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Can Modesty Please Take a Stand?

Can Modesty Please Take a Stand?

The #1 challenge of our times

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If I had to encapsulate the challenge of our times in one word, it would be “externality.”

We live in a superficial world. We vie for attention, campaigning and promoting ourselves to ensure that we are seen, heard and noticed. Society places great value on externality; consequently, the sacred Jewish value of internalization has become so elusive.

Have we lost the concept of inner dignity and refinement? Of quiet confidence? The unassuming pride of knowing who we are, without the need for constant affirmation?Society places great value on externality

Is it any wonder, then, that the Jewish concept of tzniut, modesty, has so many people so perplexed?

A Definition of Tzniut: Inner Worth Versus External Affirmation

I read an article on this topic not too long ago. The author wrote that as Jewish women, we cover ourselves up externally in order to “call attention to and expose our internal” talents and selves.

I read that line over and over, because it disturbed me.

It is true that the laws of tzniut have the positive effect of taking away the emphasis from one’s external form, perforce drawing attention to other areas. Rather than seeing the individual as a mere body, we become aware of her internal dimensions, like her personality, intelligence and talents.

Nevertheless, I don’t think that the point of tzniut is to expose or call attention to anything at all.

Tzniut literally means hidden, not “in your face.” This refers not only to the external self, but also the internal dimension. To males as well as females.

It means self-respect, self-refinement, and a definition of self that is not predicated upon others’ approval. It is an honest evaluation and realization of one’s self-worth and mission in life.

And it means acting with that Tzniut is a measure of self-respect and refinementrecognition in one’s dress, speech and action.

The greatest leaders of our people, both men and women, had this elusive quality of “hiddenness.” They didn’t deny nor hide their talents and greatness, but neither did they display them. They accomplished what they did without self-aggrandizement or recognition, simply because they knew this was what their Creator expected of them.

So, when I read the article expressing how we cover ourselves up physically in order to expose our internal attributes, it sounded like a more refined way of buying into the pervading secular value system. The point is not to seek attention at all, even attention to your inner qualities.

More than just being a set of laws, tzniut is a measure of self-respect and refinement reflected in the laws governing our clothing, speech and deeds. It demands that we fortify ourselves and our homes with a dignified innerness in a world that screams cheap externalism.

And it is a challenge and a gift that has specifically been entrusted to the Jewish woman.

The Feminine Vision: Safeguarding, Nurturing and Redeeming

Ever since the sixth day of creation, when the first man came into being, his drive has been conquest. His role is an external one: vanquish the darkness; reshape physical matter by winnowing, plowing and harvesting.

Ever since she came to be, as a “helpmate opposite him,” the woman’s spiritual and emotional self has been defined by safeguarding, protecting, nurturing and redeeming. Her role is an internal one. She finds the grain of harmony and unity, the expression of G‑dliness that is hidden within creation.

Despite many advances in our society, it is painful to see how the feminine role and mode has been misunderstood and exploited. The road to her success in this man’s world is often predicated upon losing her inner sense of worth and selfhood as a woman.

In Judaism, by Women are more educated and articulate than ever beforecontrast, the feminine vision is far more central. Those very things that we love and cherish are protected. Marriage, our strongest armor, is sanctified, holy. Relationships between the genders aren’t casual, but purposeful. And the Jewish woman, too, is safeguarded, rather than cheapened; portrayed as refined and dignified, the mainstay of all that we hold dear as a nation.

There is so much depth to the words of our sages, “The honor of the king’s daughter rests within.”1

Slowly, slowly, the feminine perspective is penetrating our society. We now realize that we can achieve far more through dialogue and education than through force and conquest, through innerness rather than externality. And we have come to understand that a woman can excel in any profession of her choice, while still valuing and prioritizing her home life.

But her voice is still not fully expressed. Only in the era of Moshiach, when nekeivah tesovev gever,2 when the feminine will supersede the masculine, will we fully appreciate the value of inwardness that her very being encapsulates.

And so, we need to find appropriate expression for her feminine voice. We cannot exploit femininity by cheapening her, nor can we distort the meaning of tzniut by quieting her essential message.

Finding the Feminine Perspective

Today, women are more educated and articulate than ever before. As women, we must use our expertise and talents to give back to our communities. And as a community, we must encourage women to assume leadership positions. For how can we expect to effectively instill and promote this inner perspective, without providing an appropriate platform for the feminine voice?

So, we have our work cut out for us.

In a world that values self-aggrandizement and self-promotion, we need to promote inner values.

In a world that adores cheap externality, we need to teach our girls—and boys—to develop self-respect and personal confidence.

In a world that venerates aggressive self-assurance, we need to demonstrate soft strength. As well as the strength of softness.

