In the following exclusive excerpt from his book, Sometimes You ARE What You Wear, Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran addresses the general principles tzniut. Regardless of gender, age, culture or religious background, modesty is “the interchange, the nexus, between the ethical and the moral, between the inward-facing and the outward-facing”, and not simply a matter of fashion or hemlines:
I can hear you already.
You’re asking, what can an Orthodox rabbi tell me about my children or my life? I know everything I need to know about his views. He’s lost somewhere in the 15th century or something. How can his thoughts about modesty, of all things, make any sense to me, a person perfectly at home in the modern world?
I would argue that the wisdom of hundreds and hundreds of years of teaching have a great deal to teach you, and that the lessons could not be more urgent! Just look around. You have to be blind to not see that our children that our children are at terrible risk. They are bombarded in the media and on the Internet with images of sex, sex, sex twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. Movies, music, and books idealize relationships that mirror our disposable society. There are world famous fashion models dying before our eyes. Even the fashion community is beginning to take note, requiring models to have a minimum Body Mass Index before they can walk on the runways in Milan, Brazil, and Paris.
Yes, they continue to waste away. And for what? Some idealized – and impossible and destructive – body form!
It is not just models, either. Walk along the beach, or the shore of a lake, or a public swimming pool any summer afternoon and you will see young boys and girls parading in bathing suits that would make an honest Madame blush. Micro-bikinis. Thongs.
Have we no shame, having our children parading in public like that?
You might argue that my reaction to these kinds of images just proves my “lack of credentials” to speak to the issue, that I am lost in the past. Your argument might have some power if not for the terrible toll that these behaviors have on our children.
Can’t you hear them crying out for help? The simple fact is, our children have been turned into commodities – lumps of flesh, seemingly formed for no other purpose than buying and selling.
Ironically, we bemoan the fact that they don’t have self respect or positive self images.
I ask you, where in all this do we talk about the soul? About God? When and where do we raise our children up instead of participating in making the world and their experience of it more difficult? When do we build a fence around them to protect them from the bombardment of the modern world?
You ask me, what can an Orthodox rabbi tell me about life?
The Talmud, the compendium of Jewish law and wisdom, teaches that “a person is led in the direction he wants to follow.” So now, I will answer this question with a question (a very Jewish trait!) What direction would you choose for yourself and your children?
If you would choose a safe, more sane and ennobling direction for you and them, then I would (modestly!) suggest that an Orthodox rabbi has quite a bit to tell you about life – whether you’re an observant Jew, a non practicing Jew, or not a Jew at all.
Long ago, when one of the great Jewish sages, Rabbi Hillel, was challenged to teach the complete Torah while standing on one foot, he was non-plussed. He replied simply that the whole of the Torah is, “not doing anything to one’s neighbor that one would not have his neighbor do to him.”
It seems almost too simple to be worth considering in our complex world, that the complete teaching of Torah could be distilled in this simple concept: if you don’t want it done to you, don’t do it to someone else. So simple as to be dismissible. But we turn away from this ethical eloquence – and its importance to tzniut – at our own peril.
In giving such an answer, Hillel accomplished an incredible goal. He affirmed the sanctity and authority of the Torah as an ethical guide by which to negotiate the too-often Byzantine maze of our world. Judaism has often been described as being defined by rules, as being “legalistic.” It is true; we have many specific rules to guide us in all sorts of situations. However, underlying all of these rules is the essential truth that Hillel captured in his answer and, more importantly, the relationship that we have with God.
How we behave in the world – how we face “outward” – is a question of ethics. How we behave in matters of holiness – how we face “inward” – is essentially a question of morals.
Tzniut touches on both.
King Solomon, son of King David, wrote in the Book of Proverbs, “Can a man take fire into his bosom and his clothes not be burned?” In other words, can a man’s heart and soul be fouled and still have the appearance of purity and piety. Of course not.
Might we not also suggest that the opposite is also true? That a person whose appearance in the world is without purity and piety can not possibly be pure of heart and soul? Modern medicine has only begun to genuinely respect that there is a very real mind-body connection when it comes to disease and healing. Judaism has known about the connection for several thousands of years.
Tzniut is the interchange, the nexus, between the ethical and the moral, between the inward-facing and the outward-facing.
We will come to understand that tzniut, modesty, is not a cloak that hides beauty but a posture that defines and displays what is more beautiful. It is not an act but a perspective; not an appearance but rather a way of being that has direct bearing not only on how we live but on who we are.
And that, my friends, has everything to do with you, with your children, with the world in which we find ourselves, and with the wisdom that the traditions of Judaism has been passing down from generation to generation for hundreds of years. It has everything to do with what an Orthodox rabbi can teach you. And, as you will discover, it has everything to do with your life, and your children’s lives.
Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran serves as Vice President of Communications & Marketing of the Orthodox Union’s Kashruth Division. Rabbi Safran is a creative rabbi, educator, lecturer and author – having served in both rabbinic and educational leadership positions in Pittsburgh, New York and New Jersey, since 1970. Copies of Sometimes You ARE What You Wear may be purchased on Amazon or obtained directly for $14 by contacting Safrane@ou.org.