical halachot, there is some amount of subjectivity and context in determining what behaviors constitute tzeniut.  So where do we look for guidance in this area, if it is so subjective?  Observe role models.  Find role models who we believe embody these values, who truly express their essence, their identity and their Divine spark.  Find these individuals who possess a sterling reputation and emulate their behavior.  And if we are successful in this endeavor, then we too can express who we truly we are.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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