Clothes Maketh the Man or Woman (or do they?)

It is almost impossible to avoid media discussions about the clothes of the latest star in the British royal family.  A segment of a talk show is dedicated to this, newspaper articles, blogs and twitter feeds dwell on the most minute details of the royals’ fashion choices.  So, I thought that a few words may be in order regarding Judaism’s attitude to clothing, modesty and beauty.

He has told you, O man, what is good! What does God require of you; but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk modestly with your God?

Modesty, (tzniut) is an attitude to life that informs the way we speak, walk, think and dress.  It dictates that we not put every quality on display; not flaunt our wealth, beauty or success; and recognize that the inner, spiritual world is more important than the external world. These ideas are most overtly expressed in the way we dress.

Clothing is used by people all over the world to distinguish themselves animals. It testifies to the inner dignity and honor of the human being, who possesses a Divine soul. That is why one Talmudic sage used to refer to his clothing as that which gives honor.  Within society, clothing and appearance play important roles. They are used to identify the wearer with a particular group or ideology; they may express one’s status in society and they often serve to enhance the wearer’s beauty. When choosing clothing, a person may decide to emphasize the physical self and conceal their spiritual essence or to reveal more of the spiritual self by de-emphasizing the physical.  The way a person dresses can either give the message, “Look at my body, this is me!”, or it can declare, “Listen to what I say, I have spiritual essence.”  Our clothing affects not only the way others perceive us, but also the way we perceive ourselves.  Do we identify primarily as the body (e.g. “The Material Girl” and Jesse “the Body” Ventura) or as the soul, the intellect and the emotions? This is not to suggest that one should dress in an unattractive manner, on the contrary the Torah instructs always to present a pleasant, neat and dignified appearance. In our interactions with other people, our clothing should serve, however, to focus attention on the face and the personality, not the body.

A person’s face is the one part of the body that reveals their inner spiritual essence.  The Hebrew word for face, PaNiM, has the same three-letter root as PNiM, meaning “inside” because the face is a window into one’s inner being.  For this reason, the Jewish tradition of modesty never required or even encouraged covering the face.  The laws of modesty do, however, require that neither men nor women dress in a provocative or suggestive fashion, or in clothes designed to highlight the sexuality of the body.

Anything powerful, such as human beauty, must be used responsibly and for the right purposes. The power and impact of women’s beauty is mentioned numerous times in the Torah, Prophets and Writings. It is something that should be treasured and used appropriately, in a loving relationship between a husband and wife.  The root of the word for modesty, (TZNiUt), also means to “hide” or “treasure;” by dressing modestly a woman or man,  demonstrates that she or he treasures one of their greatest powers, their beauty.  Observing the laws of modesty also helps to prevent someone from being turned into the object of someone else’s sensual gratification. It encourages interactions in which people are judged not by their bodies, but by who they are inside.

We are not ashamed of our bodies, nor do we look at them as impure; on the contrary, we care for our bodies and value their beauty. We believe, however, that the appropriate time and place for using that beauty and sensuality is not in the public arena, but in the privacy of a holy and loving relationship between a man and woman, a relationship that is spiritual and emotional, as well as physical. As Nachmanides writes,

When husband and wife are intimate… there is nothing so holy and pure… God did not create anything that is ugly or shameful. If the reproductive organs are said to be shameful, how can it be said that the Creator fashioned something blemished?

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