Jewish View of Modesty, Dress, Clothing
You are What You Wear
Tzniut (translated loosely as modesty) begins with a different way of looking at yourself. Usually, we perceive things simply as they appear on the surface. We look at a house and see its windows, doors, and roof. We look at a tree and see its trunk, branches, and leaves.
Yet every object or scene has more than one aspect to it, and if put in a different light, can become more than what it initially appeared to be. An old, gnarled tree becomes a stirring statement of the ability to endure and transcend time. Hebrew inscribed tombstone in a neglected Polish cemetery becomes a soul crying out from a lost world. Even a single object can take on very different or even opposite meanings. The Kotel (Western Wall) can be a symbol of mourning over the Jewish nation’s fall from its former glory; yet, if viewed differently, that same wall can communicate hope and rebirth.
As a human being, you are the most multifaceted creation of all, and can be seen in an almost infinite number of ways. Upon meeting you for the first time, people may immediately see “stocky build” or “curly hair.” After spending a bit of time with you, they may notice “artistic” or “athletic.” After getting to know you, they may be able to see you as “emotionally complex” or “a highly abstract thinker.” And just as others can view you on different planes, so, too, there are any number of ways in which you can view yourself.
Tzniut begins with looking past your more superficial layers and seeing who, on the deepest level, you are capable of being. Tzniut then means gradually learning how to convey an important message to others—and instilling it in yourself.
The message that tzniut asks you to project is “internality”: that of all the parts of you, it is your innermost self by which you want to be defined. In order to convey this message, you must know when and how to reveal your body, your abilities, and everything else that makes you up, so that these don’t hide but instead express who you really are. The challenge of tzniut is to project every aspect of yourself in such a way that it draws the focus to your true identity.
Tzniut means knowing and communicating to others that your identity equals your innermost self. The way to project this message is to transform the outside layers of yourself into an expression of your inside. This can be difficult, for the more obvious, superficial parts of you can easily outshine your deeper dimensions. As any photographer knows, too much light can wash out the subtlety and beauty of a photograph. In the same way, when all of your own light shines unfiltered, your inner self can be lost from the picture.
The most outer, visible part of you, and that which can most easily destroy an internal self-image, is your physical self—your body.
More Than Skin-Deep
According to Judaism, God wanted us to enjoy an existence in which our physicality wouldn’t stand in the way of defining ourselves internally. God therefore gave the first man and woman a great gift: the inborn ability to see each other in their totality.
With this perfect vision, man and woman saw each other’s outer self and inner self as one inseparable unit. When man looked at woman, he simultaneously saw her mind, heart, and spirit. At the same moment that woman appreciated man’s appearance, she appreciated who he really was.
When man and woman made their fatal mistake in the Garden of Eden, they destroyed their vision. An illusion-creating screen was lowered in front of their eyes. Viewing each other through this screen, body and soul suddenly appeared to be two distinct entities. The physical self had seemingly disconnected from the spiritual self and assumed an independent identity. And the powerful light which the body now beamed outshone the light of the soul.
This fallen state describes the way we humans today view one another. For all of us, it is practically impossible not to identify a person with his or her outside.
To see how true this is, think of someone close to you whom you haven’t seen for some time. Now imagine running into her and discovering that she’s dyed her hair and completely restyled it, gained 100 pounds, and undergone cosmetic surgery which has radically changed her features. It’s probably difficult for you to internalize the fact she is still the same person. We want to identify one another by our inner selves, but the ability eludes us.
Originally, when they saw body and soul as one, man and woman had been naked and unashamed. Now, for the first time, they instinctively felt the need to put something on.
The meaning we ascribe to clothes can be understood by looking at who we expect to wear them. For example, no one I know has ever exclaimed in shock, “That dog is walking the streets stark naked! Whatever has happened to decency?!” (While some poodles may wear sweaters, those who don’t aren’t held to be in flagrant violation of canine norms.)
