An Interview with Rabbi Sara Rich on Modern Modesty

I am so happy to share this interview with Rabbi Sara Rich on modern modesty. My hope for this interview was to learn about the origins of this idea and to enlarge the modern conversation around the topic of modesty in a way that feels relevant and inclusive to all women.

For those of you unfamiliar with Rabbi Sara Rich, she is the Executive Director of the Hillel of BuffaloShe facilitates Jewish learning and experiences, community-building and leadership development for undergraduate and graduate students in the Buffalo area.

Enjoy this special interview!

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I was raised in Maryland, studied in Jerusalem at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and then studied to be a rabbi at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, in Jerusalem and then in New York City.

My Jewish journey has taken some unexpected turns – I was raised in a nurturing Reform community and decided to become a rabbi when I was 15 years old. In college, at the University of Maryland, I was exposed to more traditional Jewish practices, and learned that what I had mistakenly thought was blind observance of ritual could actually be a beautiful, passionate expression of spirituality that I was not feeling in my own Jewish life. I used this opportunity to learn more, which led to taking on an increased level of Jewish observance. I grappled with questions of my own Jewish purpose – would I have a greater impact on the world as an observant Jew, or as a Reform rabbi? Could I try to be both at the same time? From this exposure to communities with different practices and ideas from my own, I became a lover of pluralism, and have continued to seek opportunities to pray and learn with Jews of all different backgrounds, and to facilitate these experiences in my professional life through my work in Hillel. We have so much to gain, and nothing to lose, from encountering new ideas and even trying them on for size in our own lives.

I know I sound cerebral, but I’m a goofy mommy of two young daughters, a wife to an incredible man who is Drew Carey’s doppelganger, a podcast fanatic (OK fine that’s still cerebral) and have never met a scoop of ice cream I didn’t like.

Where do ideas about Jewish modesty come from?

Jewish modesty as a general concept has its roots in the Bible. The prophet Micah teaches that God requires three things of humans: “To do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly/modestly with your God “ (6:8). The Hebrew root is צ-נ-ע, and the word tzniut is used for modesty in behavior and appearance.

The biblical imperative is non-specific, we are only taught that is important to be modest, but we don’t receive any specific instructions. Later rabbinic teachings offer more specific directives related to modesty in dress and appearance, and these laws are used to govern what men and women can wear, the parts of the body that are permitted to be exposed, and precautions that should be taken with regards to modesty so as to prevent physical temptation that can lead to sin.

Today, many people think of modesty as being only about how women dress. What else does modesty refer to in a Jewish sense?

Modesty refers to how men dress as well as women, although the common standards for modest dress are not equivalent for men and women. In some communities where female modesty rules prohibit exposing the arms and legs, men might still be permitted to wear short pants and sleeves.

Maimonides, a medieval philosopher and commentator wrote in his legal code Mishneh Torah, in Hilchot Deot 5:6, that a Torah scholar should conduct himself with great modesty. The behaviors that he describes include not demeaning oneself, keeping the head covered, and using the restroom in privacy. This list is not exhaustive, but it shows that modesty is a consideration of the extent to which the body correctly portrays the soul.

The soul is holy and contains a Divine spark, but it cannot be seen. The body and its behaviors are the manifestations of the soul, and we are commanded to use our bodies in ways that honor the souls within.

What can modesty mean if you are not looking to adopt an Orthodox dress code?

Modesty is a way of subduing the external in order to emphasize what’s internal. This can apply to what we wear, our possessions, the words we use, and other ways that we exist in the physical world. A pursuit of modesty could mean buying a less expensive car, or it could mean refraining from posting a picture of a recent vacation on Instagram.

At the same time, it is important to remember that we are meant to enjoy the physical aspects of the world, and should be careful not to shame ourselves or others for finding pleasure in natural and human creations. In the Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin 4:12, Rav Chizkiya teaches in the name of Rav that in the world to come, a person will be required to give an account of everything which is permissible to eat that he saw, but chose not to consume. This teaching puts us on the defense for not maximizing physical pleasure! It is as though we insult God by not taking joy in God’s creations. Modesty, then, ought to be approached in a way that seeks balance between appreciation of what we have, and a recognition that focusing too much on ourselves can pull us away from caring about our obligations to others and to God.

If I was your daughter, what would you teach me/show me about modesty?

