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August 5, 2016 1:39 am

What Is True Modesty?

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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A 1910 'bathing machine." Photo: Wikipedia.

A 1910 ‘bathing machine.” Photo: Wikipedia.

In the world we live in, there seems to be little room for modesty. Where absolutely every nook and cranny of the human body is easily available on the Internet and teens see more pornography than people of my age saw in the whole of their lives, any attempt to cover up is regarded as prudery or religious extremism.

In theory, modesty is knowing that there is a place for everything, but not everywhere is that place. Judaism has always regarded sex as a positive, healthy, Divine gift to be enjoyed and respected with an appropriate partner. It is true you can find in the Talmud the opinion that one should never reveal too much. But you will also find the principle that between a man and his wife everything is permitted, so long as it is freely granted and completely consensual.

But in public, the tradition is to be modest. Orthodox men not only cover their heads, but also wear clothes that cover up and are not body fittingly suggestive. Women either cover their heads or keep their hair modest. They also wear clothing that is not overly suggestive or tight-crotched or cleavage-revealing. Of course there are anomalies and contradictions, such as wig-wearing women in spandex and minis, and haredi men going to strip clubs. But we are not dealing with outliers.

Nudity has its place, and the human body after all is God’s work! But I have always preferred the sense of modesty that respects bodies. I always noticed immodest dress. But what was revealed in my youth is nothing to what one sees on the streets of cities in summer nowadays. Not to mention what one sees at the cinema, even in movies rated as suitable for children.

The more I hear criticism of Orthodox extremes, the more I appreciate the foresight and genius of its founders to create a system that would end up demanding we shut off our phones and computers at least one day a week, insisting on families eating meals together, thinking about what it is we are eating, and expecting us to dress modestly.

There are many areas in Judaism where women suffer various degrees of disadvantage and prejudice. Most of it (not all, by any means) comes from adopting values from other cultures we have been living under. But one area where we have equality is prime is in the area of modesty. There are some religions and cultures that expect women to cover up, sometimes everything except for eye slits, but allow the men to wear whatever they want. Or those that blame women, even kill them, when they are raped and oppressed, but exonerate or even praise the male perpetrators, and let them get away with it.

If you are genuine and religious, as opposed to primitive and superstitious, you will insist on standards that apply across the board. I applaud modesty and agree with traditions that expect standards of dress from women, although I cannot understand, nor do I think it honest, that so many of them do not expect similar modest standards from their men.

We now live in a world of making statements, revealing everything about ourselves online. Everything is out in the open. Social media now exercises so much influence that it can topple or reinforce regimes, dictators, and self-promoters. But it also caters to hypocrisy. Covering one’s head used to be an act of genuine piety. Now it is a public statement to flaunt. Whether it is a hijab or a kippah, it says nothing about religious standards, but everything about your political agenda.

In my western European youth, outward displays of religiosity were frowned upon. We did not push for religious agendas. We were Orthodox in private or in synagogue. If we went to college or worked in the city, we did not cover our heads. The default position in Jewry was to assimilate, to try to escape the Judaism that made us different (if we had any knowledge of real Judaism altogether, which in most cases we did not). But that all began to change, and I think its healthier even if it is a misusage.

Overt displays of piety were always the preserve of a few. But as a general symbol of identity, it started in the West with immigration and the idea that there was nothing wrong with looking or being different. Not only, but you no longer needed to adapt or learn a new language. And outward symbols also became a way of fighting back against more open societies. Not to preserve, but to offend. You should stay the way you were without making any concessions to the host society. For Jews, the Six-Day War was liberating. We no longer needed to apologize. We could feel secure.

I recall at interfaith meetings 50 years ago, where no one suggested taking a break for Mincha. I remember telling cautious Muslim participants then not to follow the example of Jewish immigration in the 19th century that thought it best to hide one’s identity and be a Jew at home but an Englishman in the street. Now, of course, the pendulum has swung the other way. Many western cultures have all but lost interest in preserving their religious identities, and what identity one sees is either apologetic or fascist. Many of those who object to religious modesty on the grounds that it constricts females, approve of excessive looseness of dress that overemphasizes physicality and that also constricts females by objectifying them. A hijab is just the other side of the coin to the thong.

Moral relativism allows or turns a blind eye to a great deal, whether it is permissive or barbaric. Nations have lost their identities, and as a result all that is left is individual choice, which is why modesty is so important. Because modesty is one of the few values most religions share. It is the usually (not always, I agree) the test of how committed one is.

