Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Tznius As It Was Meant To Be

The current obsession in the frum world seems to be over tznius, commonly translated as "modesty".  We often make fun of the non-religious for their misuse of terms like tikun olam in ways that have nothing to do with their true usages but I think it's time was all admitted that tznius the way the Orthodox use it today is just as far from its meaning as thinking that Chanukah is a festival celebrating religious freedom.
In reality when one looks at the various uses of the root for tznius in Tana"ch there is no indication it has anything to do with clothing or one's public appearance.  Instead it always seems to be about one's attitude vis a vis interacting with God.  The Navi, for example, adjures us to walk modestly with the Ribono shel Olam and one would be a full to think he's hinting at the clothing one should wear.
Despite this tznius has become all about external appearance.  A woman's worth as a Jew and human being is defined nowadays by how obsessively she covers herself up.  Forget her attitudes and her interactions with her fellows.  A wig is great.  A wig with a shaved head underneath?  Gevaldiq!  Now that's real tznius.
Is it any wonder that the more whack job elements in the Torah-observant community have come to base their self-appointed belief in religious superiority almost entirely on this concept?  What makes a Chareidi woman more religious than her Modern Orthodox counterpart?  How much more she covers her hair and how her skirt is a little longer.  Can one be mystified then at the rise of the Burka Babes of Beit Shemesh and now Chatham, Ontario?
After all, if a shaved head under that wig is superior to just the wig then the shaved head under the tichel so that everyone can see the bare outline is even more tznius.  And if that is more modest than hiding one's face and head under a formless burka is the ultimately level for modesty.
One of the problems with Orthodoxy, as I've noted before along with others, is that we have might seem to have no right border.  Yes, we know very well where our left border is and are great at spotting folks like the Morethodox crowd who enjoy standing on that border and taking long visits beyond it.  But the right side?  Exactly how nutty do you have to be to stop being considered with Orthodox?  You can meet with the president of Iran at a conference on Holocaust denial and although you'll become a social pariah no one will say "You're no longer Orthodox".  You can't simply dismiss them.  They are doing what we're doing but more aggressively and with greater extremism.  How can one stand up to it and point out that it's a wrong form of Torah observance?
Let me suggest something about tznius.  Instead of translating it as "modesty" I would like to offer "dignity" as a better way to get the world across.
It is not dignified to force 15 year old girls to marry 40 year old men.  Nor is it dignified to make all women walk around in burkas with the only generous concession being that young girls can show parts of their faces.  What else can we add to the list?  How about not giving your children a decent education in any language other than Yiddish thereby making their outcasts in the country they live in?  How about not teaching your children trades so they grow up to become welfare addicts, experts at Talmud and defrauding the social assistance system of the country they live in?
Being Orthodox should definitely be about tznius, but that means the Orthodox Jew should be dignified in dress, comportment, education and manners.  Running around and pretending to be refugees from a low budget production of "Fiddler On The Roof" because your religious outlook can't handle any other type of world is not dignified.  It brings shame and ridicule and is therefore not tznius.
It is time those of us who are shomer mitzvos but also are well aware of our role as the Am haNivchar to stand up and say that there are behaviours which go against our beliefs not because we're not religious enough to endorse them but because we value tznius, dignity, as a major Torah value and we don't appreciate those who pretend to be more relgious than us but have no concept of tznius themselves.


Anonymous said...

So true...yet why can't our community see it? I was at a kosher show and they needed to tape down boxes of matzah so folks with black hats and peiot won't steal them...yet they were still ripped out. Dignity is a great word and is the foundation for so many modern issues in our community from abuse to our role in society.

You really hit home with this post.

Michael Sedley said...

At least the guys from Lev Tahor are dressed for the Canadian winter. Those fur hats make more sense in Chatham than they do in Bnei Brak.

But I think that the radical fringe like Lev Tahor and Neturei Karta are not regarded as main-stream Orthodox any more than the left wing stream in the "Open Orthodox" world.

Anonymous said...

look at rashi on tamar also chazal on michal yelling at dovid also the gemara about Kimchi.

You are right about Chanuka


Fred said...

I wish the concept of Tznius would begin to include gross materialism and massive conspicuous consumption. Our economy still sucks, but I've heard of many weddings and bar mitzvahs being held that are so over the top, in terms of cost and opulance that I want to scream. Hundreds of thousands of dollars for a wedding party, while many people can barely put food on the table. Its grotesque. And many of the people who drop fortunes on these affairs - which serve as vehicles to flaunt their wealth- would turn their noses at another religious Jew whose modesty levels don't match theirs.

The amount of social pressure this creates is horrendous, as people with far less money are pressured to confrom so they can keep up with the rich folk. Its a disgusting cycle of being selectively modest in monetary matters, and attempting to demonstrate one's piety by the blackness of their suits, stockings, sheitels, and the like.

RAM said...

Once, at a dorm meeting, I heard someone move to censure the dean of student affairs for his self-assertive gall. Self-assertive gall is part of what true tznius exists to combat.

ahg said...


I think you're right, that most of Orthodoxy, even more right wing communities like Lakewood do not regard Lev Tahor/NK as mainstream. However, where are the articles decrying this behavior in their periodicals? Where's the list of 62 RCA rabbis condemning these actions as being beyond the pale?

For some reason, they feel like they need to fight against the allure of increased modernism, for those who might find it attractive, but don't have any drive to fight against increased fanaticism even though that's also attractive to many.

Mr. Cohen said...

The root letters of the Hebrew word for modesty, Tzadi Nun Ayin, are only found twice in Tanach!

Ibn Ezra on Mishlei, chapter 11, verse 2, seems to define TZENUIM [modest people] as those who are [too] ashamed to do [sins] intentionally.

Rabbeinu Yonah on Mishlei, chapter 11, verse 2, mentions that speaking few words is one of the character trains of TZENUIM [modest people].

Metsudath David on Mishlei, chapter 11, verse 2, seems to define TZENUIM [modest people] as those who hide themselves because of their great humility.