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Judaism: The Laws of Modesty: Analysis of a Basic Jewish Value

Modesty is not confined to clothing, but they play an important role.
Published: Monday, November 12, 2012 8:45 AM


 An Honest Question

Q: I am a teacher in a girl’s high school, and I was amazed, Rabbi, that you think that the problem of ‘tzniyut’ (modesty) should be approached as being a problem of discipline, and to send the girls who show-up to school in unacceptable attire, home. How can such a sensitive and profound issue be dealt with disciplinary tools? Is this the way to educate?!

A: Indeed, there is a profound and inner feature to modesty. However, dressing immodestly exhibits a superficial quality as well; expressing contempt for the education system’s set of rules. Disregard and lack of respect must be dealt with as a disciplinary issue. On another occasion, independent of this specific matter, the issue of modesty, like all other value systems in the Torah, should be dealt with in depth.

A Provocative Question

In response to last week’s column devoted to modesty, the following question was received: “Why are rabbis constantly engaged in the laws of women’s clothing?! Is it modest for men, even if they are rabbis, to deal with women’s clothes?!

Reply

From your question, it is obvious that you did not read what I wrote. You may be the type of person who has a clear, predetermined opinion on the matter, incompatible to that of halakha, who honestly believes that their view is right and the rabbis are mistaken, and whenever they see an article about this topic, have a prepared comment.

Incidentally, there are also some people who, when reading an article about the importance of the Land of Israel, always claim: “Why do you constantly deal with issues concerning the Land of Israel? Aren’t there any other issues in the Torah to talk about?!” Usually, these are the same people who claim that the issue of modesty is always being dealt with. They’re also the one’s who are against dealing with the mitzvah’s of getting married and having children, setting aside a tithe of a person’s income, and learning a minimum of six hours of Torah on Shabbat.

In their opinion, the best thing to do is to join the choir and sing the praises of the secular, left-wing media’s accepted values.

Nevertheless, in the body of last week’s article, I wrote explicitly that in high schools, this problem should be addressed entirely as a disciplinary problem. Just as in a secular high school, when a boy or girl comes to school wearing a tank-top they are sent home, similarly, religious high schools for girls should send home students who do not dress according to the rules prescribed by halakha. Such action must be taken consistently, by female teachers and not males, because it is immodest for male teachers or principals to deal with this issue.

I am not naïve to think that had you read the entire article, you would have been convinced, but you probably would have phrased your criticism more fittingly to what was written.

The Two Values in Apparel

I must admit – I enjoy receiving confrontational questions. They provoke thought, and at the same time, make the questioner look ridiculous. In addition, they are much easier to deal with then truly tough questions.

Getting back to the subject: two important ideals are reflected in the laws of modesty – the least important being the value of modesty. More importantly, though, is the public and constant statement of loyalty to Torah.

True, clothes are merely an external feature, but on the other hand, because they stand out and are clearly visible, they convey an extremely fundamental statement: If one’s clothing is “kosher” (in accordance with Jewish law), the woman wearing it declares herself to be a Jew faithful to the Torah, and this is a ‘kiddush Hashem’ (sanctification of God). If a woman’s clothing is not “kosher”, it communicates the exact opposite: Although I am Jewish, I am not loyal to halakha, and emulate the Gentile culture. Such behavior borders on the prohibitions of ‘chilul Hashem’ (desecration of God) and “Do not follow [any] of their customs” (Ya’yikra 18:3).

Outer Appearances and Religious Extremism

The story is told that Rabbi Neiryah ztz”l once said that if a religious adolescent stops putting on ‘tefillin’ for two weeks, there is no need for overly concern – this is a temporary crisis which will most probably pass. But if he takes off his ‘kippa’, the situation is more serious, and very worrisome. This, despite the fact that putting on ‘tefillin’ is a mitzvah from the Torah, while wearing a ‘kippa’ is only a ‘minhag’ (custom). However, since wearing a ‘kippa’ is a public and constant act, it incorporates a declaration of loyalty and ‘kiddush Hashem’. The removal of one’s ‘kippa’ openly announces a lack of loyalty to Torah, and a desecration of God.

Some twenty years ago, a notable doctor complained to me that a radicalization was taking place in religious society, to the point where one could tell a religious girl by the way she was dressed “a kilometer away”. I was pleased, thinking that, if possible, it would be better if they could be recognized as being religious from two kilometers away! Great importance lies in the willingness of a Jew to express his identity publically.

