The purpose of modesty is not to hide ourselves from view;
the purpose of modesty is to preserve our intimacy. Even between a husband and
wife there is a need for modesty. And especially between husband and wife, the
intimacy has to be nurtured and protected. If the marriage is going to lat a
lifetime, the way its supposed to, husband and wife must work together to
preserve the intimacy. (Rabbi Manis Friedman, Doesnt Anyone Blush Anymore,
New York: Harper Collins, 1986)
In a poignant Jewish legend, a Jewish woman is arrested by a
marauding group of anti-Semitic soldiers. To create a spectacle, she is tied to
the back of an armoured truck and dragged through the city towards her death.
As if prepared for the event, she pulls out a bag of needles. Painfully, but
proudly, she pushes them through her dress deep into her skin to make sure
that, even in her final moments, she remains modest and covered.
The imagery of modesty is embedded in our history. During
the enslavement of the Jewish people in Egypt and following their release,
the women were noted for their standards of modesty. Following the miraculous
crossing of the Red Sea, Miriam ensured that
her singing of celebration with the women would not be heard in the mens
Every Jew, every child knows the famous verse originally
uttered by the evil prophet Bilaam as he tried unsuccessfully to curse the
Jewish nation. How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel. The
famous commentator, Rashi, says that Bilaam was pointing out the modesty of the
Jewish people by virtue of the fact that the entrance of their tents did not
face each other.
The famous woman Ruth, whose story we read on the festival
of Shavuot, is praised by the Midrash for her modesty. The Midrash says that
her modesty was one of the great virtues which Boaz, who was destined to become
her husband, saw in her. She would stand while gleaning the standing ears and
sit while gleaning the fallen ears. The other women hitched up their skirts,
she kept hers down. The other women jested with the harvesters, while she
remained reserved. Indeed, it was these traits of modesty and sensitivity
which qualified Ruth to become the forbearer of the Moshiach.
Modesty, or tzniut, is not limited to the dress mode. Tzniut
represents a way of life, a manner of behavior and a manifestation of
character. Whether it be in relation to eating, speaking, rejoicing or
mourning, the tzniut code is relevant and timely. The Zohar says that
observance of the tzniut code by mothers affects the wellbeing of the family,
both spiritually and materially.
Underlying all of these applications of the principle of
tzniut is the notion that the soul resides within the body. In order for the
sold and body to be fully integrated, the person must adopt a standard in his
physical presentation and outward behavior that is congruous with the
spirituality of the soul. Indeed, these standards have become the hallmark of
our survival and in many senses have defined our appearance and presentation to
an increasingly permissive society.
And it is because of the dangers posed by society and the
absence of defined moral standards, that Judaism regards tzniut as the
cornerstone for the marital relationship and an integral component of its
spirituality. In that respect, the tzniut code is thee to enhance the
relationship and not to restrict it. It is designed to reinforce the exclusive
nature of the relationship so that it remains eternally special for the husband
and wife. It is for that reason that the section of The Code of Jewish Law
which refers to the marital relationship is titled, The Laws of Tzniut.
Without that code and those laws, the Jewish marriage and
family would look very different. Couples could observe the marriage laws while
ignoring their real spirit and purpose. In a similar manner that the laws of
shvut (the prohibition of physical labor and tedious activity on Shabbat and
Yom tov) govern and create the character of the Shabbat, transforming it from a
seemingly weekday experience to a day of sanctity, the tzniut code has for
thousands of years, set the scene for the Jewish home and the spirit for Jewish
family life and continues to do so at a time when the need has never been
Significantly, these laws stand for more than a dress code.
Instead, they represent an outlook and an approach to life that expresses a
womans femininity and distinctive nature, which in turn, transforms the
relationship from a superficial encounter to an inward experience. King David
writes in Tehillim (Psalms), All the
glory of the kings daughter is inward. That inward experience has the
potential to affct the home, the family and the community.
Rather than shun a womans natural beauty and
attractiveness, the Torah creates a framework, within which it can be
appreciated and valued. Numerous references in the Torah attest to the
significance of a womans beauty and her natural desire to demonstrate and
display her appearance. G-d created woman as a beautiful being. The Midrash says
that Chavas beauty was transmitted to the women of future generations.
Indeed the Talmud tells us that during the time of the
wandering of the Jewish people in the desert following the exodus from Egypt, G-d made
sure that the women were able to beautify themselves. Later on during the time
of Ezra, he enacted a special decree ordering cosmetic salespeople to travel
from city to city ensuring that the women had access to their goods.
The tzniut code was not designed to make a woman look
unattractive. If this were the aim, it would be difficult to justify women
covering their hair when that covering often makes them look even more
attractive. Attractive clothes may produce compliments; they dont necessarily
evoke intimate responses. Intimacy is derived from feelings, from emotions and
from appropriate physical interaction. These are the special domain of husband
and wife within the context of a committed relationship.
It is fascinating how we are curious to find out what lies
behind a tall fence or a walled garden while open grassland hardly attracts our
attention. An it is even more exciting if we are the only ones to have the key
or know the password to enter the garden. People who flaunt their bodies can
hardly expect their partners to be drawn towards them and to share their common
attraction. Not everything needs to be revealed. Everyone should cultivate a
secret garden. (Esther Perel, Mating in Captivity, New York: Harper Collins, 2006)
In this respect, modesty is a necessity even between husband
and wife. If their relationship is going to be ongoing, they need to maintain
respect for each others feelings, needs and physicality. If everything is open
and on permanent display, the value of the relationship is diminished as the
partners lose their individuality and propriety as well as the sense of mystery
and surprise which enable a private relationship to blossom.
Privacy and intimacy go hand in hand. The total physical
bonding of a husband and wife creates a moment in time when their deepest
feelings, their love, joy and ecstasy are concentrated into a singularly
intense experience that transports their relationship to its ultimate plane of
existence. (N. Braverman and S. Apisdorf, The Death of Cupid,
Baltimore, MD: Leviathan Press, 1996)
As Manis Friedman says, Modesty is there to preserve
intimacy, not to prevent sin. Modesty wasnt made for the person who wants to
sin, just as law were not made for people who want to commit crimes. Modesty
has to do with something much more subtle; preserving our third dimension, the
ability to have a deep, intimate, relationship.
Excerpt from Spirituality and Intimacy, by Rabbi Raphael Aron. Click here to purchase Spirituality and Intimacy for yourself.