A Woman's View Print
On Modesty by Miriam Biber
On Modesty by Miriam Biber

Volume 1 , Issue 3

In today's times, modesty is not a virtue which is frequently extolled. It is a characteristic which is often associated with passivity and unassertiveness and therefore not considered to be a good way to ?get ahead? in life. A modest person is usually defined as a person who minimizes or downplays her own abilities or traits. For example, if a talented singer were asked if she had a nice voice, the supposedly modest answer would be to say ?no, not really?. In addition to being a passive trait, modesty is also thought to be more of a requisite trait for women than men. Men are allowed to flaunt their talents, but the same behavior is considered immodest for women. Let us take a look at the Jewish view of modesty (tzniut) and see how it relates to women.

Our primary understanding of modesty comes from Moshe Rabbeinu, who was considered to be an anav, the most humble of all people. We know from the Torah that Moshe was a leader unparalled in Jewish history. At first it seems a contradiction. How could such a humble, modest man possess such leadership qualities? Didn't he require self confidence and assertiveness to prepare the unruly generation that left Egypt for the receiving of the Torah? The answer is that what made Moshe modest was not that he denied he was better or more gifted than anyone else, but that he acknowledged that his abilities were God given. The Torah tells us that Moshe said of himself that if another person had been given his abilities they would have accomplished a lot more. From this we see that it isnot to a person's credit that they are gifted since Hashem granted them certain abilities at birth. Hence being modest does not mean minimizing or denying ones talents. On the contrary, a truly modest person knows that God gave him certain gifts which he or she is in turn obligated to use in a constructive way. A person who does not use their talents is being irresponsible rather than modest.

Modesty also means making a distinction between holy versus mundane or sacred versus worldly. We recently read in the Torah (parshat Terumah) about the building of the portable sanctuary (Mishkan) which the Jews used while traveling in the wilderness. Perhaps the most important objects in the Mishkan were the tablets containing the Ten Commandments. Rather than leaving them openly exposed, however, the tablets were encased in the Ark which was in turn covered by curtains and located in the back section of the Sanctuary. Since the tablets were so holy, they were kept protected and were not readily accessible. This protectiveness underlies the laws of modesty. By instructing both men and women to cover certain parts of their body, the Torah is telling us that the human is sacred. It is only because we are used to seeing people exposed that we have lost our sensitivity to the holiness of the physical body. It is true that we are not shocked or surprised when we hear of vacations on nude beaches or see individuals scantily dressed in public situations. Is this a sign of indecency or just a reflection of our own lack of appreciation of the sacredness of the body. We no longer discriminate between what is private or sacred and what is routinely exposed to others.

In addition to emphasizing the holiness of the human body, the laws of modesty help us distinguish between the internal and external aspects of a person. It says in the Book of Psalms: Kol kevoda bat melech p'nima? which loosely translated means ?the honor of a woman is on the inside?. It is not her external features which are important, but her internal qualities (such as intelligence, compassion and sensitivity) which count most. Given that we are living in a society which places so much emphasis on how something is packaged rather than what's inside, the Torah's perspective is quite refreshing. As the women's movements have long pointed out, females in our society have been valued for how they look rather than for what they think or say. The Torah's laws governing modesty are designed to elicit an emphasis on the internal rather than the external aspects of a person. Instead of inhibiting a woman's expression, the laws of modesty help bring out a woman's inner dimensions. Although the laws of modesty do restrict the type of clothing a woman can buy it is a way of telling the world ?get to know me for what I am on the inside and not just based on how I appear?. A person observing a woman in a flashy miniskirt is more likely to focus on the woman's outward appearance. A less flashy (although equally attractive) dress allows people to attend to the person as an individual - a ?soul? rather than just a body (holy as the body might be). It is important not to confuse modesty with unattractiveness. Jewish tradition tells us not to be gaudy or ostentatious. However, not only is an attractive appearance permitted but it is encouraged. A slovenly, disheveled person also draws attention to their external.

Obviously Jewish law provides guidelines for modest behavior which extends far beyond what a person wears. As this article has tried to point out, the laws of modesty help us to distinguish between the holy and the unholy and thus enhance our sensitivity to the sanctity in our daily life. The way people conducts themselves, whether it be at the dinner table or at the synagogue, reflects their modesty. Similarly, people's behavior influences whether a person responds to them in a deeper more internal) or superficial (more external) way. Thus being modest does not mean holding back or hiding ones talents, but rather acting in a way which points to the fact that the most precious gifts we have are internal dimensions and are a gift from God.



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