And we need to do it all in our uniquely feminine, inwardly regal—and modest—way.

Chana Weisberg is the editor of TheJewishWoman.org. She lectures internationally on issues relating to women, relationships, meaning, self-esteem and the Jewish soul. She is the author of five popular books.
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Anonymous April 13, 2015

what does Hashem say is the question, what does Jewish law say, not what you personally think. Hashem hates non modest dress Reply

Sam Leon April 13, 2015

Lately I've noticed that since I've been on campus at the local community college pursuing my degree, that lots of women on campus have been dressing tznius. Whether or not you are a Jew or whether or not you even know what tznius is, doesn't mean anything in my book. You are telling the world know that you're a person with hobbies and faults and kids and dreams and pets, not a piece of meat. Our bodies aren't like the Ancient Egypt exhibits you find at big-name museums. They aren't on display for the world to see. A woman's physique can be beautiful, yes, but we need to focus on the bigger picture, on his/her talents, like singing or acting. I'm not saying not no accessorize and find color patterns, but think of yourself as a queen, and dress accordingly. Reply

Sam Leon October 31, 2014

It takes away from being humble it brings a sense of pride and arrogance that clothes do. I disagree. I hardly ever wear makeup myself, but when I do, it makes me fell beautiful internally, and, since I am tzniut, internally as well. Reply

Anonymous Chatsworth, CA via chabadchatsworth.com March 31, 2014

Tzniut There's such a thing as tzniut in behavior that, in our society, is equally important. The bar and club culture is to the point. If you want to meet a decent man or woman go where decent people go. Talk to your rabbi or rebbitzen or to your friends. Go on J-date or Frum-date. Let it be known that you are interested in meeting a a good person. Reply

leah fl March 28, 2014

I didn't mean to be disrespectful but it really does bother me to see chabad rebettzins dressed innappropriately, They are supposed to be our role models . Reply

Anonymous Ooltewah, TN via jewishchatt.com March 28, 2014

modesty Modesty is a subject I have dealt with for many years. Raised my children with it and they all have kept a decent sense of modesty. My pet peeve is the makeup we cover our heads are arms and legs and then bring great attention to our faces with artificial means along with toxic poison. Lipstick has lead in it. the Palates are deadly as well in perfumes and makeup. It takes away from being humble it brings a sense of pride and arrogance that clothes do. We should be shame faced or humble I can’t get past looking at someone’s face and losing the message all together. There is Rabbi’s wife I love to listen to but cannot watch because she looks like a made up gypsy. I guess it is just me because that is all I see any more. I used to wear makeup and would occasionally if I could find organic none toxic types. I know how to wear it even performed on stage in years past. Maybe I am getting old and crotchety. But it bugs me. Reply

Anonymous Chatsworth, CA via chabadchatsworth.com March 28, 2014

modesty Minis, mico-minis, plunging neckines, have absolutely no place on a Jewish woman - or any other respectable woman for that matter. Despite what they may tell others - "it;s so comfortable" "it's the latest fashion" "I'm not wearing it to attract men"
be honest. Who is kidding who? Very short and very tight dresses have only one purpose - to attract male attention and interest. So ladies, where does your self-respect fit into this? Where does the idea of a man being attracted to your personality, your character, as well as your looks fit into all this? You can't sit on two chairs with one behind.
Be a mench-ette, ladies. Dress like a respectable grown woman. By the way I am tired to attending bar mitzvahs where the girls are dressed in skin tight extremely short dresses. Totally inappropriate. Reply

EstherLiba NJ March 28, 2014

The mitzvah of tzniut is for oneself Respectfully, to Ms. Griffithe: To be fair, the concept of tzniut does not translate well in today's Western culture. You are so right that the human body is beautiful, and that is the very point of the mitzvah: our sanctity as a Jewish Nation requires that we make the distinction between the physical and the holy, between public and private.

This is not a popular theme nowadays!

Tzniut is not about the “male as the elusive prize.” Tzniut is a mitzvah intended for oneself.

For example, when I took on the mitzvah of covering my hair, I immediately noticed that although others did not know that I was wearing a wig, I myself was aware constantly, and the result was that my behavior, speech, and eventually my dress naturally aligned with my commitment elevating my dignity.

