In recent years, debates about the right to privacy have emerged stronger than ever. Especially in light of last week’s events, there are political issues to explore, but we all also have our own introspective work to do to grow in our own sense of modesty (tzniut).
Modesty is deeply connected to, but distinct from, humility (anavah), the trait for which, the Torah explains, Moshe is the paradigm (Numbers 12:3). The prophet Micah famously calls upon us to “walk humbly” (Micah 6:8), and Proverbs 11:2 reminds us “to be humble.” The Talmud teaches that humility is one of the chief virtues of the Jewish people (Yevamot 79a), and further, according to Rabbi Elazar bar Tzadok, that this verse is referring not only to our fashion choices but also to our behavior (Sukkah 49b).
This emphasis on personal privacy as virtue is a hallmark of the social vision of the Torah and the rabbis. Jewish law prohibits placing a window in one’s house that will allow one to see through a neighbor’s window. The Gemara learns this from Bilam’s praise for Israel’s tents, which were set up so that the tent openings would not face one another (Bava Batra 60a). This value also informs the prohibition against hezek re’iyah, causing damage through sight (Bava Batra 2b). The Ramban teaches that there are three problems with this conduct: tzniut (modesty), lashon hara (evil speech), and ayin hara (evil eye).
First, when one sees what he is not meant to see, there is a sense of shame for both seer and seen and it leads to immodesty for both parties. Second, it can lead to lashon hara, one now knows private information that they did not need to know, and they are likely to spread it around. Third, there is an ayin hara: Seeing that which one is not meant to see is a metaphysical statement, to wit that a person’s destiny has been altered by what her eyes have taken in.
With this understanding, modesty is not only a legal or moral value but also a theological one. God is considered the absolute model of modesty, as the Divine is never fully revealed or understood; In this view, God’s hidden presence from the world is more of an expression of a value than it is a theological problem. The most unique and special aspects of oneself should often be shared most privately and intimately reserved for those we love most.
Unfortunately, today’s discourse on humility and modesty focuses almost solely on dress, particularly women’s dress. For example, we have seen recent examples in Israel of ultra-Orthodox men who harassing Orthodox girls (let alone the secular majority) for being immodest according to their standards. In the United States, there was a time in the mid-19th century when women were expected to wear dresses that extended to the floor and were many layers thick, making simple tasks such as climbing stairs, doing chores, or crossing a street virtually impossible. However, even the courageous woman suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton was unable to withstand the harassment she faced when she wore “bloomers,” a shorter skirt with puffy pant legs that extended to the ground but allowed more movement: “People would stare, many make rude remarks, boys follow in crowds, with jeers and laughter, so that gentlemen in attendance would feel it their duty to show fight…” We must learn to extend the virtue of modesty beyond how one dresses, surely not in a way that diminishes the potential of women.
In the modern world extremists who mask their cruelty behind a veneer of Islam have reached unprecedented levels of oppression through “modesty.” Batya Swift Yasgur’s book Behind the Burqa: Our Life in Afghanistan and How We Escaped to Freedom, details the story of two Afghan women. Under the Taliban, modesty for women was extended to such an extreme that not only was female education forbidden, but women were now forbidden to leave their home in most circumstances, and they were forced to wear a burqa, which not only covered everything from head to toe, but also only allowed women to see out of their hoods through a narrow mesh area. The religious police increasingly and brutally enforced the Taliban’s edicts. One woman witnessed another woman in a burqa walking close by. Unfortunately, her ankle showed as she walked, whereupon a religious policeman came up to her:
“Hey, Kafir! Infidel! You are exposing your flesh!”
He lashed at her with his whip. Again and again it descended. Muffled cries came from beneath the burqa…. Male passers-by averted their eyes, women hurried past. When he was done he spat a curse at her and she stumbled away.
Eventually the pressure led many women to commit suicide. Isn’t it clear that the focus on women’s dress should at least fall short of this?
The Jewish value of privacy should be applied to many of the pressing political issues we face today. There are certainly times when collective security may trump the value of privacy, but this tradeoff should be considered and then executed only with great caution and deliberation. In America, we have had a long history of legal battles over privacy, from the mid-18th century battle of the British use of general search warrants (the “Writs of Assistance“) to the recent Supreme Court decision to allow the police to take arrested (not even convicted) people’s DNA samples. In both cases, the authorities tried to use a general search tactic to solve crimes that did not have to be specified, with a risk that the authorities would expand this power as a way to amass more information. Have we switched sides on this issue of privacy? Our actions will determine how much privacy versus security we have.
Our commitment to modesty should affect how we dress, spend, talk, and conduct ourselves in all ways but modesty is relative to time, culture, person, and situation so we dare not pass judgments on others. In doing so, we must also be cognizant that pressing the idea of modesty may be harmful to some people, especially women, and we should refrain from showing a cruel face to the world in our efforts to encourage modesty. We are ultimately to live as other-focused beings and not self-focused beings. Embracing modesty, humility, and privacy is an attempt to see beyond ourselves. It’s a tzimtzum (self-retraction) where we create more room for the other.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”