Of Falling Trees and Rising Hemlines

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Spool of Thread

or, The Zen of Tznius

Does anyone remember the old philosophical conundrum, “If a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears it, does it make a noise?”

The point of this question is to get the listener to ask: is noise purely a human experience? Or does it possess a reality that exists independently of our experience of hearing? Or, to phrase it differently, does an event have any meaning if there are no spectators, no people around to endow it with meaning?

So now you are thinking: all very interesting, but what does it mean for the Jews? So let’s reframe the same question in terms that are closer to home.

Imagine that you are a balabusta who has just finished cooking for Shabbos. For once, baruch Hashem, everything turned out perfectly! The kugel is just the right shade of golden brown, the challah rose fluffy and high, the cake could give the corner bakery some serious competition. Now imagine that the guests who were supposed to come suddenly call you up. “We caught the flu, so we’d better stay home in bed,” they say. “Can we take a rain check?”

Now here’s the question: does your mouth-watering meal lose any of its value if the guests aren’t there to appreciate it? You, of course, will lose out on the ego boost of hearing your guests heap praises on the food, and they will not be able to go about town spreading the word what a fabulous cook you are. But isn’t it the same meal? Is it any less delicious, any less meritorious, given that you prepared it not only l’kvod orchim(to honor guests) but also l’kvod Shabbat (to honor Shabbat), and for your nearest and dearest, with love and enthusiasm?

Now let’s move on to a different example. Imagine now that you manage to turn out fabulous meals not only for one Shabbos but the entire winter. The only problem is, now you are fifteen pounds heavier. So you go on a diet, and imagine—now isn’t this a great daydream—imagine that you actually lose those fifteen pounds! No, while we’re at it, let’s make it twenty-five. So here’s the next question: does this amazing weight loss diminish in importance in any way if you don’t wear a tight dress that shows everybody just how skinny you got? You worked so hard to look good; does the accomplishment fade in importance if a wider public doesn’t sit up and take notice?

As with the tree falling in the forest, one needs to ask: do a person’s accomplishments and assets lose any of their substance, any of their value if they are not made available to a public audience? To what extent is their meaningfulness dependent on the regard of other people? We live in a world today of people-watching, where being “important” means getting your name or photo splashed on the cover of a newspaper; we live in a world where people will do the most outrageous and degrading things simply to garner their fifteen minutes of fame on national television. Living in this sort of climate, it is natural enough for people to feel that whenever they have the chance to display themselves to everyone, they should jump at the chance.

But, as so often happens, the Jewish point of view is quite different than that of mainstream America. When you truly believe in an Eye that sees and an Ear that hears, the regard of other people fades in importance. A person with yiras shamayim (fear of Heaven) is more concerned with earning the approval of a higher Authority, who knows him in private as well as public, than with impressing his peers. Furthermore, for reasons of privacy, family integrity and maintaining a humble personality, it is even desirable that certain aspects of ourselves and our lives remain hidden at times, even if they are so wonderful we are highly tempted to share them with everybody else.

A Time to Show, A Time to Hide: The Real Meaning of Tznius

These are the issues that lie at the heart of tznius. No matter what else you may have read about tznius, the bottom line is that—contrary to popular belief–tznius is not primarily a matter of hem length and necklines. Those are simply details, albeit important ones. But the real crux of tznius has to do with being able to sort out which aspects of ourselves and our lives should be made public and which should be confined to the private domain. When it comes to a spectacular home-cooked meal, this is not a particularly touchy issue. But when it comes to displaying feminine charms or flaunting piles of money or outstanding professional accomplishments, care has to be taken to protect the sort of modesty a Jew is enjoined to cultivate.

So why does it seem so hard for us in today’s world to restrain ourselves from showing off what we’ve got? We seem to have such a hard time with the concept of voluntarily concealing parts of our lives and ourselves, be it a flair for cooking, a nice figure or a burgeoning bank account. Is it because we are so inundated by advertising and crass commercialism that we now think of ourselves as just one more product that needs to be promoted? Have we lost some core sense of inner self-worth, which we feel we can only regain by capturing the admiration of others? After all, I am not any less wealthy if my neighbor doesn’t read my bank statements, or any less beautiful if my clothing covers most of me up.

Perhaps nowadays we seek out validation more aggressively in the public sphere because we live in an era where there is so little left of the private sphere. Once upon a time families ate all three meals together; men worked a stone’s throw away from the house, and girls stayed home with their mothers all day working in the house. People didn’t often go out, nor was there a constant flow of mass media coming in.

Nowadays, by contrast, everybody bolts a bowl of cold cereal listening to or reading the morning “news” (much of which is the not-so-“private” lives of entertainers, politicians and sports heroes), and runs out to spend his or her best hours at work or school. At night simchas or community obligations pull us back out again. We get so busy functioning outside the home that we may be losing the art of cultivating a rich private life. If our sense of self is concentrated largely in the public sphere, then of course we will be very invested in making sure that we project an attractive image to a wide circle of other people.

Now there is nothing wrong with cultivating a public image that inspires the respect of others. Shem tov mi shemen tov, a good name or reputation is important to maintain. But appearances, like paper money, need to be backed up by some real standard of value. In the same way that gold bars, once the backbone of our economy, used to be locked up in Fort Knox far away from public access, our most important assets are often those that others do not get to view. Perhaps this is how we should understand the verse “kol kvudah bat melech pnimah” (“the glory of the princess resides within”). The ayshet chayil (“woman of valor”), who is compared not merely to gold but to a value “beyond rubies,” produces her most important efforts in the home, in the private sphere where she is largely unobserved. Her strongest qualities as a wife, a mother and a Jew are pulled forth in this context; her worth is beyond rubies because no amount of money can buy the happy, stable, and spiritually rich home life it is her charge to create and maintain. So she doesn’t spend her life running around in the streets, and she is discreet about her attractiveness. After all, a family that owns rubies doesn’t leave them lying around for other people to steal or covet chas v’shalom!

