More than Just Clothes: What True Modern Modesty Looks Like
Last Saturday night, we hosted our 3rd Community Conversation, a moderated dialogue among members of the BRS community on important issues of the day. This latest event focused on the question of Living Modestly in the 21st Century and included panelists Andrea Zucker, Ari Beim, Penny Pearlman and Leah Rosen.
All of us want to live meaningful, virtuous lives and wonder to ourselves, in the end of the day, what does God want from us? Our prophet Micha (6:8) asked the same question and concluded, “What is good and what does Hashem seek from us? Only to perform justice, do acts of loving-kindness and hatzneiah leches im Elokecha, walk with humility and modesty together with God.”
I understand justice and kindness, but what does Micha mean by practice tznius, modesty? For many, the word modesty is immediately associated with clothing and covering up. There is no doubt that Jewish law has much to say about clothing and the importance of how what we wear reflects greatly on who we are and how we want to project ourselves to others. Halacha offers guidelines that we must work harder to observe and that are no less binding and for our benefit than Shabbos, Kashrus, the laws of Lashon Harah, honest weights and measures, etc.
We must pay particular attention to what we wear in the places that we seek to feel the most spirituality and inspiration, our Shul and our kids Torah schools. When we are casual and thoughtless in how we attend davening or a class at shul, or how we appear on the carpool lane, we diminish and undermine the sense of sanctity and sacredness we seek to create in those venues. No matter how we may dress in private, before entering the Shul or school campus, ask yourself ‘does my dress reflect my reverence and respect for the Torah learning and living that happen here?’
The standards of dress in society at large are becoming more revealing, more provocative and more attention seeking, all characteristics that have crept into the observant community as well. Indeed, one can be wearing fabric that is covering the body from head to toe, but is worn in a manner that calls attention and seeks to turn heads thereby rendering it utterly immodest. For Judaism, modesty means seeking to be attractive without being attracting and I believe it is that distinction as defined by Halacha that must guide our wardrobe and that of our children as well.
But modesty is not limited to clothing and indeed as or more importantly means so many other things as well. Are we self-promoting, arrogant, attention seeking and egotistical? Are we living ostentatiously, lavishly and beyond our means? Do our simchas reflect an emphasis on family, friends and sharing joy or are they over the top, out of control and seeking to impress the neighborhood?
How we speak, the language we use, the jokes we tell, the emails we forward all are a measure of our sense of modesty. Ari put it well when he said people who resort to vulgarity or curses simply express their lack of intelligence by their inability to articulate their feeling in a sophisticated manner.
Modesty also means the capacity to blush, to feel uncomfortable when exposed to something inappropriate and out of place. Just this week, a young lady at Stern College published an essay in their online newspaper entitled “How do I Even Begin to Explain This?” in which she graphically describes her illicit escapade as a single girl. In fact, the essay was deemed so racy and inappropriate that YU gave the newspaper an ultimatum to take it down or lose their funding. They chose the latter.
The University aspect of YU should not be in the business of censorship and moderating student’s creativity. However, the Yeshiva component of YU has a mandate to preserve modesty and enforce the boundaries of appropriateness and Halacha. In my opinion, YU did the correct thing in putting the Yeshiva interest ahead of the University one.
If we are more mindful, thoughtful and attentive to improving all aspects of modesty, I am confident that we as a community can respond to the charge of the prophet Micha and fulfill just that which Hashem seeks from us.