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Guys and Modesty

Guys and Modesty

The Jewish concept of modesty applies to men as much as it does to women.


A recent article of mine discussed the illusory power of girls’ clothing and the real strength we can teach our daughters. One reader’s question really caught my eye: "What about the boys?" This is a valid question and it cuts to the heart of misconceptions about the Jewish concept of tzniyut, which is commonly (but incompletely) translated as “modesty.”

The two largest misconceptions about tzniyut are (1) that it’s just about clothing and (2) that it’s just for girls. Each of these is wholly inaccurate. Yes, how much skin a person displays is an aspect of modesty, but there’s so much more to it than that. How we act, how we talk and how we treat others are all a part of tzniyut, which doesn’t mean to be “modest” so much as to act with propriety and dignity.

Before addressing either of these misconceptions, we have to acknowledge the elephant in the room: the apparent double standard. One often sees articles discussing tzniyut vis-à-vis clothes made available to and worn by women and, especially, teenage girls. How often does one see an analogous article addressing the male audience? Don’t bother counting, I’ll do it for you: never.

The reality is that fashion and society commonly position women, not men, as sex objects. Women’s legs are common sights in business offices, but men’s aren’t. Women’s shoulders, backs and more are readily visible at weddings and other formal occasions and men’s aren’t. So if we spend what appears to be a disproportionate amount of time talking about women’s clothes, that’s because it’s the most pressing aspect in our culture. But tzniyut is much, much more.

Related Article: Beauty Industry vs Modesty

The Talmud discusses men’s clothing at least as much as it discusses women’s. Just a few examples:

  • In Yoma (35b), we are told that Rabbi Elazar ben Harsom’s colleagues would not permit him to wear a finely-woven robe because it was too sheer and his form was visible through the translucent material;
  • In tractate Shabbos (114a), clothes are referred to as the things that honor a person. It continues that it’s considered shameful for a scholar to wear stained or patched clothing, as such are beneath his station;
  • Also in tractate Shabbos, on page 113a, we are told that it is unseemly for a person to be overly concerned with fashion, except when it comes to wearing one’s best for Shabbos.

These are just a few of the statements about clothing that are directed at men. But even though tzniyut is concerned with clothes for both men and women, that’s not the entirety of it by any stretch. What one has on the outside is important, but it’s more important that it truly reflect what’s on the inside.

What one has on the outside is important, but it’s more important that it truly reflect what’s on the inside.

One can be covered from head to toe and still be immodestly dressed. For example, let’s say that a person is wearing a T-shirt or a button with a sexually explicit or provocative message. That would still be considered inappropriate. Now let’s take that message off that person’s chest and put it in his or her mouth. The clothing may now be “modest,” but their words are not.

Tzniyut is largely about how we act. For our sons, the pressures of advertising and clothing manufacturers may not create a crisis of dress, but we still face a huge crisis of action. In our society, the “macho” attitude directed at boys is vast. That’s not an authentic Jewish value; we’ve never been big on machismo.

Look at our Jewish role models. We strive to emulate Abraham’s acclaimed trait of hospitality. Jacob is renowned as a “dweller in tents,” who embraced study. Moses demonstrated his capacity for leadership when he chased after a stray sheep. All of these role models also fought when necessary. Abraham had to rescue his captive nephew. Jacob wrestled the angel and prepared for the possibility of war with Esau. Moses had to save the Israelite who was being beaten by the Egyptian taskmaster. We don’t shy away from a fight. We don’t hesitate to battle if need be in order to protect the innocent, but these are not the aspects of our heroes that we celebrate. The more compassionate side of our role models is inevitably our ideal.

Another important aspect of being a man is in how one treats women. When we talk to girls about what they wear, we always stress the fact that immodest clothing serves to objectify women. The onus isn’t completely on the girls, of course. If we would teach our daughters not to let others see them as objects, we must likewise teach our sons not to objectify women regardless of what they wear.

How many people have actually done this? Not many, I’d wager. In fact, we often do the opposite, albeit unconsciously, when we tacitly approve of promiscuous behaviors from boys while simultaneously disapproving of the same behaviors from girls.

The Midrash discusses the creation of woman from man. We are told that Eve was taken from Adam’s side so that they should be equals. Woman is man’s partner, not his subordinate and certainly not a thing. They are inherently different–and viva la difference!–but they are also inherently equal. Acting like a caveman towards girls actually makes a boy less of a real man.

God told the prophet Micah, “He has shown you, man, what is good. What does Hashem ask of you? To act justly, to love mercy and to behave with tzniyut in front of God” (Micah 6:8). Right there, God said what he wants of men – justice, mercy and tzniyut.