This had nothing to do with a male, or anyone outside myself; rather, it was a gift to me, myself and I, and only by extension, to my family, my community and my world. Reply

Mrs. Chana Weisberg via mychabad.org March 26, 2014

Thank you all for your great comments. The definition of the quality of true modesty has definitely been broadened and is something we can all try to aspire to. Reply

leah fl March 26, 2014

modesty I find it extremely distubing to see with my own eyes in my community, young chabad rebbetzins wearing skirts that are too short and sleeves that are too short and flashy clothes and wigs and very high heels which call great attention to them, They are supposed to be my role models and it says something that I dress more modestly than they do. They live in huge homes with maids and nannies, This isn't what the Rebbe would want or his wife Reply

Shelli Illinois March 26, 2014

L'Chaim! Thank you for sharing Chana, this article brings validation and clarification of the "Jewish Soul" and the hidden nuggets (gifts) that G-d places inside of His daughter's. I am reminded of Deborah, a wife and business owner, who was also a Community Leader, Prophetess, Judge and Warrior. Deborah didn't brag and often gave the credit to others. Her agenda was only to be available to G-d. A book certainly cannot be judged by it's cover and its indeed what is on the inside that counts. "I've got all of my sisters in me, phenomenally! I love you Chana, you bring out the best in us. Reply

Faye C. Israel March 26, 2014

Well done for addressing the topic of perspective! All too often many Torah concepts are explained as an answer to a question, coming from a flawed perspective. The Torah perspective as absolute truth is not subject to bias or prevailing world view and as such can't be explained that way.
History changes human perspective. Had history shown men as the oppressed rather than the oppressors, there would be a completely different set of questions. A few examples: In order to be G-d fearing Jews, men are obligated to keep so many more mitzvoth than women. Men need to bless G-d every morning for not making them exactly according to His will. Men need to be so much more stringent in the law of shemirat einayim (guarding one's eyes) than women.
We need to rethink the way we look at everything and try to see it from the perspective of truth. Reply

Adi Lazar NYC March 26, 2014

I think to some of us this comes as it should, naturally. :)
As for the others, I'm not sure what to say, to each his own: you choose to expose your external, you'll always get according "results"!
Thank you,
Loved your writing, Reply

Anonymous March 26, 2014

modesty It would be worth knowing more about Tzniut at a deeper level , which goes beyond modest clothing (which I agree with). Tzniut which encompasses attitude , speech , interaction , self image, what inner qualities women represent through this.
Without this deeper understanding , modest clothing would be a mere shell.
Reply

EstherLiba NJ March 25, 2014

We have our work cut out for us Recently I asked an Israeli cousin, who is secular, this question: what word would you use to describe someone who shared a job with you, did most of the work, and yet gave you most of the credit? She answered: tzanua.

So you see that tzniut is a quality that embodies a tacit self-worth, graciousness, humility, appreciation and respect.

Looking from that perspective, I think it's safe to say we would all like to be known for those qualities. Reply

Jenn Griffithe Issaquah, Washington March 25, 2014

Modesty? This is a bothersome for me, as it, at least in the United States, is enforced by women upon other women. We are, without ever being told what is and is not Standard wear, are somehow supposed to cover our bodies, so that The Elusive Prize, that male, will not be tempted to stray.

To that, this persons scoffs and also laughs. There is nothing wrong with nudity, it may be too cold, but the human body is beautiful and my last few words shall be:

Every woman is her own judge, and has the right to set her own standards. Reply

Anonymous miami, fl via chabadgables.com March 25, 2014

Cheapened dress code in society The writer above is correct. People have no sense of boundaries verbally or physically. It is embarrassing to see young girls dressing like the hookers on Biscayne. If I had a daughter or son today I would not be appreciated. I do not believe that girls or boys should dress so provocatively. I am very conservative compared with most people. Reply

Anonymous March 25, 2014

Stop criticizing This is a beautiful article. It is so nice to read a positively oriented viewpoint. Maybe our Mechanchim are starting to realize that NOBODY wants to listen to criticism. Not of themselves, not of the world, not of the youth, and not of any Yidden. Chabad is about outreach and acceptance. It's high time we start reaching out to our own. The Rebbe personified Ahavas Yisrael. And if the Rebbe ever did criticize, it was done so gently, so considerately, and with so much love that one could hardly consider it criticism. I feel that a lot of people have lost that perspective. Consequently, I am impressed with any article that does not rant and rave. Reply

Hadassah North Miami Beach March 24, 2014

well said You made your point beautifully. The concept of Tznius for men - not being in your face, self-centered, and arrogant is something that is often overlooked in today's society. Women have an important role to play in our communities but it takes skill and refinement to express ourselves while retaining our dignity and sense of modesty. Reply

Susan Levitsky March 23, 2014

No sense of privacy People seem to have lost their sense of privacy. Everything is out in public. People talk about obviously personal subjects on their cell phones in public places. They tweet about every little thing. They post private things on Facebook where they are viewed by "friends" and friends of friends who are really strangers.
When I was young we were embarrassed if our bra straps showed through our clothing, now a lot of women, obviously not the observant, make no effort at all to cover them.
Until people reclaim the concept of privacy, I don't think there will be much modesty in dress or actions. Reply

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