What the Torah Really Says About Modesty, Sexual or Otherwise

Recently, while perusing the Book of Genesis, I was struck by the description which the Biblical account gives of Rivqa (popularly, if inaccurately, transliterated as “Rebecca”) as Abraham’s servant Eliezer found her: “Vëhana‘ara tovath mar’eh më’od, bëthula vë’ish lo yëda‘ah” (“And the young woman was very good of appearance, a virgin, and no man had known her”).

Given the significance of Biblical “knowing,” the verse is striking: if she was a virgin, why is it necessary to add the phrase “and no man had known her”?

To our rescue comes the great 12th century commentator Rashi, who offers the following: She was not only a virgin in the normal location, but also had not followed the local practice in northern Syria of preserving formal virginity while giving herself over in other orifices. The comment says much about the phony cult of virginity in the ancient Middle East, far predating the advent of Islam or, for that matter, Christianity or even Judaism in the region, but it provides the opportunity to talk about genuine modesty, what it entails, and why it’s important.

Modesty; the Hebrew word is tzëni‘uth, and one who exhibits the quality is said to be tzanua’. The word covers a multitude of concepts, expressed by different words in English. For one thing, tzëni‘uth is considered to be a primary female virtue, based upon fundamental human psychology. It is a simple fact that men and women are wired differently, and one of the major differences has to do with sexual attractiveness. Men are “hard-wired,” as it were, to react to physical stimuli, in particular visual stimuli, in ways that women are not (this is the major reason why heterosexual pornography aimed at men has been the bane of all societies since the dawn of time, while attempts to launch similar enterprises aimed at women don’t generally come anywhere close to the same level of viewership).

So the sons of Qorach sang: “Kol këvuda bath mulch pënima,” “All glorious is the king’s daughter within” (Psalms XLV.14). The Talmud uses this passage in describing a woman who merited that all seven of her sons became successive high priests, and declaring that it was due to her exemplary personal modesty, and applying this verse to her (Yërushalmi Yoma I, 1).

There are other dimensions to tzëni‘uth other than the crudely sexual (as is also the case with the English word modesty), and these may be illustrated from the Biblical use of the term. For instance, Proverbs XI, 2 reads, in the original: “Ba zadon vëyavo qalon, vë;eth tzënu‘im chochma,” “Comes the bold, there will come disgrace; and with the modest, wisdom.” That towering giant of 18th century Jewish thought, the Vilner Ga’on, applies this verse to students in the study hall. There are those students who are simply pursuing truth, he says, and there are others who acquire learning in order to show off, and to put others down (the word which he uses, lëqantér, has such connotations as “to sting or chide”).

The latter are the bold ones who put themselves forward, while the seekers of truth are less forward, and more inclined to pay attention to others. In a telling insight, he suggests that for this reason, one has two eyes and two ears, but only one mouth: the emphasis should be on reading and listening, not speaking.

Why do I raise the issue of modesty here? Because there is a singular lack of it in our contemporary culture. Boys and girls, men and women were no different when I was young. Nor did they have different impulses.

But back then, in the days when there were such things as “community standards” even in the general population, there were no daycare centers for infant children of students in the public high schools, and indeed very few teenage pregnancies.

Some of us are old enough to remember when movies and television programs routinely depicted two beds in the marital chamber, and some may even recall the once-famous controversy when Lucille Ball, star of the smash hit I Love Lucy with then-husband Desi Arnaz, dared to become pregnant. The producers seriously considered canceling the show, as though no one had ever before seen a pregnant woman (and, of course, she and her co-star were married, in real life as on the little screen). To that extent were public sensibilities once taken into account.

Today, alas, it is hard to distinguish what passes for entertainment programming from rank pornography, and one is well advised not to let any of it into one’s home. What can be done? Is it not too late? We can hardly set the clock back and move into the 1950s.

However, another biblical use of the word of the day may be instructive in terms of what one can or cannot do. This is the advice of the Prophet Micha, who flourished about 200 years after King Solomon recorded the proverb cited above. “What does G-d ask of us?” asks the prophet, and he answers the exercise of judgment, the love of kindness, and hatznéa‘ lecheth ‘im Elo-hecha (VI, 8).

This last phrase, almost untranslatable into English, contains the key. Conventional translations render the phrase “to walk modestly with your G-d,” placing the emphasis on the walking, and the modesty as a mere adverbial complement. In the original Hebrew-language formulation, though, the word hatznéa‘ is an active, causative verb. It denotes the necessary, conscious effort at modesty in all its ramifications, which must be put into the daily “walk” (lecheth) with G-d.

If enough of us will internalize this message, bear it constantly in mind, and apply it consciously, the popular culture which has become so gross and coarse really can be restored to sanity.