Welcome to Encore, the place where you will find the latest thoughts and reflections by CLAL faculty and associates on topics of the moment. Each week you will find something new and (hopefully) engaging here!
To access the CLAL Encore Archive, click here.
To join the conversation at CLAL Encore Talk, click here.
(In the fall of 1978, Sh'ma ran a series of articles on the contemporary relevance of the Jewish virtue of tzniut or modesty. Over the next three weeks, we will reprint several of these articles on what remains a timely topic.)
The Paradoxes of Privacy
Shaina Sarah Handelman (Sh'ma 9/161, November 10, 1978)
Three things, says the Talmud, characterize the Jewish people: they are compassionate, they are kind, and they are modest. Few liberal Jews of today would feel uncomfortable with the first two adjectives, but the third is somewhat foreign, as Posner points out. "Modesty" perhaps evokes visions of Victorian repressiveness. Or the term might sound piously Puritanical --something the goyim do, not Jews. Or is it a hangover from the ghetto culture from Eastern Europe? Today, after all, we have discovered the virtues of all that is "natural"; and we are being taught by a variety of psychiatrists in best-sellers how to assert ourselves, how to "look out for Number One," how to stop being "modest" and cast away all sexual inhibitions, and so forth. All of this is, indeed, paradoxical. "Privacy" (an important meaning of the word tzniut) refers in contemporary society to "property" not to person." Our homes are our inviolate castles: "private property - no trespassing." Our gems, stocks and bonds are hidden away in vaults. But our bodies, and the precious inner jewels of our personalities are open to all comers. Nothing is inviolable there. G-d forbid that someone should know your bank balance, but a casual meeting with a stranger at a bar is warrant for immediate sexual intimacy.
True intimacy Is Not Found in Total Openness
At bottom there is a desperate search for closeness with others behind much of the gospel of "openness," sexual liberation, mode of dress, etc. The emptiness within, the loneliness, anonymity, and hollowness of contemporary life drives people to try to make some kind of contact with others, on whatever level - even violent, if need be, as long as it is contact. Self-disclosure, whether of psyche or body, is a plea: "Look at me, relate to me, I am someone; I'll force you to recognize it if need be, force you to be close if you turn away." So we unveil our bodies and our souls thinking that personhood comes with free revelation, overthrow of all inhibition and modesty - and what we ultimately become is what we desperately sought to escape becoming: an object, not a person. An object for the eyes of the other, dependent on his acknowledging glance, or his attendant ear, or his/her sexual response. And because all this provides no true intimacy, there is also no true privacy - for one is the corollary of the other, not the antithesis.
Our confessional revelations to whoever will listen are, generally, not true expressions of intimacy, but attempts at exorcism. Our sexual relationships are abrupt engagements/disengagements. But all this is supposed to be "natural" and "free," terms which we take as absolute values, dogmas so absolute that Nazis, in the name of "free" speech dare to spew forth their obscenities, and the Supreme Court upholds them. And taken to its extreme, "natural" also becomes the justification for all manner of unnatural behavior.
The Jews, however, are not a "natural" people - that is, if one regards them with conventional notions of what is natural. Haman, like all anti-Semites, said it to Ahasuerus: "There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your realm. Their laws are different from every other people's. They do not observe even the King's laws; therefore it is not befitting the King to tolerate them. If it please the King, let it be recorded that they be destroyed" (Esther 3:8). And the modern Hamans today cry again that Israel is an "unnatural" state which has no place among the nations. The Jews are "unnatural," in their terms. It is, in a way, true: our very existence and history are illogical - but insofar as they are above, not below nature.
Both Body And Soul Must Be Sanctified
The Torah tells us that what is "natural" for a human being is to be different from an animal. The savage is not noble, as Rousseau would have had it; and European history, despite the "Enlightenment" subsequently proved him wrong, a fact which Jews should know only too well. Nor is man naturally a guilty, sinful creature who needs a mediator to save him, as Christianity would have it. It is natural for man to elevate himself, to perfect himself, to strive - even the most saintly and seemingly perfect man must continually do so, for as the Talmud says, "There is no rest for the righteous." The Jew does not seek a balance, an eternal harmony with nature, a state of peaceful suspension, or oriental nirvana. He is on a faster track. For him, to be "one with nature" is not truly natural.
