The Meaning of Modesty

Our sages teach:1

The splendor of Torah is wisdom;
the splendor of wisdom is humility;
the splendor of humility is awe;
the splendor of awe is [a] mitzvah;
the splendor of [a] mitzvah is [its] modesty.

The Biblical source of the concept that modesty is the apex of Divine service is the well-known verse from the prophet Micah:2

It has been told you, O man, what is good,
and what G‑d asks of you:
Only that you do justice, love kindness,
and walk modestly with your G‑d.

Commenting on this verse, our sages say: “Six hundred and thirteen mitzvot were given through Moses…. Micah came and established them on [i.e., encapsulated them into] three.”3

Nonetheless, inasmuch as man and woman are of opposite natures, their true union can only occur through paradox

The root of the word mitzvah (צוה) means “attachment” or “connection.”4 There are two general categories of mitzvot: one’s duties to G‑d, and one’s duties to one’s fellow man. A mitzvah between man and G‑d connects the soul to G‑d; a mitzvah between man and man connects one’s soul to the soul of his fellow.5

The most intense form of connection is, of course, that of husband and wife. For this reason, our sages refer to marital relations as the greatest of mitzvot.6 Thus, the above statement—“the splendor of a mitzvah is its modesty”—implies, in particular, that the beauty of marital relations lies in their modesty. The modesty that characterizes a couple’s marital relations creates an even stronger bond (mitzvah) between them than does their physical contact. Indeed, modesty is what lends true beauty and splendor to their physical union, and creates the true, spiritual union between them.

It may seem paradoxical that modesty can foster a deeper identification than can marital relations alone. Nonetheless, inasmuch as man and woman are of opposite natures, their true union can only occur through paradox.7 Through the care they take to preserve modesty even in their most intimate and self-exposing It is customary to think that modesty is expressed by the way one dresses...the ultimate expression of modesty, however, is in the way one thinks! moments, each spouse connects to the other’s deepest and most private realms of being and becomes able to perceive the most sublime beauty of the other’s soul.

It is customary to think that modesty is expressed by the way one dresses. Although this is true, it is not the whole picture. As we have pointed out, the three modes of expression—thought, speech, and action—are called the “garments” of the soul. Thus, modesty is also expressed by the way one “dresses” himself in these, his spiritual garments.8 One’s modesty is reflected in the way one moves9 and talks; the ultimate expression of modesty, however, is in the way one thinks!

To understand this, let us note that the difference between modesty (צְנִיעוּת, tzeniut) and humility (עֲנָוָה, anavah)10 is that whereas a humble person nullifies his ego, a modest one transcends it.

There are four basic stages in the nullification of the ego: the sense of lowliness, the sense of subservience to a superior, unpretentiousness, and selflessness.11 The common denominator of all of these, however, is that one is focused on oneself and one’s ego, even if only in order to nullify it.12

Modesty of thought, on the other hand, is simply not thinking about oneself.13 This is what is meant by transcending one’s ego.

An End to Hiding

Had Eve merited, she would have epitomized the attribute of modesty. But she naïvely concluded that the fact that G‑d had created her and her husband naked meant there was nothing wrong with open nakedness. Forgetting that G‑d placed them in the garden to perfect reality, she14 fell into the ideological trap of simply aspiring to be one with G‑d’s creation as it was.15 She understood G‑d’s directive to “cling and become one flesh” superfically; therefore, although she sought to unite with her husband, she was oblivious to the need for modesty as an acknowledgment of their essential, unknowable selves, their transcendent unity. She and Adam therefore cohabited in the open;16 they were aware of being observed, but felt there was nothing wrong with this.

Her fall continued with her immodest conversation with the snake, who then pushed her to touch the tree of knowledge—an even more immodest state (that of motion)—until she finally ate the forbidden fruit. By the power of her free will, she could have stopped the fall at any time by asking G‑d, the omnipotent One, to “catch” her in midair and not let her “crash.”17

The beginning of the rectification of the primordial sin was when G‑d clothed Adam and Eve, indicating that they must learn modesty. Immediately upon eating the forbidden fruit, “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked, so they sewed fig leaves and made themselves sashes.”18 After pronouncing their punishment, G‑d Himself clothed them: “And G‑d made for Adam and his wife tunics of skin and clothed them.”19

When G‑d first appeared to Moses, He “hid” Himself in the burning bush. Moses was thus presented with the opportunity to gaze at the Divine Presence, alluringly veiled in a cloak of modesty. He responded by hiding his own face, in order not to behold the Divine Presence.20 According to one opinion, this was proper; he did not make the same mistake as Eve, and knew that to look immodestly at the Divine face would be a denial of the higher knowledge expressed by modesty.

According to another opinion, however, G‑d would have preferred that Moses look at Him.21 As the redemption was beginning, He was hinting to him that the primordial sin was now in the process of being rectified, and that it was time to put aside external modesty. He wanted him to put an end to the hiding.

In the future, we are taught, “your Teacher will cloak Himself no more, for your eyes shall behold your Teacher.”22 The paradox of the future is that although modesty will remain, it will reveal as well as conceal.

