On Friday, my Facebook Newsfeed was flooded with an Op-Ed piece in from the New York Times, by Rabbi Dov Linzer the Rosh Yeshiva and Dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School.
The opening startled me.
Is it possible for a religious demand for modesty to be about anything other than men controlling women’s bodies? From recent events in Israel, it would certainly seem that it is not.
Really, Rabbi Linzer? You’re taking that route? I was shocked, but kept reading. As I read more, it became clear that the emphasis of that statement was the it would seem.
After describing the recent events in Beit Shemesh, Rabbi Linzer reminds us that this comes from a deep concern about modesty. However, he does not stop there, he expounds on this by saying the following:
But the Talmud, the basis for Jewish law, offers a perhaps surprising answer: It places the responsibility for controlling men’s licentious thoughts about women squarely on the men.
Put more plainly, the Talmud says: It’s your problem, sir; not hers.
At this point, I silently cheered. (Ok, maybe not so silently.) It is not every day you hear (or read) an Orthodox rabbi speak out in this way – echoing what so many women have been saying all along.
I was excited as I kept reading, and I couldn’t help but have a huge grin on my face all day after I read his closing point.
Jewish tradition teaches men and women alike that they should be modest in their dress. But modesty is not defined by, or even primarily about, how much of one’s body is covered. It is about comportment and behavior. It is about recognizing that one need not be the center of attention. It is about embodying the prophet Micah’s call for modesty: learning “to walk humbly with your God.”
I have made this same point since I embraced modest dressing a few years ago. It is not about how much is covered, it is about how it affects the rest of my life. By dressing modestly, I put myself in a different place in my interactions with the world. I find it empowering to take control of my body and how I present it to the world in a positive way, and I make the choice every day when I get dressed. By dressing modestly, I remember to live modestly – which at the end of the day is the most important part.
I want to reiterate what I said about it in my interview for The Tzniut Project:
Tzniut tends to be most commonly translated about modesty in reference to clothing. I think defining it down on this level does an injustice to tzniut and people who uphold the ideal of modesty. Personally, I believe that the most important component of tzniut is how we carry ourselves, not how we dress ourselves. Holding your head high with confidence, without boasting. Being a good person and friend, without advertising that you feel you are such. Lending a hand when needed, without making a big show about how helpful you are. That is the inner-modesty which is so much more valuable in today’s society. While how we dress should reflect the person we are on the inside, should a woman’s skirt length be more important than living a modest life?
So I must say thank you and chazack u’barcuh (lit: strength and blessings) to Rabbi Linzer for saying so publicly what modesty is really about and shining a positive light on this great mitzvah.