Where it has become a political statement, I dislike it. It is too often hypocritical, destructive and socially divisive. It encourages people to think they are holier than others. But as a genuine statement of respect, value and self-control, I believe it to be as important today as ever before.

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  • Dear Rosen. For instance, Spinoza, the king of modesty, the more he did read the Hebrew script the more he got confuse, a sad devotion. The Hebrew script says that men’s body is God work and yet men gets confused. In fact very often men’s writes down a “ word” which means something concrete to his brain but means something different to the reader! Is this article a modest article? A modest man does not speak about modesty! Because modesty in roots is an unknown matter! “ Bad news sells best”. After Athens was defeated by Sparta ( 430 – 400 BC) The subject of “modesty” in aristocracy, democracy and oligarchy common “ brains awareness” normally come up among Athens philosophers circle talks. Why trouble our minds with anything before men bothers about human brains was said. There are no real beliefs until the brain turns examining itself. So it is the same question to day. There is an enormous difference between been a modest man and looking out a modest one. A modest man can look as a killer, and a killer can look a modest men. Immodesty is a tool to make money by people who stage them selves looking modest which turns up in the long run against their own brain – minds looking a stranger, talking lies covering up on lies, which goes forever until they have to give up watching them selves in the mirror finding out “ This person is not me”. Man can become a modest man because he has no way out also. The collective human space brains did change living in a new urban constructed spaces, does create new human mental diseases, perhaps it is because the script of religion believes is not reexamined. Man can not longer read old books, where words gets old meaning who has no existing space to be understood as it should be. Artificial intelligence is taking over which is created by men which men’s body is Gods work says the book. Fact! Our planet is much better without men on it! For men to exist, men need consumers, the more consumers are we the more our planet is getting unwell. Our father sun inner fires directly intact with our mother planet inner fires, is the only modest picture to be concern about. We see that suddenly thing change in global politics because men can never know what will happen under a given political idea into production which works the apposite way back brought into uncontrolled chaotic split minds for the brains perhaps to find a modest way to stand out of it!

  • While we’re on the subject of respect for one’s own body, I would be remiss if I did not mention the scourge of tattooing and piercing that has become the rage over the past few years. I have long felt that it reflects a dislike for oneself. Judaism, of course, prohibits these kinds of mutilations with laws that are d’oreita, derived from the written Torah itself. I’m even aware of some Jewish communities in which women do not pierce their ears out of respect for this concept. To disrespect the guf God gave us is a ganze goof. Na’aseh venishma!

  • Jay Lavine

    Respect, value, and self-control are indeed integral to the Jewish way of life. Only when we respect ourselves (which is different from exhibiting pride) will others respect us. Valuing ourselves reflects our values. Self-control, which we got on Shavuot, was part of the package that came with freedom on Pesach. To quote Virginia Woolf, “To enjoy freedom we have to control ourselves.” Having self-control means that we don’t feel restricted because we aren’t tempted to do things as others (who lack boundaries in their lives) are tempted to do.

    Tzniut (modesty) is part of these values, but modesty, like anything, can sometimes go too far, as in the case of burkas. That we weren’t meant by Hashem to completely cover up all the time is illustrated by the hormone cholecalciferol, often erroneously referred to as “vitamin D” (when it was discovered, its true nature wasn’t appreciated). This important secosteroid hormone is manufactured by the largest organ in our bodies, the skin, after exposure to sunlight. It’s concerned with more than calcium and bones; many organs have cholecalicerol receptors and it appears that higher concentrations in the blood positively affect our immune system and our heart, among other things. Yet studies involving supplementation have often been disappointing; taking a supplement is probably not the same as being exposed to sunlight. An anecdote illustrating this comes from a Jewish historical society meeting I attended about 15 years ago in the western U.S, attended mostly by octogenarians, it seemed. The speaker was discussing TB, and some of the old-timers piped up that when people with TB traveled across the country to sanitoria in Colorado or in Arizona, those who went to Arizona tended to do better. It probably wasn’t the clean air; it was the sunlight! This is consistent with anecdotal reports of the time from Europe. However, in this day and age of multi-drug resistance to TB, “vitamin D” supplementation to treat the disease has generally not produced the results hoped for.

    The moral of the story, then, is moderation in most things, including tzniut!

    • Very much appreciated the thoughtful comments and clear writing. This is a good example of realizing that when we think it through we find that Torah values are sensible.