Monday, April 10, 2006


Just a quick update: I haven't forgotten about the SSM thread, and I'm still working on it. Important projects and everyday work continue to occupy my attention. In the meantime, enjoy the following post, a general essay about tznius.

(Note that much of the following was written months ago, after I saw a round of posts regarding Chareidi ideas of tznius. I won't bother linking to the articles and blogs I originally intended to; choose your favorite for the "Heresy mill." Also note that I claim no chiddushim in the following, something which I've subsequently learned is frowned upon in the J-Bloggosphere. If you need false chiddushim, you'll have to head over to the Heresy-blogs.)

I've been meaning to discuss the subject of tznius for a while. Tznius seems to be one of the great monsters in the Chareidi (and orthodox world in general) closet. Because most people don't really understand the concept, they presume it has mostly to do with necklines and sleeve-length, with thickness of stockings and overlong shaitels. Many Rabbis seem reluctant to discuss it, and they are flummoxed by even the most innocuous questions on the subject. And needless to say, the subject is rehashed over and over on the J-Bloggosphere, where frum, intelligent women try to make sense of it all (and it becomes grist for the Heresy mill.)

The pasuk says, "He has told you, O man, what is good! What does Hashem ask of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk modestly with your G-d" (Micha 6:8). The pasuk also teaches, "When a willful sinner comes, shame comes, but modest ones - wisdom" (Mishlei 11:2).

The first time I saw these two verses, I immediately noticed a problem. Where is the mention of women? After all, conventional wisdom has it that modesty is primarily a "woman's thing." In fact, the verse in Micha talks about justice, which is usually in the realm of men, and the verse in Mishlei talks about wisdom, which is certainly not limited to women. So the first question I have is: What does tznius have to do with men?

There is another problem. What does tznius have to do with wisdom at all? Tznius is something to do with clothing and women's hair. What does it have to do with wisdom?

When we turn to Chazal, it's clear that held that although tznius may be a trait which is particularly relevant to the realm of women, it also applies to men. The Sages say, "A scholar must be modest when he eats, when he drinks, when he bathes, etc." (Derech Eretz Zuta 7). So a talmid chacham has to be even more particular about tznius than others.

But it gets even more confusing. Chazal say that a sefer Torah must always remain covered. Not only do we keep the Torah safely stored away in an ark, but we even cover it in the few moments between aliyas (see Orach Chaim 139:5). The idea behind these laws is tznius; Chazal explicitly refer to the sefer Torah a "modest vessel" (see Ta'anis 16a). So even if we're going to extend the idea of tznius to men, what on earth does tznius have to do with a sefer Torah?

The answer to the above questions comes from a different understanding of the concept of tznius than most people have.

Tznius means this: the ability to see beyond the surface. A person who possesses this trait is a person with penetrating vision, a person who can see the internal element of any situation rather than be fooled by externalities.

Unfortunately, we live in a world which focuses on just that – the externalities. We live surrounded by a television culture that even glorifies externalities and surface understanding. In such a culture, it is particularly difficult to maintain a tznius outlook.

This answers some of our questions immediately. First, we can understand why the concept applies both to men and women. Both have the potential to see beyond the surface, to think about and understand the world deeply. And we also understand why tznius brings wisdom. The wise person is the one who brushes away the shallow analysis that ensnares the minds of fools, accepting only the long and penetrating view of the subject at hand.

It is easy to see how tznius applies to the idea of appearances in general. A tznius person is one who understands that the real “me” is not simply his flesh and blood. It is his real being, his inner essence – his soul. It may seem like a paltry matter, but practically it makes an enormous difference.

For example, when a woman identifies with her real essence, she isn’t quite as concerned with the appearance of her body. This is not to say that she shouldn’t care at all. Rather, she has the healthy body image of a proud daughter of the Jewish people.

This is the idea of the recent article in the J-Post discussed at length on Cross-Currents. As Judy Siegel-Itzkovich puts it, summing up recent research on the subject, “The more religious the girl, the less her drive for thinness, the higher her perceived self-esteem, the more satisfied she is with her body and the less her concern with food and weight.” The only change I would make to her statement is to substitute the word “tznius” for religious. It is true that religious women are more likely to be tznius, but I have met many tznius women outside of the Orthodox world too.

