Beneath the Surface: A Deeper Look at Modesty

May 9, 2009

7 min read


Modesty is as much about revealing as it is about covering up.

Maybe you've noticed women on campus or in the workplace covering up more than usual, wearing long skirts for example, or shirts with sleeves that cover the elbows.

What is that all about? Is it a fashion statement? A religious thing? Or some post-modern feminist trend?

In every culture, clothes are a basic requirement. Even in the hot jungles of Africa, the inhabitants wear some minimal form of clothing. Nowhere, however, do animals cover up. Why? What is it about human beings and clothing throughout all ages and across all cultures?

The truth is it wasn't always like this. Once upon a time human beings didn't wear clothing at all. Albeit for a very short time, Adam and Eve, pre-sin, roamed around the Garden of Eden naked:


And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and they were not ashamed. (Genesis 2:25)


After the sin however, a change took place in their feelings about clothing (or about their lack thereof):


And their eyes were opened, and they knew they were naked and they sewed fig leaves... (Genesis 3:7)


What caused the attitude to change from "au naturel"? What caused the need to cover up? The answer is rooted in an understanding of the sin of Adam and Eve.

What caused the attitude to change from "au naturel"? What caused the need to cover up?

According to commentators, through the eating of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, the tendency to do evil was internalized within the human psyche. Previously, man and woman had an intellectual choice between good and evil, but evil was outside of the body, a philosophical issue, not an inner pull or an emotional desire.

Before the sin, a person's soul expressed itself through its body. Body and soul were in consonance with each other. For example, when the soul wanted to pray to God, the body rose early and prayed. When the soul wanted to study and grow most effectively, the body ate healthy foods and took care of itself to provide the necessary fuel and energy for the demanding task.



Now, post-sin, a dichotomy exists. Almost dualistic. One's soul wants to pray, his body groans, turns over and shuts off the alarm clock. The soul strives to perfect itself, the body wants to eat chocolate cake, watch television and lie on the beach!

The body is no longer in the service of the soul, it no longer runs to do its bidding. Not only is the body not a reflection of the soul, but they are now working at cross-purposes.

What does all this have to do with clothing, modesty and covering up?

When Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden, their bodies were a mirror of their souls, there was no need to cover up such a pure innocent expression of a person's spirituality, of God's image within a human being.

It became necessary to de-emphasize the physical in order to emphasize the spiritual.

However, once evil was integrated into man, the body came to represent something antithetical to the soul. Looking at the body could now distract the observer from focusing on his or her internal being and instead focus only on the physical, the external and the superficial.

It became necessary to de-emphasize the physical in order to emphasize the spiritual, to cover up the body in order to let the soul shine through.



Why does it seem like modesty applies more to women than to men? Doesn't this disharmony between body and soul apply to both men and women equally?

Yes. Modesty does in fact apply to everyone:


(God) tells you, man, what He requires of you, but to do justice, love kindness and walk modestly with your God. (Micha 6:8)

...And with the modest ones lies wisdom. (Proverbs 11:2)


In Judaism the most heroic acts were done in private, with no fanfare, publicity or showiness -- qualities that represent the essence of modesty.

For example, Abraham's binding of Isaac and Jacob's struggle with the angel were both events, which -- although they marked the epitome of the lives of the patriarchs -- happened while they were out of the public view.

And yet, when modesty involves the issue of clothing and covering up, it does have more serious ramifications for the female gender, as it also does, interestingly, for Torah scholars and for the Tabernacle, God's resting place in the desert:


Torah scholars should be extra modest in clothes and in their behavior. (Derech Eretz Zuta 7)



From the day the tabernacle was built, God said: 'Modesty is appropriate.' (Tanchuma, Bamidbar 3)


What do women, Torah scholars, and the Tabernacle have in common?

Torah scholars are human beings who are granted a degree of awe from the public due to their tremendous Torah knowledge. To the extent that they represent God's word on earth, or holiness, they deserve that respectful regard.

However, if we are so taken in by their charisma, good looks, public speaking skills, and as a result, we are not able to discern their internal holiness, we are in essence engaged in idol worship by our misplaced reverence.

Torah scholars have an obligation to be extra modest, so that we will not be distracted by the externals.

Therefore, Torah scholars have an obligation to be extra modest, so that we will not be distracted by the externals of their appearance and demeanor, which, if too dominant, might obscure their inner essence.

Similarly, the Tabernacle represents the dwelling place of God on earth. Its vessels and structure were made of the finest materials -- gold, silver, copper, beautiful fabrics. If we were to see this Temple as a mere building -- devoid of spiritual content -- we would be serving wood and stone, distorting reality and the purpose for which the Tabernacle was built.

All the vessels, therefore, required coverings to de-emphasize the sparkling fancy exterior, so as to enable us to see the spirituality below the surface.



And this is where women come in.

Women, according to Judaism, share a special trait called binah, loosely translated as "deep understanding." In the Torah, women are exemplified as having a rich inner world, possessing a power to influence people's character; they are described as having insight and perception beyond logic, external facts and superficial facades.

If women are viewed externally, they are stripped of their gift and strength.

If women are viewed externally, devoid of internal character and spirituality, they are stripped of their gift and strength. A danger exists that they will be objectified and degraded.

In fact, we see that cultures which admire women primarily for their physical characteristics, ultimately degrade them and take advantage of them.

In view of this dangerous possibility -- coupled with a strong tendency among males to notice the physical and external and be stimulated visually -- women would do well to de-emphasize their bodies in order to emphasize that which is their real beauty: their inner strengths, their souls.


All of the honor of the daughter of the King is within. (Psalms 45:14)


Of course, none of this implies that women shouldn't look beautiful.

In fact once the physicality is not distracting, and the internal holiness is realized, it is a mitzvah to glorify the vessel for holiness, that representation of spirituality.

Just as the Tabernacle was stunningly attractive, and a Torah scholar is commanded to accord his physical appearance major priority, so too a woman, an obvious vessel for a rich and potent inner essence, is further enhanced by a beautiful exterior. One which is infused with spiritual content. Not an empty shell.

Several of the ideas in this article were made by Rabbi Zev Leff in his lecture "The Concept of Modesty."

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