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.