I returned to Israel recently from a short trip abroad only to confront the latest, most shocking news from the Holy Land. It was not about the worrying acceleration of Iran’s nuclear program, nor did it concern the IDF strike on Syria or the still-pending formation of a new government.
No, the nation was all abuzz over Sara Netanyahu’s “wardrobe malfunction” at the swearing-in of the new Knesset. The social media literally lit up at the sight of this striking costume – just a tad too early for Purim – which revealed the first lady in almost all her glory.
This bizarre incident was coupled with an even more obscene public show of immodesty, as Israeli super-model Bar Rafaeli sunk to new depths in perverse publicity when she engaged in serious face-sucking with a rather unlikely partner, in front of more than 100 million viewers during the Super Bowl. The 30-second, $4 million commercial, for a creator of Web domains that will remain nameless went viral on YouTube, and surely prompted lots of daddies to go and buy the sponsor’s product.
But it also elicited an avalanche of boos and hisses from anyone with even an ounce of good taste. The hype may have been profitable, but the revulsion was palpable.
This is a good thing. Expressing moral opinion, declaring that there are limits to what could and should be publicly aired – and bared – helps to define a people’s character. When we fall for everything, we stand for nothing, and when anything goes, little remains. The ability to shout, Ad kan, v’lo yoter – That’s it, and no more! – means that we have not yet lost our voice of reason and rational thinking. We still can object to people becoming objects.
Judaism, of course, has always prided itself on the importance of discipline. In fact, the entire Torah is nothing if not an exercise in discipline, carefully chiseling and channeling our physical urges, allowing – nay, encouraging – us to indulge in the smorgasbord of life, yet insisting that we not make a pig of ourselves while doing it. We eat, but we pause first to bless, and we choose our diet carefully. We work, but we also leave time for study, and for rest on Shabbat.
We marry – celibacy by choice is a grave sin in our tradition – but we are meant to elevate sex to something holy and special, to turn it into a passion rather than a pastime.
And we certainly put a high premium on modesty; tzniut, in the vernacular, is the uniform of the Jew. What we wear, and how we wear it, is an essential statement about who and what we are. Clothes may not make the man, but clothes do make the man – and woman – identifiable as respectful and respectable creations of God.
But, all too often, we make the mistake of confining modesty to hem lengths and shirtsleeves, to hair covering and skin showing. Yet tzniut is about so much more than clothes; it covers the entire gamut of human behavior. In fact, the term tzniut means “to be humble,” and derives from a statement by the Prophet Micah: “He has told you, O man, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you? But to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
Humility, along with compassion, reverence and scholarship, defines our historic persona.
This trait of tzniut begins when we are in grade school, and we hold back from shouting out the answer every time we know it, letting others have a chance to show their stuff, too. It extends to our young-adult years, when we refrain from playing our horns like Louis Armstrong each and every time the car ahead of us fails to bolt like lightning the split-second the light begins to change. And it follows us into our adult years, when we fight the impulse to jump the line at the bank or post office, even if it is only to “ask a simple question” that ends up taking five minutes.
If one wears the right clothes, but takes the wrong actions, they can no longer rightly be called modest, or tzanua.
True humility, which derives from a solid faith system as well as a healthy sense of self-respect, allows us to cede the right of way to others, and to avoid encroaching upon “their space.”
Wearing too-revealing clothes in public makes others feel uncomfortable – intruding into their comfort zone and violating their space – but so does talking loudly on cellphones, following too closely behind on the roads, and leaving the table without cleaning up your mess.
True tzniut, in essence, teaches that not everything which can be worn should be worn; not everything which can be shown should be shown, and not everything which can be said should be said. At the end of the day, the way in which we respect others is the way in which we ourselves will be respected.
As with so many things, we take our cue as to how to behave from the people we see around us, particularly those in the public eye who are meant to inspire and educate us. Kindergarten teachers in Israel have been known, from time to time, to silence their unruly young pupils by saying, “Children, quiet down and be seated, this is not the Knesset!” Let us hope that now, as we begin a new Knesset – almost half of which consists of first-time members – our leaders can lead the nation by example, showing off the fullness of their souls, rather than the form of their bodies.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.rabbistewartweiss.com