The Importance of the Unseen

Which leads us to another crucial idea about tznius: just because we don’t make a part of ourselves available for public scrutiny does not mean it diminishes in importance. In fact, more often exactly the opposite is true: what remains hidden is much more important than what we have elected to show everyone else. Call it the Zen of private life, if you will: the unseen is as powerful as the seen. And it is that very secrecy that makes it so potent.

What we show others of ourselves is the proverbial tip of the iceberg. But as everyone knows, it is the mass of matter lying beneath that has the force to sink an ocean liner. Who we are in private is who we really are, and reflects most truthfully the spiritual level we have managed to attain.

Rabbi Moshe Meiselman points out in Jewish Woman In Jewish Law that the most crucial, defining spiritual events in Jewish history took place in private for both men and women. Our greatest heroes faced their hardest challenges when nobody was around to see them: Avraham’s binding of Yitzhak, Yosef’s temptation with Potiphar’s wife, Rachel giving her secret passwords to Leah, Yaakov’s nocturnal battle with the malach (angel), Moshe’s encounter with the burning bush. The Torah was brought down to am Yisrael publicly, but only after forty days of solitude on Har Sinai. In more recent times, Jewish gadolim and tzaddikim have always been distinguished by a flawless personal integrity that remains constant in private as well as in public (compare this to non-Jewish “leaders” of today, whose private behavior is more often than not a disgrace to the dignity of their offices!).

Even for those of us on less lofty levels, the most fundamental, defining events of our lives happen in private. Every new human life is conceived in private, and develops hidden away inside its mother’s womb. A child’s first sense of himself has less to do with how his mother speaks to him when they are out on the street than with how much patience and affection she shows him at home when nobody is around to see. The success of a marriage hinges not on the way the couple treats each other at parties but on the sort of love and respect they show each other when they are home behind closed doors.

So we make a mistake if we are focused on the approval of the outside world instead of focusing on the quality of the internal one. My experiences in life and training in psychology have shown me time and time again that the issues that dominate people’s lives often have nothing to do with the public face they bravely present to the world. There are business people whose careers are suffocated because they have a fear of travel; alcoholics whose lives are clandestinely dominated by the bottle; bulimics who eat “normally” with everyone else, then secretly vomit all they have consumed; people who are always late because they have a compulsive need to wash their hands fifty times or redo the locks of the house for as many in order to feel safe. On a less pathological level, there are people who labor for years under the strain of an unhappy marriage, and no one has a clue until one fine day when the neighbors wake up and find one of the partners has moved out. These sorts of secrets develop in private, may remain private for years unbeknownst to family and friends, yet dominate much of the person’s inner landscape.

For those of you who think better in images, let me suggest a mashal (parable): imagine a building with a beautiful facade, perhaps with classic lines, sculpted moldings, and elegant windows. Now imagine that this same building has hidden cracks in the foundation. Everyone passing by in the street will ooh and aah at the sight of this impressive structure. But if an earthquake suddenly sends tremors through the region, the whole edifice will come tumbling down like a deck of cards. Nobody ever saw that cracked foundation, and yet it was the very thing that was supposed to hold up everything else.

It’s not for nothing that the Jewish woman is called an akeret habayit, the pillar of the household. Her personality is not just like the foundation of a house, it is the foundation of a house. It is less important that she have an elegant exterior than a solid core, especially when those earthquakes and other disasters major and minor happen to run through her life.

The moral of the story is that it is vitally important to focus our energies on making stable, rich home lives a priority, especially if we are women, and even if it requires some sacrifices in terms of prestige or self-gratification. It doesn’t matter whether or not the neighbors think I’m a good cook if my family loves my food; it doesn’t matter if I look like a model from Vogue if my husband still thinks I’m attractive. And the bottom line goes much deeper than physical satisfactions like good food or good looks. Ultimately, what matters in the long run are the emotional and spiritual assets and accomplishments of the family members, their attitudes and middos. Do they treat each other with love, respect and appreciation? Does the home radiate an ambiance of peace and comfort, of strong Jewish values? Does the mother sing as she does her household chores, and greet her children after school with a big smile? Is the father happy to come home after work? Are the family members preoccupied with themselves, or are their minds turned to what they can offer the less fortunate or how they can better serve Hakadosh Baruch Hu?

In sum, there are two things to keep in mind: one, that our finer qualities and accomplishments do not have to be out there for all to see to be worthwhile, and two, that on the contrary, it is often the private, unseen parts of our lives that are the true measure of who we are, where we stand spiritually, and whether our children will thrive or not. Tznius, rather than being some restrictive set of laws designed to oppress women with head coverings and longer sleeves; is a much larger concept reflecting the Jewish attitude that the inner person and inner world are so valuable, so potentially holy in fact, that they require spiritual cultivation and a certain amount of shielding from the outside. And if the cores of ourselves and our families are solid, we may very well find that the need to show off for others will slowly but surely fade away.

Barbara Bensoussan has worked as a college instructor and social worker and written for many Jewish magazines, newspapers and websites. She recently celebrated the release of her first novel, A New Song, from Targum Press and lives in Brooklyn with her husband and six children.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.