Liberating One’s Femininity

Today,1 man is being granted ever-increasing potentials. Advances in technology and communications enable us to shape our environment and share ideas with people throughout the world far more effectively than ever before. Similarly, in the realm of personal relations, many social barriers have been dropped. Interpersonal differences that used to obstruct the flow of commerce and information are falling away and there is a greater willingness to accept a person without discrimination.

This also applies to differences in sex. Being now less restricted than in previous generations, women are accepting greater participatory roles in every area of social life. In the face of these changes, a Jewish woman might ask herself: “Are these changes positive? Should the opportunities available be accepted, or should they be rejected as part of the challenges of contemporary society that conflict with our traditional values?”

The Torah’s response to these questions involves a delicate balance between these stances. In principle, a woman need not shy away from involvement in the world. Nevertheless, that involvement need not indiscriminately mimic the norms of society at large, but rather should be flavored by the unique approach of tzniyus which the Torah teaches.

Tzniyus (lit., “modesty”) does not imply merely a code of rules for dress and conduct. Rather, it stands for an outlook, an approach to life that expresses a woman’s femininity and distinctive inner nature. In the words of the Psalms,2 “All the glory of the king’s daughter is inward (pnimah).” In other words, women are endowed with a unique potential — to contribute a dimension of inwardness (pnimiyus) to their homes, to the people with whom they come in contact, and to their respective environments.

Creating A Dwelling For G‑d

Further insights into this dimension can be derived from the narrative of creation, in which the Creator of both man and woman gave them directives to guide their conduct. The Torah relates that after creating man and woman, G‑d blessed them and charged them,3Be fruitful and multiply, fill the land and conquer it.”

Our Sages note that in the word וכבשה (“and conquer it”), the Torah omits the expected letter vav (before the final hei), which would normally indicate that a plural audience is being addressed; instead, the directive is spelled as if addressed to a singular, male listener. It can thus be understood to be addressed to the man alone, for4 “a man has a tendency to conquer, whereas a woman does not have a tendency to conquer.”

Our Sages understand the “conquest” of this world as referring to man’s endeavors to harness it and transform it into a dwelling place for G‑d. That is to say: We can transform the world into a place where G‑d’s essence is openly manifest, in the same way that any individual manifests his essential personality totally and freely in his own home.

When explained in this context, our Sages’ restriction of the task of “conquering” the world to men is problematic. On the contrary, surely the greatest manifestation of this form of divine service is reflected in a woman’s efforts to make her home into5 “a sanctuary in microcosm,” transforming the material elements of her household into a dwelling place for Him. There is no place where this sanctification of our mundane realities is expressed so richly as in a Jewish home.

One resolution of this difficulty revolves around the conception of man and woman as a single unit. In the words of the Torah,6 “G‑d said, ‘Let us make man...’; and woman He created them.” Ever since that moment, only when man and woman unite are they a complete entity; alone, each is only7 “half a person.” Thus, there is no need for a separate command for a woman. Her activity is part of her ongoing partnership with her husband. Moreover, their efforts in “conquering” the world depend on her, for until a desirable environment in his own home is established, a person’s service in the world at large will be deficient. To express this idea in allegory, only a foolish king would go out to conquer other countries before mastering his own.8

Communication vs. Conquest

The restriction to men of the command to “conquer” the world may also be understood at a deeper level. A woman’s sphere of influence, like a man’s, also extends beyond the home. Nevertheless, she exerts this influence in a distinctive manner, different to that exerted by men. A man often tries to conquer, i.e., to confront and overpower other individuals. In contrast, a woman typically presents a concept tranquilly and peaceably, with modest understatement, thus more effectively allowing her listeners to join her in appreciating its worth.

To explain this concept using chassidic terminology: The difference between malchus (“sovereignty”) and memshalah (“dominion”) lies in the manner in which they are secured. Malchus refers to a situation in which a nation willingly accepts the authority of a king; to borrow a phrase from the liturgy,9 “His children beheld His might... and willingly accepted His sovereignty.” In contrast, memshalah refers to power which is acquired by force, against the will of the populace.

Malchus possesses a twofold advantage. Firstly, when a people willingly accept their king’s authority, they are less likely to rebel. There is, however, a deeper aspect: in this manner, a people’s connection to their king is not merely external, but part and parcel of their own being. It is their minds and wills which accept him.10

Men often choose to influence their environment by force. Thus, although they may attain their goals, the manner in which they secure their conquest may cause friction with those around them. In contrast, the inner dimension (pnimiyus) which characterizes a woman’s approach11 makes the ideas which she presents attractive to others and causes them to be accepted as part of their own perspective. Indeed, many men would be well advised to learn this approach from women and incorporate it in their own life-work.

Inner Beauty: Tzniyus Today

The inwardness of a woman’s approach depends on tzniyus. The manner in which a woman presents herself teaches people to appreciate inward rather than outward beauty; it allows people to appreciate the inner dimensions of her personality.

In recent years, the trend in society at large appears to be turning toward this approach. This positive direction should be enhanced even further, for the nature of the advances women have made in society has created both new difficulties and new solutions to them.12

As our Sages teach,13 “By virtue of the righteous women of that generation, the Children of Israel were redeemed from Egypt.” Similarly, the qualities of tzniyus and inwardness which increasingly characterize the lifestyle of Jewish women in our generation will help transform the world into a dwelling place for G‑d, and thus hasten the revelation of His presence, through the coming of Mashiach.14 May this take place in the immediate future.15