We do expect a human being, however, under normal circumstances, to wear some amount of clothing. Yet how much depends largely upon his or her age. My neighbors found it adorably entertaining when one of my children, then a toddler, innocently showed up at their front door straight from the bathtub. If the same child were to repeat that behavior at age ten, however, I suspect they’d be less amused. And if the visitor were an adult, they’d probably slam the door, lock it, and call the police.
From the above examples, a theme emerges. The more we understand a being to have a beyond-physical dimension, the more of his or her body we expect to be covered. A dog can trot around au naturel without offending or even being thought of as “naked,” since we understand (if animal lovers will please forgive me) that an animal is not much more than it appears to be—an essentially physical being, governed by its senses and instincts. Because a baby’s existence is similar to that of an animal, no one blushes at the sight of its bare bottom; at the same time, we do call it “naked” in recognition of its human potential. A ten-year-old, however, is considerably more than an animal (although some parents may jokingly disagree), and a twenty-year-old even more so—which is why an adult who parades around without clothes isn’t called cute, but an exhibitionist.
Clothing, however, does more than distinguish between people and animals. Within adult society (despite deteriorating sensitivity to these issues), there’s a distinct correlation between the mental and spiritual qualities we associate with a person in a given situation and how much of his or her body we expect to be covered. For example, it’s socially acceptable to wear very little at the pool side, because sunning and swimming are activities which pertain to the physical you. It would not, however, be appropriate to receive a Nobel prize in your bathing suit. After their initial shock, those present would undoubtedly question, “Why is he dressing like a Mr. Universe contestant when he’s being acclaimed for his mind?”
Covering your body, therefore, is the most fundamental way of using your outside to tell others who you are on the inside. Clothing makes the statement: “I am much more than what meets the eye. If you want to see the real me, you’ll have to look deeper.”
What we often fail to realize is that the message of clothing is directed not only outward, to others, but also inward. What you wear powerfully affects how you see yourself.
Let’s digress for a moment to the topic of style. Whether consciously or unconsciously chosen, your style of dress creates an impression of yourself in your own mind. For instance, I have a friend who got all dressed up to take her comprehensive exams for her Master’s degree. When I jokingly asked her if she had a date with her professor, she replied, “Remember the book ‘Dress for Success’? Looking my best helps give me the confidence I’m going to need to ace those exams.”
I myself once read a book called “How to Marry the Rich” (just for fun anyway, I was already married). The author advises aspiring gold diggers to make a habit of entering exclusive boutiques and trying on the most expensive clothing available. The logic is that by repeatedly experiencing yourself in $1,000 dresses or suits, you’ll come to see yourself as rich—which will in turn give you the air necessary to successfully mingle with and meet millionaires.
Once, a participant in a program I was teaching in took issue with me, hotly denying any connection between his attire and his self-image. This guy “happened” to be wearing a faded T-shirt, torn jeans, and running shoes, as well as a beard and ponytail. So I told him, “Okay, if your appearance means nothing to you, come back tomorrow with a short haircut, clean-shaven, and in a three-piece suit.” He stuttered and stammered, made a weak attempt at defending himself, and then sheepishly conceded the point.
All in all, when you put on clothes, you simultaneously put on a self-image. You can probably think of clothes you would never wear, even in the privacy of your own bedroom, simply because they’re “not you.” Indeed, the defensiveness, and even outright hostility, I often encounter when talking about the Jewish approach to dress testifies to how intensely our self-image is bound up with what we wear. People intuitively recognize that reconsidering their wardrobe ultimately means reconsidering who they want to be.
Despite the significance of style to self-image, however, the central issue in tzniut is not whether to dress rich or poor, earthy or businesslike. The important choice is whether to draw attention to who you are on the outside—your body—or the inside—your being. You can dress any way you like, as long as you radiate the message that you are first and foremost not a body but a person.
