Dear Jew in the City,
I hear people in the Orthodox community sometimes talk about tznius (modesty) for a woman like it is her MOST important mitzvah. Like what she exists for. While I’m a fan of tznius, this perspective on it does not sit well with me – that our greatest goal in life as women is to disappear. Am I right? Are the sources in my favor?
Dear Michal –
Thanks for your question. There is a point of view, sometimes espoused by the right end of the Orthodox spectrum, to the extent that what Torah does for men, tzniyus does for women. I know this because a certain fairly controversial book on modesty actually has a section titled “What Torah Does for Men, Tznius Does for Women.” The intention of this statement is as follows: the Talmud (Kiddushin 30b) teaches us that the mitzvah of Torah study protects men from the yetzer hara (evil inclination). This position states that since women do not have an obligation to study Torah comparable to that of men, tzniyus fulfills the same function. But what is the source for such an assertion?
I am not aware of any Biblical verse or Talmudic dictum in support of this concept. The only real support the author brings is a statement of the Vilna Gaon. The Gaon, who was traveling, sent a letter home to his family with words of encouragement against all sorts of negative traits and behaviors – all except for his mother, whom he excluded because of her great modesty. The inference is that her adherence to the standards of tzniyus protects her from temptation. The author notes that “some versions” of the Gaon’s letter spell this point out explicitly. Even so, and with greatest deference to the Vilna Gaon, an unsourced opinion expressed in 18th-century personal correspondence does not carry the same force of law as the Talmud, the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah or the Shulchan Aruch..
It’s actually impossible to answer “what is the most important mitzvah?” We intuitively “feel” that mitzvos like Shabbos and keeping kosher are more important than most and we don’t spend as much time thinking about things like shaatnez (not wearing garments of mixed wool and linen), taking challah from our dough or not charging interest. In fact, the mishnah in Pirkei Avos (2:1) tells us to be as careful in what we perceive to be “small” mitzvos as we are in what we consider to be “big” mitzvos specifically because we don’t know the relative importance of mitzvos.
Along these lines, we see two mitzvos that promise a “long life” (in Olam Haba) for their fulfillment: honoring one’s parents (Exodus 20:12) and sending a mother bird away before taking the young or eggs from her nest (Deuteronomy 22:7). Honoring one’s parents is very difficult – it takes decades of constant vigilance! Shooing a bird away takes but a moment of one’s time. It’s very telling that the Torah promises the same reward for these two very different mitzvos!
Now, tzniyus is not just a “women’s mitzvah” and it’s not just about what we wear. Tzniyus is for everyone and it’s ultimately about how we act. Micah 6:8 tells us, “It has been told to you, humanity, what is good and what God asks of you: only that you act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” (The word “humbly” in this verse is hatzneia, same as the word tzniyus.) So do people overemphasize the women’s clothing aspect of this mitzvah? Some do, especially when they try to impose standards that exceed what halacha actually expects.
Since we can’t say definitively what the most important mitzvah is, there are people who dedicate their lives to a wide array of mitzvos. Some people fight lashon hara (gossip and slander). Some encourage hachnosas orchim (hospitality). Some educate people about family purity while others work to arrange proper burials for the deceased. The list goes on and on. And yes, some people feel that the area of tzniyus is one where the community needs education and they work in that area, to various degrees of success. We need that, just like we need the others. There are those, however, who promote expectations beyond what’s actually called for by tzniyus. That’s where the problem lies.
So can I tell you that tzniyus is the most important mitzvah for women? Absolutely not. I also can’t tell you that it isn’t. This information is specifically withheld from us so that we should take all the mitzvos seriously! But just as we don’t tell people to refrain from all speech in order to avoid lashon hara, or to spend all day in bed on Shabbos in order to avoid performing forbidden activities, we should ensure that the things we promote in the name of tzniyus are actually appropriate for achieving the goal and not counterproductive or unnecessarily burdensome on the community.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is the author of seven books including The Tzniyus Book.