Moses did not understand this hint until after the sin of the golden calf, when he prayed: “Please show me Your glory.”23 But by then it was too late; by sinning, the Jewish people had fallen spiritually and were no longer capable of receiving a direct revelation of G‑d.24 G‑d replied: “You cannot behold My face, for no one [now] can behold My face and live.”25 In the words of our sages: “When I wanted, you did not want; now that you want, I do not want.”26 Instead, G‑d hid His “face,” and revealed only His “back” to Moses. This reflects the paradox of simultaneous revelation and concealment, the secret of modesty.

One’s “back” is the part of oneself he cannot see. It therefore alludes to one’s super-conscious self, or the source of one’s spouse. Of course, G‑d does not have a super-conscious, but He does have a super-rational desire for His “spouse,” the Jewish people; this is His “back.”

By telling Moses “you will see My back,” G‑d was telling him: “you must relate to My innermost desire, which is you. From this, you will understand that to see My face, you must look at your back—your innermost super-conscious desire. There, you will see Me.”

Modesty and Romance

When one is not conscious of oneself, he is also not conscious of his merits or sins.27 His usually “exposed” shortcomings and failings are “covered” by the cloak of his modesty. And inasmuch as his sense of self has dissolved into G‑d’s, he sees everyone else—particularly those closest to him—as part of the same collective self. When one is not conscious of oneself, he is also not conscious of his merits or sins Thus, by “covering” himself, he “covers” and becomes oblivious to the sins of others, as well.28

At the same time, he becomes truly altruistic. When one’s own self occupies no place in one’s consciousness, only the “other” exists. One’s sole delight then comes from ensuring the other’s pleasure. Each partner of a truly united couple will thus seek the gratification and fulfillment of the other in all areas of marital life.29

Paradoxically, however, it is precisely at this point of total self-abnegation that one’s true self shines through. What we normally identify as our “self,” as “I,” is merely the face of one’s unrectified animal soul. Once all the superficial aspects of selfhood have been neutralized, the true Divine self—one’s soul-essence—can be revealed.

The Divine self cannot, of course, express itself in the same way that its lower counterpart does, inasmuch as it lacks the consciousness of existing as anything other than a part of G‑d.30 It therefore remains in the paradoxical position of representing both a negation of man’s ability to be known, and an affirmation of the only true “self” that can be known. In this state, it forever retains its essential purity.

Herein lies the lesson the Torah teaches us with regard to modest conduct—especially as it concerns husband and wife, both within and without the context of marital relations.31 If one assumes that he can “know” his spouse, then their relationship automatically becomes reduced to superficial and mundane familiarity.32 But if one realizes that as much as he knows his spouse, there always remain aspects of her that he can never touch, that there are facets and depths of her soul that he has yet to plumb, their relationship stays eternally fresh and new. The sense of wonder in their marriage is never exhausted.

Although, as we have discussed, there is a rational side to marriage, it is its super-rational aspect that affords it infinite depth. Only the recognition that marriage is a miracle wrought by G‑d for His own inscrutable reasons can imbue a marital relationship with this profound sense of mystery.

The secular notion of romance is the tension preceding and leading to the consummation of love. Once this tension is resolved, boredom sets in, and even hostility may follow33; artificial means must therefore be found to reinstate the tension and renew the challenge. As we mentioned above, a Jewish marriage is spared this need by the laws of Familiy Purity. The romantic dynamic of tension and fulfillment is built into these observances, which constantly refresh the couple’s romantic love on the physical plane. On the metaphysical plane, however, the intensity of romance is preserved by the couple’s modesty. By virtue of their mutual acknowledgement of their unknowable essences, they remain forever virgin to one another. No matter how well they know each other, there is always a dimension to the other’s soul that the one has yet to touch; on this level, every shared encounter is their first.34

Modesty Attracts

When one of the angels who visited Abraham asked him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” he responded: “Behold, she is in the tent.”35 Our sages teach us that the angel’s question was intended to call Abraham’s attention to Sarah’s modesty36 and thereby to arouse his attraction toward her.

No matter how well they know each other, there is always a dimension to the other’s soul that the one has yet to touch; on this level, every shared encounter is their first. In general, mystery attracts. Something is kept secret and guarded because it is deemed too unique for common knowledge or benefit; it is reserved for the benefit of the select and privileged. The secrecy both conveys the intrinsic worth of what is being hidden and challenges and beckons the outsider to prove himself worthy of being privy to it. This is why a concealing manner and modest dress is so attractive and arousing. This is also why people can dupe others into thinking something is worthwhile simply by surrounding it with an artificial aura of secrecy. The reverse also applies: if something possesses intrinsic worth, treating it with respect and awe generates a sensitivity to this aspect of it.

In marriage, a delicate balance must be struck between the frankness a couple displays as each other’s most trusted friends, and the mystery they must preserve through the modesty surrounding even their most intimate contact. Even when openness is called for, there must always be an underlying awareness of each other’s essential mystery. This is afforded by the couple’s growing sensitivity to “the unknowing and unknowable” side of their souls. To the extent that they internalize the inherent paradox of their super-conscious essence, they can be both frank and modest, knowing and not knowing, knowable and not knowable.37

This is the essence of the mystery of marriage.

This article is a compilation of sections from Rabbi Ginsburgh’s book, The Mystery of Marriage (Chapter 15, 371-409)