NEW YORK, Sept. 19 (JTA) — Speaking about modesty in the Jewish community seems always to make people think about sex and women’s clothing.
The Talmud, by contrast, speaks of tzeniut, or modesty, in extremely broad terms. The sages speak of modesty in regard to how we eat, play and study; in relation to our weddings, the design of our homes and our funerals. They speak of tzeniut in how we travel, speak, engage in war and arrange for our bodily pleasures. All of this beyond the obvious teachings in regard to modesty in clothing of both men and women and as to sexual relations.
Why is modesty such a vital value in 21st-century America? What is its connection to Rosh Hashanah? And, what are the conceptual underpinnings of the rabbinic teachings about tzeniut?
In a striking talmudic passage, Rabbi Ami is quoted as having asserted that “one who fulfills the commands of the sages is called ‘tzanua’ ” (Niddah 12a.). Why is “modest” the correct appellation for such a person? Because a central quality of modesty is the recognition of authority outside of the self.
The opposite of modesty is extreme self-centeredness, in which the individual thinks that he or she is the ultimate arbiter of all right and wrong. Such a person would submit to power, but not to persuasion. Such a person might submit to a biblical command out of fear of divine retribution, but would resist rabbinic counsel, which is dependent upon persuasion rather than enforcement.
By contrast, the modest person is one who recognizes that strength of passion and desire for self gratification have the capacity to blind him to moral sensitivity. Just then it is essential for him to turn to objective sources of wisdom and ethics to provide the inspiration necessary to resist the drive for immediate gratification.
A second rabbinic passage identifies modesty with adherence to universal Jewish custom (Midrash Rabbah, Numbers 8:12). Why this connection? Custom occupies a very special place in the ranks of Jewish authoritative teaching. Rather than being a manifestation of the superior teaching authority of either Torah or the sages, top down, custom is a reflection of the embodiment of wisdom and spiritual insight in the Jewish people as a whole, bottom up.
The capacity to create binding custom reflects the ability of people to hear each other, to respect the creative spiritual insights of their peers and to cooperate in experiments designed to achieve common goals. This democratic spirit animates Jewish customs — from the lighting of candles for Shabbat to the commemoration of Yom Hashoah, from the washing of hands before eating to the shofar being sounded 100 times instead of only 30.
Each of these customs became and remained universal by virtue of the capacity for collaboration and respectful relationships between individuals across all lines of division. Pharisees and Sadducees, men and women, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, Chasidim and Misnagdim, Orthodox, Conservative or Reform, all Jews could join in the creative process of shaping spiritual moments. It is this democratic strength which the Jewish sages understood to be one of the underpinnings of tzeniut.
In a third fascinating midrashic passage, the sages describe God lovingly shaping each limb and organ of the human being at the moment of creation. As he forms each one, He says to it, “Be “tzanua” (Genesis Rabbah 18:3).
What is the nature of this modesty which God counsels in a whisper to the emerging human person? It is clearly not modesty of garb since Adam and Eve began life without any clothes. It is the modesty of constant remembrance of that whisper itself! It is the modesty of living with awareness of the presence of God in my life.
This then is the third underlying awareness which animates modesty in the life of a person. If I am deeply aware of the presence of God in my life, then my conduct changes radically in every area of my relationship to others as well as in my relationship to my property and to myself.
Why is all of this of special meaning to us at the start of the first Rosh Hashanah of the 21st century? It ought to be obvious. We have become a culture largely devoid of tzeniut. People are deeply self centered, are atomized and short of collaborative spirit, and lack a sense of the transcendent in their lives.
This Rosh Hashanah is the right moment to restore a powerful sense of tzeniut, of modesty, in our lives. Not just in the way we dress and the way we express our sexual identities, albeit also in those areas. Beyond those, we can, in all of the aspects of our lives, in how we party and how we mourn, in how we decorate our homes and how we vacation, in how we eat and how we speak — we can truly manifest modesty.
Tzeniut is not a single commandment, it is not a law or a set of laws. It is a set of attitudes which need to be integrated into all areas of life. It is a set of attitudes which can shape how we spend our money, how we use our bodies and how we speak and relate to others.
Modesty is a Jewish teaching for the 21st century. It’s time to begin!
Rabbi Saul J. Berman is director of Edah, a modern Orthodox advocacy organization.