When you enter the public arena, the impact of your dress on your self-image is compounded. First, others naturally respond to the statement you appear to be making. Stating “conventional” with a pinstriped suit and tie, for example, will get one kind of response, while broadcasting “unconventional” with Turkish pants and six or seven earrings will get another. More importantly, clothing which proclaims “body” will attract a response very different from clothing which projects “internal being.”
This social feedback, particularly if positive, then cycles back into your self-image. Perceiving yourself more strongly in a particular light, you are now even more likely to dress the same way again. Sociologists call this “symbolic interactions”: how you see yourself, how you dress, and how others respond to you create a spiral in which each reinforces the other, propelling you more and more strongly in a certain direction.
Of course, it helps to defend yourself. If, when whistled at by construction workers, a woman closes her eyes and recites, “I am a spiritual being, I am a spiritual being,” she stands a better chance of surviving the experience with her selfhood intact than if she lives for such attention. But supposed clarity about your inner worth (“I know who I am no matter what”) does not make you immune to how others relate to you. Simply put, it is naive to believe that repeated assaults—even subtle ones—won’t slowly but surely erode a deeper sense of self. Social feedback is a major contributor to your self image.
Just as an individual’s attire makes a “self-statement,” a community’s standards of dress make a collective statement about how its members unconsciously view and value themselves. Because we’re conditioned to accept dressing a certain way as “normal,” we usually can’t identify the collective statement made by our own society—until we step out of it.
When we were first married, my husband and I lived in the Old City of Jerusalem. Constantly barraged by tourists in all kinds of apparel, I maintained most of the immunity to minimally attired people I had acquired during my pre-religious life. Later, however, we moved to our present neighborhood, where it’s unusual to see a person dressed “immodestly.” One day, two or three years after our move, I was standing outside our building when a sports car pulled up and a couple got out. He had on skin-tight pants and a shirt unbuttoned halfway down his chest; she was sporting a low-cut blouse, a cling miniskirt, and spike heels. I looked at them, and my spontaneous, uncensored reaction was, “I don’t get it. What’s he trying to prove—and why is she dressed like a streetwalker?”
Immediately I was startled and ashamed. How could I have thought such terrible things about two people I didn’t even know? And why, after a lifetime of exposure to similarly dressed people, only now? Suddenly I realized that I’d once unconsciously accepted as “normal” men and (especially) women presenting themselves physically. After a few years of living among people whose dress reflected a deeper sense of self, I’d internalized a different norm. With an almost childlike innocence, I simply couldn’t understand why these people would want to advertise themselves as bodies. What to them and their society was a normal mode of self-presentation, was to me like a neon sign flashing, “Objectify me!”
This couple, were they to be delivering a paper on neurosurgery at a medical convention, would undoubtedly dress differently. Yet it is in everyday living that most of our self-image is formed. In asking us to cover more of our bodies than the surrounding society demands, Judaism is saying that presenting ourselves primarily as minds and souls shouldn’t be reserved for the odd occasion. Working, shopping, studying, socializing—in our daily lives, spiritual self-definition should be the norm.
Reprinted from Outside / Inside
Rabbi Shlomo Chein: Welcome. I’ll be with you in a moment…what’s on your mind?
Debbie: how can I explain the reasons for Tzniut [Ed. note: modesty] to 5 year old girls who’ve asked why they should cover their shoulders
Rabbi Shlomo Chein: explain them that precious things are kept covered. For example the expensive silver Leichter [candle holders] are kept in a china closet etc. The jewels are kept in a safe. A Torah scroll is kept in a Mantel [velvet cover] and an Aron Kodesh [holy ark]
Debbie: wow - thanks so much Rabbi Chein (is a Leichter Shabbos Candles?)
Rabbi Shlomo Chein: yes
Rabbi Shlomo Chein: so too her body is precious and it should be kept covered
Debbie: amazing - thanks SOSOSO much that’s REALLY helpful - Good Chodesh
Rabbi Shlomo Chein: all the best