Reclaiming Tzeniut: Mosheh Rabbeinu, Divine Mercy, and Modesty

One of my favorite sports is intellectual judo.  The essential insight of physical judo (or so I learned years ago from Captain America) is that exerting force always makes you vulnerable, as the force can be redirected, and your momentum makes you redirectable.  Intellectual judo seeks to use the strength of an opponent’s argument to undo it.

This insight can be applied productively to the use of prooftexts.  Using a particular text to support or embody your position leaves you vulnerable to other interpretations of that text, whose authority you can no longer deny.  This is especially the case if the new interpretation is a subtle redirection rather than a blunt reversal.

One text with much cultural force in contemporary Orthodoxy is the first half of Proverbs 45:14

כל כבודה בת מלך פנימה

generally translated along the lines of

All the honor of a king’s daughter is within,

and applied as an imperative for women to stay out of the public square and generally to avoid drawing attention to themselves.

There is no denying that this reading has deep roots in our tradition.  The locus classicus is :מדרש תנחומא (ורשא) פרשת וישלח סימן ו

:א”ר יוסי

,כשהאשה מצנעת את עצמה בתוך הבית – ראויה להנשא לכהן גדול, ותעמיד כהנים גדולים

,’שנאמר כל כבודה וגו

Said R. Yose:

When a woman secretes (matzna’at) herself within the house – she is worthy of marrying a High Priest, and will raise High Priests,

as Scripture says: “All the honor etc.”.

An enthusiastic collection of similar statements can be found in שו”ת משנה הלכות חלק ט סימן שיא .

What, however, is the connection between tzeniut and High Priests?  The answer is in the continuation of the verse, ממשבצות זהב לבושה, which R. Yose understands as follows:

אם תכבד עצמה בתוך הבית, “ממשבצות זהב לבושה” – תנשא למי שכתוב בהן ושבצת הכתונת שש

If she honors herself within the house, then “from embroidered gold her clothes will be” – meaning that she will marry someone (i.e., a High Priest) about whom it is written [ושבצת כתנת שש[1.

It should be clear that this reading depends on a displacement that any feminist critique would call out immediately; the woman’s reward is achieved only vicariously, but she herself – in fact no woman – is ever allowed to wear the garments of the High Priest.

An underlying textual justification for the connection, but one subject to the same critique, is that the High Priest serves לפני ולפנים, within the House of G-d.

Talmud Yoma 47a cites a story that apparently concretizes the connection.

:תנו רבנן

.שבעה בנים היו לה לקמחית וכולן שמשו בכהונה גדולה

?אמרו לה חכמים: מה עשית שזכית לכך

.אמרה להם: מימי לא ראו קורות ביתי קלעי שערי

.אמרו לה: הרבה עשו כן, ולא הועילו

A beraita:

Kimchit had seven sons, and each of them served as High Priest.

The Sages said to her: What have you done that merits this?

She said to them: In all my days the walls of my house never saw the weave of my hair.

They said to her:  Many have done this, but it did not avail them.

Rashi makes the connection explicit:

:לא ראו קורות ביתי כו’ – ראיתי בתלמוד ירושלמי

 –”כל כבודה בת מלך פנימה ממשבצות זהב לבושה”

.אשה צנועה ראויה לצאת ממנה כהן גדול הלבוש משבצות זהב

“The walls of my house never saw etc.” – I saw in the Jerusalem Talmud:

“All the honor of a king’s daughter is within; from embroidered gold her clothes will be” –

A tzanua women is fit to have a High Priest who wears embroidered gold descend from her.

Gevurot Ari (1695-1750), however, argues (against Or Zarua and Meiri) that the Rabbis’ response to Kimchit implies a rejection of this textual reading, at least in the Bavli.  Perhaps in his understanding the Babylonian rabbis were in fact aware of many other women who had behaved similarly to no effect, or perhaps they shared the sense that a vicarious reward would be insufficient.  But I suspect their primary motive for rejecting Kimchit’s claim was that they opposed her behavior and did not wish to encourage others to pursue what they saw as excessive tzeniut.

Why was her tzeniut excessive?  For her walls not to have seen her hair, her husband must not have seen it either.  Kimchit therefore was concealing her hair because she regarded it as intrinsically shameful, not to preserve the intimacy of revealing it.  But the point of tzeniut is to preserve intimacy, not to preclude it.

This becomes clear when we look at a different reading of the verse, found in the Midrash Rabbah to this week’s Parashah.

…כל כבודה בת מלך . . .” – זה משה”

.ממשבצות זהב לבושה” – זה אהרן…”

 “All the honor of a king’s daughter (is within) . . .” this refers to Mosheh . . .

“. . . than the one who wears embroidered gold” – this refers to Aharon.

Here the king’s daughter is Mosheh, whom G-d honors by revealing Himself only within the Tent of Meeting.  Within is the place for meeting and for revealing oneself to another in perfect intimacy.

This midrash also reads the conjunction between the verse’s sections entirely differently.  The mem is contrastive, “than”, rather, than consequential.  The honor of intimacy within is greater than the honor of being allowed to wear the fanciest clothes.

If we take this reading back to the theme of women’s physicality – the verse now means that a woman is ultimately more honored by her husband’s private intimacy than by his buying her fancy clothes and jewelry.  But wearing such clothes and jewelry in public still follows the model of Aharon, and surely is not subject to criticism.

Rabbeinu Bechayeh on last week’s parshah (Vayikra 27:13) offers yet another reading, with perhaps even more radical implications for tzeniut.  In support of a mystical/symbolic reading of כל and כבוד, he writes the following:

.מדת הכבוד בת מלך היא מבפנים, אף על פי שהיא לבושה מבחוץ במשבצות זהב

The attribute of honor for a king’s daughter is within, even though she is wearing embroidered gold externally.

Here – and I suspect this may be the most straightforward reading of the verse – the embroidered gold is neither the reward nor the superseded competition, but rather the context.  Even when wearing embroidered gold, one should be aware that one’s true honor comes from within, and not from external perceptions.  “All the glory of a king’s daughter is within even when her clothing is from embroidered gold”.

Rabbeinu Bechayeh offers this reading as an explanation of various phenomena in which the feminine (mercy/rachamim) is embedded within the masculine (law, din), such as the angel within the fire at the Burning Bush.  I think his point, in a Maimonidean vein, is that one can conceal something by encasing it in a plain cardboard box, but sometimes equally or even more effectively by encasing it in something so independently attention-worthy that observers never think to look beyond the surface.

In other words – the truest form of tzeniut is not concealment of the body, but rather preservation of the self for intimacy, and external beauty can conceal as well as reveal. 

Now this reading is easily subject to reduction ad absurdum, and it is certainly not my intention to argue that Torah is or should be unconcerned about soulless sexual displays.  But I do wish to problematize this particular verse as a source for modesty codes, especially enforced modesty codes; to make clear that modesty practices are intended to exalt intimacy rather than to make it shameful; and finally, to recognize that the interrelationship of body and soul, and how they should affect physical presentation, deserves much more extensive and nuanced treatment than I have yet seen.

As always, your comments are invited and appreciated.

Shabbat shalom






[1]The printed citation here is Shemot 28:39, but I am confident this is an error, and the correct citation is from Shemot 28:13: ועשית משבצת זהב.



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