Today, 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. Differences between people 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. Many of the restrictions which women faced in previous generations have been overcome and women are accepting greater participatory roles in every area of social life. In the face of these changes, Jewish women are asking themselves: “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. A woman need not shy away from involvement in the world. Nevertheless, that involvement should not follow the norms of society at large, but rather should be characterized by the unique approach of tznius which the Torah teaches. Tznius does not imply merely a set of rules for modest conduct, but rather an outlook — an approach to life that expresses a woman’s femininity and inner nature.

Psalms 45:14 states, “All the glory of the king’s daughter is within (pnimah).” This teaches us that women possess 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 which relates the instructions which G‑d, Creator of both man and woman, gave His creations to guide their conduct. The Torah relates that after creating man and woman, G‑d blessed them and charged them, “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the land and conquer it.”1

Our Sages note that the latter term, וכבשה, appears in the Torah without the letter u. This directive can thus be understood to be addressed to the man alone, for “a man has a tendency to conquer, whereas a woman does not have a tendency to conquer.”2

Our Rabbis understand the “conquest” of the world as referring to man’s endeavors to transform this world 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, the greatest manifestation of this form of Divine service is reflected in a woman’s efforts to make her home into a “sanctuary in microcosm,” transforming the material elements of her household into a dwelling place for Him. Indeed, there is no place where the service of bringing G‑dliness into the mundane realities of our existence is expressed so richly as in a Jewish home.

One of the approaches to resolving this difficulty revolves upon the conception of man and woman as a single unit. “G‑d said, ‘Let us make man....’ Man and woman He created them.”3 Only when man and woman unite are they a complete entity; alone, each is “half a person.”4 Thus, there is no need for a separate command for woman. Her activity is an extension of that of 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.

Communication Rather Than Conquest

There is a deeper dimension to this concept. A woman’s sphere of influence also extends beyond her home. Nevertheless, she exerts this influence in a distinctive manner, different to that exerted by men. Men often try 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: Both malchus (“kingship”) and memshalah (“dominion”) are terms that reflect sovereignty. However, the manner in which this sovereignty is secured differs. Malchus refers to a situation in which a people willingly accept a certain individual as king; to borrow a phrase from the liturgy, “His children beheld His might... and willingly accepted His Kingship upon them.” In contrast, memshalah refers to power which is acquired by force, against the will of the populace.

Malchus possesses a twofold advantage. Firstly, because the people willingly accept the 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.5

Similarly, men often choose to influence their environment by force. Thus, although they may attain their goals, the manner in which they do so often causes friction with those around them. In contrast, the inner dimension (pnimiyus) which characterizes a woman’s6 approach makes the ideas which she presents attractive to others and causes them to be accepted as part of their own perspective. Indeed, men would be well advised to learn this approach from women and incorporate it in their own life-work.

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An Emphasis on Inner Beauty;
Tznius in Contemporary Life

The inwardness of a woman’s approach depends on tznius. 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. For example, since a woman’s sphere of influence has been extended beyond her home and family, she often needs to travel in a taxi alone. Were she to travel with a male driver, questions might arise concerning the prohibition of yichud (being alone with a person of the opposite sex). At any rate, a certain measure of modesty is no doubt compromised in such a trip. Nevertheless, the very phenomenon which creates the difficulty — the wider and different role women are taking in our society — often offers a solution. In the instance mentioned above, it is possible to travel with a woman taxi driver. Even if it takes a little longer to find or order such a driver, it is preferable to make such a sacrifice, in order to develop the dimension of tznius and inwardness spoken of above.

As our Sages teach, “By virtue of the righteous women of that generation, the Children of Israel were redeemed from Egypt.”7 Similarly, the qualities of tznius and inwardness which 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.8 May this take place in the immediate future.