The Attribute of Modesty

The attribute of modesty is reflected in many areas: making do with the minimum, and being discrete with one’s wealth, talents, and achievements. And the goal is not to hinder the talents and abilities, but rather, to impede their superficial side designed to make an impression, while enhancing the inner, good, and positive side. Immense blessing lies in the attribute of modesty, as our Sages said: “Whoever diminishes himself in this world, how great and elevated he is in the upper world” (Zohar, Part 3, 168:1). The meaning is that whoever diminishes his superficial side enhances his inner being.

A student who became wealthy consulted with me about how much money he should invest in enlarging his house. I thought about it briefly, and said: “I cannot go into details, but it appears to me that if you enlarge your house modestly, you will find greater blessing. You will be richer, you will have more happiness and love with your wife, you will be able to progress more in your Torah studies, and be more successful in educating your children.”

One of the expressions of the attribute of modesty is concealing one’s body by means of clothing, with the basic goal being the enhancement of the inner, spiritual side. Human nature first tends to see the outer, superficial side. Through our clothing, which conceals the body, the inner side of a person is highlighted, and thus, we learn to focus on the spiritual soul. Therefore, the laws of modesty are related not only to women, for men as well are commanded to conceal parts of their bodies which are normally covered (Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chaim 2:1-2). Although, due to the unique beauty of women, and because of the role that female beauty plays in the union between husband and wife, additional modesty is required for women.

Between the Attribute of Modesty and Laws of Dress

There is a significant difference between the attribute of modesty and the laws of dress according to the boundaries of modesty. The attribute of modesty is relative to one’s surroundings: a house considered modest today would have been considered flamboyant a century ago, and clothing considered indecent a century ago, is now considered modest. In contrast, most halachot of dress are unchanging, and are not affected by one’s surroundings.

Some women are naturally very modest, but since they have not received an education based on halakha, they are not meticulous about observing the laws of dressing modesty. On the other hand, there are women who observe all the laws of dressing modestly, and yet, behave immodestly. Some of them do this inadvertently, while others intentionally attempt to attract the attention of men.

From the aspect of modesty’s attribute, the first group of women are more modest than the latter, whereas from the aspect of declaring loyalty to halakha, the latter group are more virtuous. In the long run, it can be reckoned that they and their families will be more faithful to the tradition of Torah and mitzvoth.

Occasionally, there are even certain conflicts between modesty as a character trait, and the halachic boundaries of modesty. For example, when a religious woman is situated amongst a secular group of people, her modest clothes highlight her as being different from everyone else, to the point where men will probably look at her more than all the other immodestly-clothed women.

Nevertheless, she must dress according to the boundaries of halakha, because loyalty to the restrictions of modesty is more important.

The Need for Both Values

It is impossible to base the value of modesty solely on the details of the halachot, because halacha cannot go into specific instructions, such as at what volume one should speak, what issues ought to spoken about and in which forums, and which garment or color combination is modest for one woman, but not for another. To this end, one needs to acquire the attribute of modesty.

Halakha sets fundamental boundaries which give expression to modesty, and create a proper distance between men and women, thereby reducing the risk of sinning in adultery. But this does not guarantee the attribute of modesty itself, nor does it assure complete control from thoughts of sin and acts of illicit sexual relations. In order to acquire the attribute of modesty itself, it is necessary to study and delve into the value of modesty and internalize it into one’s life.

The Big Mistake

Learning the laws of modesty superficially can lead to an extremely serious mistake, as though modesty comes to say that the body is ugly and contemptible, and the halachot are intended to reduce the tangible joy and pleasure in life. In truth, modesty is designed to guard these tremendously vital forces for married life, and in order to enhance the joy of marriage, so it includes both the spiritual and the physical uniformly. This is the fundamental belief of Judaism – that there is no separation between the spiritual and the physical: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One” – precisely when the spiritual and physical are in unison, the Divine purpose of complete unity between husband and wife can be successfully fulfilled.

I will end on a painful note which, due to its modest nature, cannot be expanded upon publicly; therefore, I will hint at it. For a long time, my wife has encountered brides who were not properly prepared before marriage. Bridal instructors, who passed courses on the matter, are pleasant and nice women, explaining the halachot properly, and informing the brides about the holiness of the laws. But they are unsuccessful in explaining that the halachot of ‘tahara’ (purity) are a preparation for a full and satisfying relationship between husband and wife, and deserving for both of them to be equally happy.

And this is an indication: If the class on ‘mitzvat onah’ (conjugal relations) and ‘layl clulot’ (the first night of marriage) is given at the end of the series of preparation for marriage lessons, chances are the preparations were poor. In regards to this, there is a difference between men and women. For the wise, a hint will suffice.