On the other hand, it’s easy to spot a lack of tznius, even in well accepted practices. For example, have you ever noticed that as soon as a person announces his engagement, the first thing people say is, “Can I see a picture?” Beside the obvious lack of sensitivity, such a request displays a shocking lack of tznius. Should one form an opinion of a bride on the basis of how she looks? Should he conclude that the groom got a “raw deal” on the basis of a few extra pounds on the hips?

And again, this applies to men as well as to women. For men, another example is the endless bodybuilding “posing” in front of a mirror that some men love to engage in. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with working out and staying healthy. But when a man falls in love with his external appearance, it shows that something is awry.

What is the cure for this lack of tznius? How does one learn to focus on deep, central issues rather than be fooled by mere happenstance? Unfortunately, the complete answer to these questions is beyond the scope of this article. The development of a thinking person in this external society is not a simple matter.

Nevertheless, there is one general panacea that the sages give us that covers much of the territory. In short, the answer is this: whenever there is a potential for focusing on the external side, we cover up the outside. Meaning, we hide the external aspect, as if to say: don’t focus on this; focus on the inside instead. And there is an aspect of relativity here: the greater the danger of a misunderstanding, the greater the need for concealment.

We can understand then, why tznius applies particularly to a talmid chacham, as well as to a sefer Torah. Both have tremendous depth. On the surface, a talmid chacham seems similar to any other person, just as the Torah seems similar to any other collection of legends. But this is obviously not true. A talmid chacham and the Torah both contain tremendous wisdom. But the wisdom they contain is internal, not readily apparent from an external view. Because there is a potential for viewing a sefer Torah or a talmid chacham incorrectly, we cover the external side. We say, “Don’t focus on the outside. It is the inside that is the key.”

So far, we’ve given a basic understanding of the idea of tznius, and how it might apply to wisdom and appearances. We’ve also explained how it applies both to women and men. Finally, we’ve explained the Torah remedy for situations that carry an inherent danger of a lack of tznius—the idea of concealment.

Nevertheless, we do find in the words of Chazal that women have a special attachment to the principles of tznius. It’s important that we try to understand why this is.

To get to the core, we’ll have to go somewhat deep, so hold onto your seats. Before we begin, two points. First, according to kabbalists and deep Jewish thinkers, each letter of the Hebrew alphabet has a unique meaning beyond its utilitarian use as part of our speech and writing. Second, there is a distinct difference between Lashon HaKodesh (loosely translated as Biblical Hebrew) and all other languages. For all languages, a sound or group of sounds applies to a certain object by convention. We call a canine a “dog,” but we could just as easily call it a pot or a lamp, assuming everyone agreed to the change. In Lashon HaKodesh however, the language which was used to create the universe, words describe the essence of an object. This means that if the Torah describes a dog as a kelev, there is wisdom contained in the name itself that might help us to understand the nature of the being of a dog (in this case, the word kelev can also be pronounced as ke-lev, like the heart – as everyone knows, a dog is man’s best friend.)

It follows that if we want to understand the essence of men and women, one way to do so is to closely examine the names that they are given. In Lashon HaKodesh, man is called ish, alef-yud-shin, while woman is called isha, alef-shin-hey. I’m sure everyone knows the famous words of Chazal on the respective names (see Sotah 17a): When a married man and woman live in harmony, the Divine presence (symbolized by the yud of the man, plus the hey of the woman, which spells the Name of G-d) rests with them. But if they do not dwell in harmony, the Divine presence leaves (remove the yud and hey) leaving behind nothing but alef-shin for each of the man and woman, spelled out to mean fire. Any married person knows this to be true.

At any rate, we see that both man and woman share the letters alef and shin. What makes them truly different – the essence of the difference between man and woman, is that man is typified by the letter yud, while woman is typified by the letter dalet. I say dalet, rather than hey, because if you look closely at the letter hey, as it’s written in the Torah, you’ll see that it’s actually composed of two letters – a yud, surrounded by a letter dalet. Both men and women possess a yud – the difference is that in men, it is blatant, while in women, it is subdued. What shines forth from a woman is her dalet.

