Tzniut translates loosely as “modesty,” and is inevitably one of the first issues a newcomer to Judaism confronts — and one of the most hotly debated. At first I was an adversary, challenging the promoters of tzniut to explain why a woman would necessarily become more spiritual upon trading in her jeans for a long skirt. In time, however, I became an advocate, attempting to communicate to those who stood where I once had, the power of an idea and practice I was struggling to make my own.
There are three commonly held beliefs about tzniut.
The first is that tzniut is a dress code.
The second is that tzniut is only for women.
The third is the supposed reason why tzniut is a dress code only for women, which, ironically, has to do nothing with women but rather with men. Men, it seems, have trouble keeping their minds on spiritual matters when around less-than-modestly-clad females. Given the impracticality in asking these guys to put on blinders (the rationale goes), Judaism instead tells women to cover themselves up. In other words, tzniut is simply a neat way of dumping man’s problem on woman’s doorstep.
It’s not hard to see where each of these beliefs has come from. Dress is a strong focus of tzniut; tzniut is stressed more for females than for males; and women are indeed considered responsible (within limits) for the effect their attire may have on men, just as all Jews are held responsible for one another in any number of ways. Still, viewing tzniut as a sexist restriction of women’s freedom for men’s benefit is a sorrowful reduction of a profound, spiritual concept. As a result, one of the most dynamic agents of personal and social change that exists is treated as a “women’s issue” instead of a “people’s issue” and, at the same time, is belittled or, at best, simply ignored.
We can scarcely afford this loss. We live in a society in which many people suffer ongoing unhappiness — whether a throbbing pain born of outright failure (most often in relationships), or just a haunting feeling that beneath their apparent success, something is missing. A man discovers that his single-minded dedication to his career has left gaping holes in his life and his identity. A woman wakes up to the bitter realization that her husband has never genuinely known and loved her for who she is — nor has she herself. Such scenarios are not uncommon, for despite the proliferation of self-help books, most of us haven’t yet acquired deep, spiritual self-knowledge. It’s hard to find happiness when we haven’t found ourselves.
In times such as ours, tzniut is truly “a lamp in the darkness.” For tzniut is infinitely more than what we wear — it is a way of emerging from a deep vision of ourselves. It is inherent in potential within every one of us, male and female, and Judaism encourages us all to nurture it. Most crucially, it is the key to all spiritual growth and, therefore, to the health of our society. Rather than restricting, tzniut is, in the most profound sense, life-giving.
Anything spiritual will resist being reduced to words. Tzniut is no different; it can be truly understood only through living it.
Reprinted from “Outside/Inside” A fresh look at Tzniut by Gila Manolson. Available at www.gila-manolson.com