Busting Modesty Myths
Modesty is a complicated topic, addressed all too often in a superficial way. Some suggest that it only needs to be practiced by one gender. It’s often assumed that practicing modesty involves merely clothing, that it’s intent is to diminish the value of women’s bodies. All of these suppositions miss the point of tzniut entirely.
Let’s start by knocking down some of these misconceptions.
Myth #1: Modesty is about clothing. Reality: Modesty is more about character.
Myth # 2: It’s a mitzvah for women only. Reality: NOPE. Men are just as obligated to follow this mitzvah as women are.
Myth # 3: It’s about bringing down a woman’s level of attraction. Reality: For many, it’s shocking to hear that this is simply not true.
Not only does the world maintain these negative associations with tzniut, but even in our everyday English, the word “modesty” has a negative undertone. The phrase, “He is a man of modest means,” is a tactful way of saying he’s poor. Thus, modesty has the connotation of being less than something. Synonyms for “modest” include meek, lacking, and shy. Yet the Jewish vision of tzniut, commonly translated into English as modesty, is entirely different.
After gathering various Torah sources and literature describing and defining modesty, I compiled the following working definition: Modesty is a character trait that is obligated equally by men and women that helps us reflect our Godliness, our inner soul. In other words, it is about using discretion to reflect our neshama.
Imagine the famous Mona Lisa has been transferred to a museum in America. An entire soirée has been planned around the moment it will first be displayed on the museum’s wall. Select invitations have been sent out to the upper echelons of society. Men in tuxedos and women in ballgowns fill the gallery, and waiters pass out champagne and hors d’oeuvres. An orchestra plays in the background. And the main attraction? Obviously, the treasured Mona Lisa itself. It’s draped in silk cloth, and everyone waits in anticipation for the moment it will be revealed.
Right on schedule, the curator pulls back the cover and exposes the masterpiece. The removal of the cloth is met with a chorus of “Oohhs” and “Aahhs” From an attendee we hear, “Oh, it’s incredible,” and the critics use one word: “Stunning.” After a minute or two, you realize that rather than noticing the work of art itself, everyone seems to be whispering about the beauty of the frame. It’s so intricate, so detailed. “I love the gold,” someone adds.
“The frame?” The MC would respond. “The frame! Er…Ladies, gentlemen, this is the one and only Mona Lisa!”
Realistically, this scenario would never happen—unless, of course, the frame was so large that one couldn’t even notice the painting. So imagine an eight inch by eight inch painting with a frame that is six feet by six feet, taking up the entire wall. Now, one might mistake the frame as the artwork rather than the painting inside.
This analogy is the basis for Judaism’s view on modesty.
Ideally, the frame and the painting should work in harmony. That is the body soul relationship. We are the soul, but all we see is body. There is so much more to you than what you own or what you do. If your body changes, you’re still you. You are a soul…but all we see is the outside frame.
Modesty is toning down one’s exterior, reducing the bragging and extra bling so people are forced to look inward. Modesty is using discretion with our words and actions, which in turn forces those around us to look inward as well.
But that certainly does not mean making ourselves unattractive.
Just like using a six-foot frame for the Mona Lisa would be disproportionate to the inner art work, replacing it with a cheap IKEA frame would be equally distasteful. It is important to beautify ourselves and present our physical appearance to the world as right-sized and with dignity.
The Torah itself is one of the holiest and most powerful objects to the Jewish people. Yet, it is constantly hidden unless read from. It is often kept behind the doors of an aron and cloaked in layers of velvet or silver.
Yes, despite the fact the Torah is hidden, it is dressed in beautiful outerwear. In fact, the more beautifully decorated, the greater the mitzvah!
The concept of hiddur mitzvah allows for a great explanation what’s going on here. Anytime we beautify a mitzvah in Judaism, the beautification process is its own separate mitzvah! For example, walk into most homes for a Shabbos meal, and you will find a table laden with nice linen, a silver goblet, and a candelabra. Not only is it a mitzvah to keep Shabbos, it’s a mitzvah to beautify and enhance externally all that we use to fulfill the obligation. However, the point of the enhancement remains the process of blessing the wine and drinking it, not the materials used to do these things.
Just as a kiddush cup is a vessel that should be beautified to fulfil the mitzvah of kiddush, so too our bodies are vessels that must be beautified to fulfill our life’s purpose. Both men and women are obligated to use discretion to act, speak, and dress in a dignified way that allows the onlooker to see not just their exterior, but the inner “Mona Lisa” inside.
This is where balance comes in. We want a frame that is proportional, both in size and glitz. Our external appearance should be beautiful and respect our soul, but not outshine the ability of an onlooker to see our inner light. For more on modesty and how to strike that inner balance, stay tuned to next week’s article!