What do all these letters mean?

The letter yud represents spirituality. It is the smallest letter – practically a drop of ink – and the only letter which floats above the base-line. Men dwell in the spiritual realm, focusing on Torah and mitzvot and all other aspects of spirituality. They dwell in the realm of thought and memory. The letter dalet, on the other hand, represents the physical world. It’s numerical value is four, like the four basic directions on a map. Women dwell in the physical realm, focusing on children, the home, and all other aspects of physicality.

(As an aside, I’ll note that you can do lots of really cool stuff with these letters. For example, look at the Hebrew word for hand, yad, composed of the letters yud and dalet. We said that yud represents the spiritual realm, while the dalet represents the physical. The way we interact with the world around us – actualize ideas that are only in our mind as potential – is with a hand, a yad. And the Hebrew word for enough, dai, is composed of the opposite, a dalet, then a yud. When we say enough, we want something to remain in potential, and not actualize. You get the idea.)

It is interesting to note that just about every single difference between men and women can be understood with reference to this paradigm. For example, Chazal say that women have dai’tan kallos, which some translate as weak intellect, but also carries that connotation of a mind which is “light” – a woman is a natural multi-tasker. This obviously does not mean that women are stupid. But it does mean that they think differently than men (something which modern science has admitted and proven in recent years.) Why did G-d create men with a different type of brain then women? The answer is simple – because men dwell in the realm of Torah. They need an incisive, concentrative mind. They need a mind that can focus on the weaving logic of a difficult gemara. Women, on the other hand, because they are in charge of the physical realm, are often forced to switch from one task to another.

At least for myself, this is anecdotally proven. I cannot watch the kids alone for more than a few hours without going nuts. Switching from one task to another – heat up this, diaper that, wipe this, wash that – drives me to distraction. My wife, on the other hand, accepts the duties with seasoned aplomb. And it’s not that I mind helping around the house. But I would rather wash the dishes for an hour than go from one task to the next for 45 minutes.

Chazal also say that women have binah yeseira, intuition. Because women need to raise a family, they need intense interpersonal skills. They need to understand what their children are feeling in order to raise them properly. My three year-old once came to me bawling, with a drippy nose and a half-crumbled cookie in his hand. I couldn’t make heads or tales of what he wanted, and that just made him cry harder. But my wife calmly noted, “He needs to make – help him to the bathroom.” Binah at work.

The above, by the way, is not to say that men have no binah, or that women have no skill of concentration. Rather, it means that each sex is relatively stronger than the other in certain aspects.

So man is a yud, and woman is a dalet. Although I will not specify every difference between man and woman, even a moment’s thought on this paradigm will explain many things about the difference between the sexes. Why are women infinitely more concerned about physical appearances, whether of the body or home, than men? It’s the dalet at work. Why out of the top 500 chess players in the world are there exactly two women (the Jewish Polgar sisters, by the way)? It’s the yud at work, the concentrative mind. The examples one can come up with are as varied as they are numerous.

Men and women find the greatest peace and coexistence when man dwells in the realm of spirituality, and woman dwells in the physical realm. The man learns Torah. He soaks up spirituality. He brings spirituality into the Jewish home. But that spirituality is only in potential form. Only a woman can take that latent energy and actualize it – bring it down to the real world.

We get the same understanding, with a slightly different nuance, when we look at another set of terms, male and female. In Hebrew, the word for male is zachar. Zachar has the same root meaning as zachor, remember. Again, the male aspect deals with the intangible - the memories. The Hebrew word for female is nekeiva, which according to the Targum can mean explain. Again, the meaning is the same. The male soaks up spirituality, while the woman “explains” it. She turns the potential spirituality into a practical Torah home.

This paradigm plays itself out in many ways. For example, to create new life, man supplies the seed – a small wisp of nothingness, a bit of spirituality. The woman takes that seed and brings its potential to life. She creates a physical being out of its latent potential. And she is the one who nourishes it when the child is born.

