Tzniut — the Hebrew word for “modesty” — is somehow an endlessly heated discussion topic. We never get bored of it.
Several articles on modesty and fashion vis-à-vis women have appeared in these pages, and it seems to me that no matter what day or month it may be, the topic of tzniut arises constantly in conversation.
As an Orthodox woman, I read these articles and online discussions with growing sadness and a deepening sense that we Orthodox Jews have failed to convey what tzniut is about. It is not about how a woman must dress or behave, though these things are certainly part of it.
Tzniut is about the way that we — each woman, man and child — view ourselves and one another.
Tzniut is about the way we live our day-to-day lives as children of God. Since I represent my view of God to the world, I take care in the way I dress, act and speak. I want others to see the God I cherish as a loving, caring and kind God who cherishes me.
How would you send your own children out into the world? How would you wish them to behave and see themselves? Would you send them outside with smudged faces and dirty clothes? Would you want them to run wild in public, push past people to grab a seat on the bus, or scream at the top of their lungs in a restaurant?
Since the spark of God is within me — as it is within every person — I allow it to govern my actions. I dress and carry myself — or try to, at least — like a person of royal lineage, worthy of a crown.
Here’s the catch: Every single other person I meet is worthy of that same crown. When I am doing it right, I act as though every other person I see wears a crown just like mine.
If your child were running wild outside, with muddy clothing and uncombed hair, would you want some stranger to scold you for it? As long as your child was not destroying property or endangering himself or others, would you want that stranger to tell you how badly he was behaving? Would you want him to question your child’s value, or your own, because your kid was acting like — well, a kid?
You would probably want that stranger to look at your child with understanding and compassion. You would want him to remember how that same loud kid with the messy hair and muddy shoes helped him bring his groceries home last week or gave him his seat on the bus.
We Orthodox Jews have focused on the wrong aspects of modesty for too long.
We have paid far too much attention to the way women dress and behave, especially in front of men. I wish we could declare a moratorium on discussions about modesty, except in specific educational formats, such as between parents and children, teachers and pupils, or classes for potential converts or people learning about religious observance for the first time.
In all other cases, I would rather see us talk about the modest behavior that is incumbent on women and men alike.
Modesty is about the way we walk with God. By making it all about women — our dress, voices, appearance and what we read or watch at home — we lose track of modesty’s true essence and turn it into a weapon of control, and even abuse.
It is time to take back modesty and restore it to its proper dimensions.
Rachel Ann Anolick is a wife, mother and grandmother, and armchair philosopher.