Modesty; Inner and Essential Beauty

Modesty; Inner and Essential Beauty

“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 it’s supposed to, husband and wife must work together to preserve the intimacy.” (Rabbi Manis Friedman, Doesn’t 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 men’s quarters.

 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 greater.

 Significantly, these laws stand for more than a dress code. Instead, they represent an outlook and an approach to life that expresses a woman’s 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 king’s daughter is inward.” That inward experience has the potential to affct the home, the family and the community.

 Rather than shun a woman’s 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 woman’s beauty and her natural desire to demonstrate and display her appearance. G-d created woman as a beautiful being. The Midrash says that Chava’s 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 don’t 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 other’s 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 wasn’t 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.

 


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