To be overly simplistic, man is the roots, and woman is the branches. Man soaks up spirituality in the same way that the roots soak up minerals from the ground. And the branches create the fruit itself.

This is not to say that women have no spiritual component. It’s just that women excel in the physical world. A woman is certainly capable of studying Torah. But she will not excel at it the same way that a man will not excel at caring for the physical needs of a home. Also keep in mind that there is a vast range of skill in the human condition. Some men are naturally more “feminine.” They are comfortable taking care of a home. And some women feel right at home when they strive for spirituality. We’re speaking in generalities; although there are exceptions, the overwhelming majority of both men and women that I’ve known fit comfortably into this paradigm. (Also note that when we talk about modern (American) society, there has been untold perversion of the relationship and roles of the sexes. But that’s really a topic for another time.)

So man is a yud, and woman is a dalet. We said at the outset that although woman is typified by the letter dalet – that’s what makes her different than men – she is in fact a hey. She also has a spiritual aspect, a yud. However, it’s hidden by the dalet. Her spirituality is hidden by a veneer of physicality. This spiritual aspect has ramifications in the physical world as well—a woman’s true inside is covered by a shell of physical beauty that man does not possess.

And now we reach the crux of the issue: Why tznius applies particularly to women. Although we explained the reason for the aspect of femininity above, and its ramifications of physical beauty, its mere existence presents a potential problem. There is the possibility that some people will begin to view women as only a dalet – a dalet without a yud at all. Meaning, some may come to view women as a piece of meat – important for their physical beauty alone.

I doubt there is great need to expand upon this idea. It is patently clear that this is precisely what has been done to women in the modern age. In fact, this is one of the underlying complaints of the early feminist movement: “See me as more than just flesh!” Everywhere we turn, women are on display for nothing more than the titillation of the gawking public. On billboards, on television, on the Internet. The overt message is this: women have no purpose other than to please us with their physical beauty. There is nothing more to women than their physicality. The proverbial “dumb blonde.”

Of course, in a society that preaches that women are nothing more than a physical shell, even women themselves are affected by the subtle and overt messages. It takes a very strong woman to reject the thousands of messages bombarding her constantly, and many women don’t. Many women have come to think of themselves as little more than a physical shell. You see it in the clothes they wear. You see it in the rise of the many illnesses such as Bulimia. Unfortunately, it is women themselves that are the most unfortunate beneficiaries of this perversion.

And what is the solution? In a word, tznius.

As we said above, the definition of tznius is the ability to see things beneath the surface. This is precisely the way that a woman needs to see herself, and the way she needs to be seen by others. There is more to a woman than her dalet; there is a beautiful yud of spirituality inside as well. There is more to a woman than her physical shell alone. This is not to say that there is something inherently wrong with the dalet aspect. As we saw above, there is a crucial reason why women have this aspect. The problem arises when women are looked at for their dalet alone. When that happens, women are objectified. Instead, we have to look at the whole picture – the beautiful shell of the dalet on the outside, and the spiritual inner beauty of the yud as well.

How does clothing enter the picture? As we said above, whenever there is a potential for a lack of tznius, the cure is to cover up. In essence, we are saying: Don’t look at the body alone. There is so much more to a woman than just her physical form! We conceal the body, preventing, to a certain degree, one from focusing on that form. A woman is covered up so that her real inside can shine forth. And obviously, this applies to the woman herself as well as others. A woman who dresses like a piece of meat will eventually come to think of herself in those terms as well. So she dresses with tznius for herself as well as others.

We can now understand why this tnius has nothing to do with clothing per se. The clothing only helps guide a woman to a tznius mentality. But it cannot force a woman to think in any terms, tznius or otherwise. A woman can wear the longest skirt in the world, and still see herself as a piece of meat. This unfortunately explains why the longest skirt in the world will not help a woman who is not tznius. We see the lack of tznius in the way she moves and holds herself. Regardless of her clothing, she still feels her body is her “real self.” She still focuses on her external appearance alone.

We can also understand why women must be particular about tznius, and why some people have mistakenly come to view tznius as a “woman’s” problem. Although tznius applies to everyone, women have a particular need to comport themselves in a tznius manner. After all, women have to live with themselves first and foremost. Therefore it is crucial, in order that a woman live a fulfilling life, that they learn to view themselves in the proper light. There is nothing more sad than a woman who sees herself as nothing more than a piece of meat.