The mishna in Ethics of the Fathers tells us, “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man” (2:5). This doesn’t mean to go around cracking skulls and taking names. That’s not a characteristic we value. If we would have our sons learn to be real men, we must teach them to reliable, honest and upright members of society, to protect the innocent when necessary and to respect women.

If we would teach our sons – and our daughters – about tzniyut, we must encourage them to internalize the characteristics for which modesty in dress is ultimately a mere façade.

May 28, 2011

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Visitor Comments: 48

(31) Joseph, June 15, 2014 2:40 PM

boys tend to dress in uniforms

Whether you watch the 'red carpet' for the Oscars or you visit a Litvish yeshivah, most males are wearing black suits and white shirts with black or dark ties. Few men wear mini-trousers, plunging necklines, chest hugging shirts, bright red suits etc. I'm told that women on the 'red carpet' at the Oscars or at Cannes dress in a way our grandmothers would have thought not kosher. Women have far greater freedom in how they dress and therefore their mothers may need to guide them in tzenius. Boys tend to wear 'uniforms' and thereby avoid the problem of what to wear.

(30) Ann Canada, June 14, 2014 9:15 PM

Thoughtfully Written

This was a thoughtfully written article, Rabbi Abramowitz, but I was surprised that it did not address the very obvious: that men indeed can dress provocatively and need to be aware of the effects such dress can have on women. Tight jeans, pants worn low, revealing underwear and "Way too much information" about a man's lower half, muscle shirts--or no shirts at all--to name a few examples. While these may not be seen at Shul, outside of "Shul time" men should take care to dress discretely. We women may not have the same thoughts about nakedness as do men, but our eyes all see the same.

Ray, July 13, 2014 6:53 PM

Amen lady. When I go to pool or wear summer clothes, I purposely wear shorts a sizable slightly bigger. Why? I don't want to be exposed. I also wear my shorts properly. I hate with a passion folks wearing pants, shorts hanging off their butts. I don't want to see "the crack of dawn" or a "moonshot". There are some men like myself who wants to be modest and a gentleman.

(29) Anonymous, June 13, 2014 2:28 PM

Side-stepping the issue

Seems to me you just avoided tackling the question head on. Yes, it takes courage to face the question and the larger issues, but you have a well-educated public here and many won't accept distraction and pablum for answers.
Let's get back to tzniut in dress. It appears that dress laws of tzniut excuse men from being boors by putting the entire weight of responsibility and blame onto women. How did that happen? Halacha is a man's world-- written and paskened by men. And what is the result today? In the frum community women are judged daily on the basis of how they dress and frum women in particular assess other women based on dress. Nasty business.
Rather than constantly stare and judge the secular world (where that obsession comes from is fodder for another article), consider how the frum community comes across to the secular Jewish world. To them it seems that observant men, even those immersed in Torah and Torah study, have their minds stuck on sex. And who is to blame? Their women, of course. Not attractive.
The laws of tzniut have validity; the frum world, by their (our) obsessive and compulsive behaviours, overbearing judgemental attitudes, and fear of facing and discussing issues openly (such as what about tzniut and men & issues raised above) belittle and degrade the validity of tzniut in dress.

(28) Anonymous, June 10, 2014 5:29 AM

Jewish Guys and Modesty

I noticed that the rock group, the Rolling Stones, performed in Israel and went to the Kotel. The drummer, Charlie Watts, is Jewish. All these years, he has been the only one of the group who has bypassed all the groupie, orgy-like, drug parties after the concerts. He was and is a family man. He always took his family with him and abstained from the other member's shameful ways and abstained. Charlie is Jewish. Always very quiet, humble and soft-spoken, he is the one who got the standing ovation more than anyone else in the band. He was exhilirated when he went to the Kotel and to Eretz Yisrael for the first time. Let's give a big round of applause to Charlie Watts, who always has been a nice Jewish boy and abstained since 1965, not following peer pressure or temptation. A very good soul. He started out as a jazz musician and stayed with the Stones, a rock band, after they started making money on their records and just continued with them, ignoring their mishugas, and kept his tzniskeit. May Hashem bless him and his descendants for his abstinence in the face of true evil. In '' or 'dailymailonline' you can see the Stones at the Kotel. Mick is respectful, praying at the Kotel and Ron Wood looks absolutely stunned at the true kedushah there. I wonder why Keith decided not to go to the Kotel? Well, all in all, Charlie Watts is a nice Jewish boy, surrounded by tumah and kelipot and he abstained and wasn't tempted. A gute Neshamah.

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