Rabbi Josh Yuter – Jan 9, 2012
The topic of “tzniut” or “modesty” has recently become a prominent point of discussion in the Jewish community, mostly in response recent incidents of religious violence in Israel (some of which we covered in the previous class on Religious Coercion). Recent essays by Rabbi Dov Linzer in the New York Times, Rabbi Aryeh Klapper for a Rabbinical Council of America blog, and an earlier one by Rabbi Marc Angel for The Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals have all attempted to present a more “moderate” view from what is often conveyed by Orthodox Jewish society.
But the common theme in these essays, and indeed what dominates the discussion of Jewish modesty, is almost exclusively framing the issue in the context of women. In particular, modesty is most frequently defined in terms of how women ought to dress, how a woman is supposed to behave, and in some general instances the appropriate role of women in Jewish if not secular society. With this focus on women, it is not surprising that tzniut/modesty is almost exclusively construed as a sexual ethic.
In this shiur I challenge this assumption by approaching the topic of modesty not from the socially defined understanding of tzniut, but rather how and when the root “צנע” is used in the Talmud. While the term is certainly used in the context of female sexuality or displays of femininity (B. Ketuvot 3b, B. Berachot 8b, B. Shabbat 113b, B. Sotah 49b), the Rabbinic tradition also applies tzniut to men as it pertains to his relationship with his wife (B. Shabbat 53b) and his mode of dress (B. Menachot 43a). Furthermore, the ethic of tzniut is asserted in the contexts of going to the bathroom (B. Berachot 8b, 62a), eating (B. Berachot 8b), not displaying one’s wealth (B. Pesachim 113a), and even religious observance (M. Ma’aser Sheni 5:1, B. Sukkah 49b/B. Makkot 24a). (These and additional sources are in the attached source sheet with a modified Soncino translation.)
Given the contextual range of the root צנע, I suggest that tzniut in the Rabbinic tradition may best be described not as a sexual ethic at all (let alone a female one), but a general attitude of behavior of which sexual behavior is only one component. In other words, the true Jewish ethos of modesty does not exclusively pertain to sexuality, but rather reflects a universal ethic, one which is equally applicable to men and women in all facets of life.