Modesty, Shmodesty! As Long As You Look Good!

In this week’s Torah portion, our matriarch, Sarah, is described as beautiful, as other great women in the Torah in numerous places. So clearly, beauty is considered a quality, and yet, we know that modesty is also considered of great value in Judaism. So this week we will talk a little about modesty.

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; it distinguishes humans 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.

Clothing and appearance play important roles in society. 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 his or her spiritual essence or to reveal more of the spiritual self by de-emphasizing the physical.  The way a person dresses can either send the message, “Look at my body, this is me!” or it can declare, “Listen to what I say, I have spiritual presence.”

Our clothing affects not only the way others perceive us, but also the way we perceive ourselves.  Do we identify primarily as a body (e.g. “The Material Girl” which is what Madonna called herself for about 10 years and Jesse “the Body” Ventura) or as a soul with intellect and 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 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 his or her 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 Jewish 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.

For several reasons, special emphasis is placed and more stringent standards apply to women in the area of modesty. Anything powerful 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 demonstrates that she treasures one of her great powers, her beauty.  Observing the laws of modesty also helps to prevent a woman 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?”

It is one of the great tragedies of our times that many women dress in ways that are calculated to please the casual male spectator. By dressing this way, they cultivate an image of themselves that is based entirely on their external appearances and their value as an object of pleasure to a man, when in reality, the truest beauty of a Jewish woman is internal. As the verse in Psalms informs us, “The entire glory of the daughter of the King is within…”

This is one reason that the Torah actually prohibits men to stare at women for their pleasure. When a man disregards the fact that a woman is much more than a beautiful body or pretty face, and focuses on her for his own pleasure, he objectifies and degrades her.

Often, the way a person dresses indicates whether or not they treasure that internal, essential self. A Jewish woman dresses to look attractive, but she does not dress to attract; she may wear elegant and beautiful clothing, but the message of her clothing should be that there is more to her than meets the eye, that her beauty is not merely skin deep.

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