Modesty, Shmodesty! As Long As You Look Good!
My family recently took advantage of various Black Friday and other seasonal sales to buy new clothes. Not always easy, if you have any sense of modesty. So, I thought this would be a good time to discuss the issue of modesty, briefly. The prophet Micha tell us,
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, but are not limited to clothing.
Clothing is used by people all over the world to distinguish themselves from 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 a soul.” 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, Jewish law instructs us to always 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. 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.