The gemara tells us: “Our Rabbis taught: Kimchis has seven sons, and all of them served as the Kohen Gadol. The sages said to her: What have you done to merit this? She replied: For my entire life, the beams of my house never saw the braids of my hair. They said to her: many did this, and they did not succeed” (Yoma 47a).

This gemara seems difficult to understand for a number of reasons. First, Kimchis’s answer seems very strange. What difference does it make whether the beams of her house saw her hair or not? Second, notice the answer of the Rabbis. The Rabbis came to Kimchis with a question, which she answered. Then, the Rabbis said, in essence, that she wasn’t correct. If the Rabbis already knew the answer, why did they bother asking. And if she really was incorrect, what is the real answer?

The resolution of all these problems is simple with the new understanding we have of tznius. The name Kimchis itself hints at a special characteristic—tznius. Kimchis is related to kemach, flour. In order to get to the flour, the true essence of wheat, a person must first remove the chaff, the grind the wheat. It is the inside, the deep purpose of the wheat. The sages asked her how she had merited to have seven (!) sons who became high-priests. She answered that the beams of her house never saw the braids of her hair. She meant that she acted in a tznius manner even when there was nobody around to see. For Kimchis, tznius wasn’t simply a mode of public dress. It was true tznius—a way of viewing her inner world. She understood that her real self was her inner-self, her soul. And she protected this view by covering herself up even when there was nobody around to see her outer self. She covered herself up as an expression of how she viewed her own being.

The sages told her that many had done this, and not succeeded, and they were correct. Many women wear the most concealing clothing, both in public and private settings, and are not truly tznius. It was not her clothing per se, that made her succeed, but the way she looked at herself.

This gemara also gives us a chance to briefly mention the idea of hair in marriage. The sages tell us that a married woman is obligated to cover her hair. What is the significance behind this law?

As we explained, the spiritual makeup of a woman demands that she take extra care to conceal her physicality. This applies to all women. But when a woman becomes married, she gains additional appreciation for the power of her dalet. When a married woman loses her sexual naïveté, she realizes just how powerful and influential her physical form can be. And with this new knowledge comes renewed danger that she will come to view herself as nothing more than a physical form. Thus, she needs “extra protection” as it were, to maintain the true understanding of her spirituality.

This is the idea of covering her hair. It hardly needs to be explained that the hair is often an object of overt or subtle sexuality. By covering the hair, a married woman is able to maintain the balance between her physical side, her dalet, and her spiritual side, the yud within.

At this point, some women ask, “Why do I have to bother with all that clothing? I know that I am a spiritual creature, regardless of what I wear. Who cares what other people think?”

There are two answers to this question, the second more important than the first. The first answer is that when a woman wears revealing clothing, there is always the potential danger that she will come to look at herself more in terms of her physicality, regardless of how she views herself at this point. She may begin to notice, or value more, the appreciative stares of men. There is always the possibility that this will compromise her inner world.

But the primary answer is that regardless of what is going on within her mind, a woman has a communal responsibility too. The Torah does not share the modern liberal view that “you can do your thing, and I can do mine.” Every Jew has a responsibility for every Jew, and this extends to the concept of not causing another person to sin.

It is a fact that when a woman wears revealing clothing, men will gawk. This is true in all times and all situations, and any woman who doubts it can receive confirmation from the nearest male. When a woman wears revealing clothing, she is not merely exposing men to the slight possibility that they might sin. She is patently causing it. (I’ll note in passing that the very difference in the way that men look at women verses the way that women look at men is proof of much that I’ve written above.) Therefore, even a woman who is truly tznius inside must cover herself up appropriately.

Parenthetically, this is also the reason physical contact between spouses in public is frowned upon. Aside from the tackiness, public displays pervert morality by tempting the thoughts of those who are not yet “in the parasha.”

In summation, tznius is a way of looking at oneself and the world at large. It is an understanding that it is the long, deep view--what is on the inside of a thing--that is important.