Question

Dear Sara,

I am very intrigued as to why modesty is such a central topic in Judaism for woman. Although I believe that a woman with a healthy self-esteem shouldn’t feel the need to parade herself, I firmly feel that men should also have a sensitivity of how they present themselves. Why is it that tzniut/modesty seems to be associated primarily with woman?

Answer 

Dear Anonymous,

You have raised a very important question of whether according to Judaism Tzniut, modesty is an exclusive commandment for women. Unfortunately, there is a misconception that modesty is uniquely a feminine trait in Judaism. This misconception is extremely dangerous as it challenges the very core value of Judaism.

I think the misconception starts in the meaning of the word Tzniut which is classically translated as "modesty".  The English word ‘modest’ originates from the Latin word modestus which means "keeping within measure". The traditional implication of modesty is understood as fulfilling certain rules, regulations and having certain boundaries. To begin to explain the Jewish view point I would like to first ‘delete’ the term modesty as the translation of the word ‘tzniut’.

So, what is 'tzniut'?

Micah 6:8 tells us, “It has been told to you, humanity, what is good and what G-d asks of you: only that you act justly, love mercy, and hatznea lechet – “walk humbly” with your G-d”.  The word “humbly” in this verse is the translation for the term Tzniut. We see from this verse ‘Tzniut’ doesn't simply entail measurements and regulations but rather an underlying attitude of humility. The Torah highlights tzniut as an intrinsic value that is present in all a person’s actions and self-expression.

A person that is proud defines themselves by external and transient qualities such as wealth, intelligence and beauty. Since an arrogant person has no internal reality, their entire existence usually relies on their external expression and outward manifestation of self. In the extreme, a narcissist will boast, flaunt and manipulate any external circumstance (to accentuate their external self-expression) as a means for self-aggrandisement.

In contrast, humility implies a deep internal awareness that one is created in the image of G-d. The implications of this knowledge is that a persons’ intrinsic value is not measured by anything other than their G-dly soul and inner being. Therefore, a Tzanuah person has no need to flaunt and draw attention to their external attributes and accomplishments.

Unfortunately, the society we live in places far greater emphasis on extrinsic and superficial accomplishments and values. The modern-day value of ‘empowerment’ attempts to equalize the distribution of extrinsic power (rightfully so), yet has not yet restored true respect, tolerance and appreciation of the intrinsic worth that truly defines a person. From the Torah value of Tzniut we see that in truth ‘still waters run deep’. One of the most astonishing realities is that even the voice of G-d is described as ‘kol dmama daka’ - a thin and soft voice. Although society often ‘trumps’ (pardon the pun) charisma, wealth and other external forces as the epitome of success, we learn from our creator Himself that the greatest strength and power is found within what is subtle and unobtrusive.

To answer your question - It is only because of the extrinsic emphasis that society has placed on feminine expression that Tzniut has been misconstrued to be exclusively a feminine practice and a dress-code for women. In reality, both men and woman are commanded to walk ‘humbly’ with G-d in terms of how they dress, perceive and relate to other people and conduct themselves in general.

Therefore, Tzniut is a universal value that refers to the presentation (actions, words and dress) of any individual that wishes to walk humbly with G-d. After all, if a person is ‘full of themselves’ there is no room for G-d.

May we all be blessed to walk with Hashem in the path of humility so that we may express ourselves and perceive others with the appropriate dignity and respect that is due to every individual.

Have a great Shabbos! 

Fri, September 22 2017 2 Tishrei 5778