But neither does the Jew negate nature, the physical, the body: he refines and elevates it - and hence his brand of "spirituality" is "unnatural" to the eye of the non-Jew. For the non-Jew there are two opposing realms: body/ soul, flesh/spirit, nature/culture. To have one means to sacrifice the other - that is "natural" law. And so the Torah is "unnatural," it has both. As the Hasidic saying goes, "G-d takes spiritual things and makes them physical, and Israel takes material things and makes them spiritual." The non-Jew understands how justice, charity, prayer can be "spiritual," but not how separating meat from milk, or wrapping leather boxes on one's arm and head, or not wearing a mixture of linen and wool can be "spiritual." But precisely the realm of the mundane, physical, raw material of nature is what the Jew elevates, sanctifies. And it follows that clothing, too, is not meaningless fabric - it, too, is an aspect of sanctification, an expression of the spirituality of the Jew. It is important to note, however, that "sanctity (kedusba) is not to be confused with non-Jewish brands of asceticism, contempt for and mortification of the flesh. Sanctity is based on the sanctity of person, of life, the life of the body as well as the soul. The laws of pikuacb nefesb, for example, the saving of life, supercede all other laws of the Torah, even though pikuacb nefesb involves danger to the body. For the body, too is kadosb, holy. Kadosh means "apart," "separate." The kedusha of the Jews comes from G-d's kedusba, the Bible tells us - G-d's apartness, separateness, mysterious otherness.
Tzniut Expresses the Holiness of the Self
Kedusha is one of the most important aspects of tzniut; "privacy," "modesty" are not expressions of contempt for the body, the physical, but on the contrary, expressions of their kedusba. A Torah scroll, for example, is covered, because of its high degree of kedusba. A woman's body - as well as a man's - is covered, because it is kadosh. The most intimate physical relation between man and woman is reserved, private, not for public display, and not for anytime, anywhere, with anyone - because it is kadosh, special, apart. As Zalman Posner points out, tzniut "is not a question of a bit of cloth, it is a life-mode, perhaps the bedrock of Judaism." It has not to do with just hemlines or headcoverings, but with thought, speech, sexual relations - our sense of who and what we basically are, a sense that our personbood is kadosb, inviolate. The body is not a piece of property, an object to be disposed of casually; it, too, is an integral part of the sanctity of personhood, the kedusba of the Jew.
Tzniut ultimately means the sanctity of the self. In the Bible, incestuous relationships, the total opposite of kedusba, are prohibited, with the English translation that they are "abominations." The Hebrew more literally translates as "uncovering nakedness." There are things that should not be uncovered, realms where it is not proper to probe, certain relationships which are too intimate despite the closeness of biological relation. That is not too difficult to understand but after all, one may ask, what's in a touch, or a kiss? What about all the laws concerning physical contact between the sexes before and after, marriage? A touch, a kiss is nothing. That precisely is the point. With all our openness and naturalness we have become so insensitive that a touch, a kiss, and then the most intimate sexual act have become, after all, "really nothing." On the contrary, even a touch by a loved one should be "everything," and reserved only for those who have bound themselves together in a committed, permanent union of selves. Because it is "everything," so precious, so powerful. And even then, there are the prescribed periods of separateness between husband and wife, an apartness that also comes from the kedusha of the relationship, a monthly rhythm of intimacy and privacy, corresponding to the times when the potential for new life is most real, and when that potential is lost.
We Must Respect Our Private Domains
Similarly, every person has his own area of apartness, a reserved domain of innermost self - perhaps the core of self - that is hidden, beyond, explanation and analysis, the mysterious essence of personality. And therein is also one's dignify, the place that should be respected, untouched except by those whose love merits the right to such intimacy - of soul as well as body. And yet we have lost the connection to that inner core of ourselves. We exhibit all, hoping that somehow we will catch a glimpse of that inner self in the reflection in the eye of others, violently compelling recognition if need be. (No one needs to elaborate on the obvious connection between loss of a sense of sanctity of person and modern mass murder.)
The changes that the Jewish feminists seek are also precisely in those aspects of Judaism which hinge on this private/public distinction. The cry is for women to grab a share of the most public functions, the most external signs - such as aliyot, tefillin, etc. - as if the true validation of religious identity and personal sanctity is dependent on acts which are publicly witnessed, not privately done. The prophet Micah in the famous quotation writes: "He has told you, man, what is good and what the L-rd demands from you, but to do justice, love kindness, and to walk privately (tzneah) with your G-d" (6:8). The truest spiritual acts are not motivated by a desire for public recognition; mitzvot are not forums for self-display, even of "spiritual self." This concept of tzniut applies to men as well as women. And hence when, the Psalms say- "All the glory of the daughter of the King is within" (45:14), it is an expression of the elevated spirituality of the woman who is tzenuab in body and soul. The woman who claims that it is more liberated to parade her body to anyone, is really advertising herself as only body - not as human person. She shows less sensitivity to the preciousness of her body than the tzenuah.
Ultimately, tzniut depends on poise of inner self, on the sense of the sanctity of one's own personhood. That is something both non-Jews and Jews, both men and women, have lost. We desperately seek identity by definitions from outside ourselves. We confuse what we truly are with what we happen to do for a living, or where we go to school, or live, etc. And thus there is an ever more intense struggle to be more "open," more "natural," more "liberated" within the realm of religion and without. But to find the object of all this seeking, we must turn "in," so to speak, to that private, mysterious divine core of self which is the source of one's identity, integrity, and holiness as a Jew.
To join the conversation at CLAL Encore Talk, click here.
To access the CLAL Encore Archive, click here.