Judaism

“The goals of tzeniut can only be fulfilled in a society that fosters intimacy and empathy”

The unconscionable physical and verbal violence against women in Beit Shemesh and elsewhere have degraded the religious concept of tzeniut (modesty) by associating it with misogyny and oppression. Some Orthodox condemnations of that violence, by objecting to means while acknowledging shared ends, have added to that degradation. My purpose here is to directly reject the ends, in other words to offer a vigorously Orthodox and halakhic understanding of the purposes and parameters of tzeniut that opposes the goals and not just the means of those who seek to use tzeniut as a weapon to subordinate women or intimidate them out of the public square.

Here are four key points:
1. Tzeniut is a broad Jewish value whose practical expression is opposition to unnecessary and meretricious self-exposure, whether of the body or of the soul. It relates to all people, male and female alike, and all of life. Reducing it to a code for women’s dress and actions reflects an unhealthy obsession, equivalent to reducing love to an expression of (exclusively male) lust.

2. Tzeniut is intended to preserve and expand the domain of intimacy. Intimacy is constructed by exclusivity of exposure, by sharing things about oneself that one does not share broadly. People with inadequate emotional boundaries are less capable of achieving relationship though emotional sharing, and people with inadequate physical boundaries are less capable of achieving relationship through physical intimacy.

3. Tzeniut is intended to preserve the integrity of personal space – physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. People who “spill” emotionally compel others to respond to them – to feel pity when they express suffering, anger when they express betrayal, and the like. This legitimately feels like a violation. The same is true of unwanted touch, or of unwanted visual erotic stimulation.

4. Tzeniut is one value in the complex web of Jewish values, which must constantly negotiate its place in that web. It can be trumped, or attenuated, when it comes into conflict with other Jewish values. From the halakhic perspective, once tzeniut is correctly defined as unnecessary self-exposure, it becomes clear that it should not be applied mechanically, but rather on the basis of a sensitive and dynamic understanding of the necessary.

It should be clear that excessive tzeniut can be pathological. People who never share their emotions do not experience ultimate intimacy, but rather intractable loneliness. People who never react to others’ emotions do not become fully developed selves, but rather stunted and selfish. The goals of tzeniut can only be fulfilled in a society that fosters intimacy and empathy.

Similarly, in the erotic realm, tzeniut is intended to maximize the space for marital intimacy, not to make husbands and wives chary of each other’s bodies, and to give people autonomous control of their sexuality, not to disassociate them from their physical selves.

Rabbi Aryeh Klapper, “Reflections on Tzniut and Beit Shemesh,” Text & Texture (19 January 2012) {http://text.rcarabbis.org/reflections-on-tzniut-and-beit-shemesh-by-aryeh-klapper/}