That when it comes to what you wear and how you comport yourself, you should seek to be dignified. Dignity is the recognition that we are holy and have many special qualities, and that we should choose behaviors that are appropriate for who we are. I would also teach her that it is easy to judge people by what they wear, and that she will face a great deal of pressure to join in cruel conversations about other people’s clothing and behaviors. She doesn’t have to take part – she can be a leader amongst her peers by speaking positively about others and looking past appearances to get to know the person within.

If I was your son, what would you teach me/show me about modesty?

The exact same thing.

How has contemporary life affected the practical applications of modesty?

We have so many opportunities today over social media to exhibit our external features. A common way for teenagers to show their affection for one another is to share positive comments about each other’s selfies on Instagram. It is trendy to use pictures to exhibit what we ate, who we are with, what we have accomplished, and so forth, and it is very easy to cross boundaries of modesty.

To balance these behaviors, it is important to find deeper ways to connect, so that we can remain in the practice of not just praising what is beautiful, but being comfortable and open to that which is ugly and painful, because all of these experiences are part of life.

Is modesty important in this day and age? Why?

Modesty is as important today as in the past because our struggle between pride and humility is eternal. We are taught that all humans are created with the Good Inclination and the Evil Inclination, and that our task in life is for our goodness to overcome our evil tendencies. The practice of modesty is a way to keep ourselves in balance. For some, it is challenging to refrain from sharing that which they are proud of. For others, they subdue themselves too much, and modesty is actually about working towards the confidence to share their strengths and gifts with others and without fear.

Are women limited or liberated by the concept of modesty?

I think that modesty of dress is more limiting than liberating when it comes as a set of standards that a community applies to all women. In these cases, a woman is judged by her appearance first, and her other attributes second. I know some would argue that by dressing in a modest way, it allows her other attributes to be appreciated, and that those who meet her won’t be distracted by her body. I respect that, but I think it only works when a woman complies with the communal standards. If she doesn’t, then her lack of compliance becomes a barrier to this appreciation, and that isn’t fair.

On the other hand, in a system where people can make individual choices about modesty, then the practice can be liberating because it allows a person to find his or her own balance between the external and internal, and it allows this balance to change over time. I do want to add that I do not advocate throwing out all standards of appropriate dress, because we function in a society, and societies have norms. Unless you are interviewing to be a lifeguard, showing up to a job interview in a bathing suit is not going to land you a job, even if you are smart and capable.

Our minds rely on some standards of “normal behavior” in order to make sense of the world, and this need translates to expectations for what we wear, say, and do. We might find those expectations limiting at times, and it can be challenging to negotiate to what extent we conform to the standards around us if they are different from what we would choose for ourselves in a vacuum.

What is the intersection between modesty and feminist thought?

Feminist thought advocates for equal standards and for individual choices. This means that the virtue of modesty should be taught to people equally, not over-emphasized for women as it is today. It also means that people choose for themselves and are responsible for their own actions. Regrettably, many teachings about modesty of women’s dress are presented as important for keeping men from sexual transgression. One of the important lessons that feminist thought has promoted is that a woman is not responsible for a man’s sexual aggression because of what she wore. She didn’t “ask for it.” We were created with free will, and each of us is responsible for controlling our temptations, regardless of another person’s choice of clothing.

If I am interested in experimenting with modesty in my personal behavior, what 2-3 things might I think about doing?

The first step I would suggest is to identify an area or two in your life where you feel like you want a better balance between the internal and external. Next, choose a behavior to help promote that balance. For example, if I feel like I speak too much about myself and want to strive to keep more of these thoughts inside so that I can be more available to listen to others, then I might set the practice of asking a friend three caring questions in a conversation before I talk about myself. If I think that I am too focused on showing my wealth through clothing and accessories, then I might choose a more modest brand and use the money I save to purchase clothing for people in need.

If I am interested in exploring the topic of Jewish modesty, what books might I read?

The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism, by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, which is a collection of essays about Judaism and sexuality, and which includes a chapter by Rabbi Ruttenberg called “Toward a New Tzniut” which provides a more expansive view of modesty.

With Heart in Mind, by Alan Morinis, which is a book about Jewish virtues (in Hebrew, Mussar). If one is interested in approaching modesty as a virtue, and not as a dress code, then the chapters in this book help a person achieve greater balance of character.

Your turn:  What is the intersection between modesty and feminist thought? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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