My colleague, Rabbi Barry Starr, took an innovative approach to a vexing problem in his congregation. It seems that the choices that people were making about their clothing for synagogue activities – not just services, but social activities as well – were following fashion trends that many might call provocative. Rather than make representations about decorum, or setting some discretionary standard about collars or length of sleeves and skirts, he discussed a Jewish concept with his membership.
The concept is tz’niut, and it means modesty. The word has taken on an exaggerated meaning among liberal Jews because traditional Jews have been much more diligent about defining what modesty means, and those definitions are more extreme than most liberal Jews will consider. But in the times we live, when bare midriffs and exposed boxers are very much in fashion, and sly sexual messages about how various professions and team members “do it” are commonplace, the concept is worth reclaiming. (And it is worth showing appreciation to those Jews who have preserved it.)
Tz’niut is not simply a matter of respectful dress. It has to do with language and behavior as well. Profane language and suggestive dancing is as much a compromise of standards of appropriate behavior as clothing that calls attention to breasts and buttocks. The reason those behaviors are problematic has nothing to do with prudishness or censorship. They have more to do with the respect we show for each other as human beings created in God’s image. Our comport and dress as adults model for children what they aspire to be. Given the role models that they have in the worlds of entertainment and sports, the messages we deliver to them and to each other are all the more important.
For Rabbi Starr, the issue was provoked as much by celebrations of b’nai mitzvah as anything else. It is not difficult to figure out what the precipitating behaviors were. He wrote, “Our young boys need to clearly get the message that ‘boys will be boys’ is nothing but an excuse for denial of the basic tenets of tz’niut. Girls need to cherish their physical beings and realize that looking beautiful does not mean looking sexually alluring or available...If we as an adult community tolerate, and model, such behavior we are the guilty ones.”
Tz’niut is not so much about community standards or priggishness. It is about cultivating a self-respect that makes the body and its functions a reflection of holiness. It is about treating one’s self as a person, rather than as an object. In doing so, we keep abuse and harassment farther away from acceptable behavior, because we train ourselves to see others as persons rather than as objects.
Of course, these lessons are as important outside of synagogue as they are inside. But at the very least, let’s follow the lead of Rabbi Starr and make our congregation a place that reinforces this Jewish value and models it for everyday life.