Wondy’s Tzeniut

Said Rabbi Johanan: Had the Torah not been given, we would have learned modesty (tzeniut) from (cf. Talmud Eruvin 100b).

OK, that’s a free translation. The Talmud actually refers to hatul, the post-biblical Hebrew word for cat. But in Scripture itself, hatul is the term for a wrap or cloak, and in this summer’s Wonder Woman, Diana spends her time off the battlefield in a cloak. No Man’s Land in November is chilly, remember.

Meanwhile, the public debate over issues of tzeniut is not cooling down at all. My social-media feed is swamped with disturbing articles about how hot some 5-year-olds are, mansplaining pieces on sex separation at graduation ceremonies, and Supreme Court cases over slut-shaming mayors. The Western Wall wailing is, at its root, about how immodest some men find women at prayer. The debate over dress codes (for women only) has spread from the Knesset to Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, actual sexual abuse at Tel Aviv’s Belz Talmud Torah and the denunciation of halachic prenups by American Gedolim (Torah “greats”) — y’know, the stuff that actually sullies Judaism’s reputation — barely registers.

Maybe it’s time for a refresher on what tzeniut really is. The favorite verse employed by the modesty police is Psalms 45:13/14:

All honor of the princess is within; her raiment is of golden interlacements.

Sounds a lot like Diana’s golden tiara, bracers and lasso — but I digress. The Talmud invokes this verse three times. The first time, it is to explain why the women of Ammon and Moab are not on the hook for their husbands’ inhospitality (Yevamot 77a). But the next two times, the verse provides a hava aminah, a supposition, which the text immediately corrects.

You might think that even so she should not go about to earn a living because, as Scripture says, “All honor of the princess is within,” but now you know [otherwise].(Gittin 12a)

Rather, this refers to the litigants. Now, do men come to seek justice and women not come to seek justice? You might suppose so… But why would you suppose so? You might say that is not the way of a woman, as it says “All honor of the princess is within,” so it tells us [otherwise]. (Shevuot 30a)

In other words, the Talmud goes out of its way to correct the misapprehensions of this verse, lest tzeniut considerations lead us to exclude women from the courtroom or the workforce and saddle them with the responsibility of hosting guests.

And what about the battlefield? There’s a verse for that, Joel 2:16: “The groom shall leave his chamber, and the bride her huppah.” The Talmud (Sotah 44b) says this refers to any war which is a mitzvah.

Yes, some people will, in practice, limit tzeniut to a code of dress. They will clutch their pearls over Diana of Themyscira’s short skirt and bare shoulders. But there’s a reason for Wondy’s functional attire. (In fact, the biblical “Gird your loins!” refers to pulling up your hem so your legs are free for battle.) She is the honorable princess, portrayed by an Israeli Jewess, and she will not be forced from the workplace, courthouse or battlefield. Instead, she’s fighting for the three pillars of truth, justice and peace (Avot 1:18).

Sometimes you can learn a lot more about tzeniut at the movies than in the beit midrash.

About the Author
Yoseif Bloch is a rabbi who has taught at Yeshivat HaKotel, Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshivat Shvilei Hatorah and served as a congregational rabbi in Canada. He currently works as an editor, translator and publisher. As a blogger and podcaster, he is known as Rabbi Joe in Jerusalem.
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