By R’ Chaim Bruk
We just wrapped up an uplifting Shavuos, the day on which Hashem married His beloved bride, the Jewish people. I think it’s a good time to speak about the foundations of marriage and to chat openly about a subject that is slightly uncomfortable, though it shouldn’t be. You know, they say that the job of a rabbi is to “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable,” so let’s have at it.
Over the years, Chavie has taught me how with every challenge that plagues a society, family, or individual, one must look beneath the surface to find the “rest of the story,” trying to understand the real issue instead of the external manifestation of the issue.
A woman once approached Rav Chaim Brisker with a strange question. She wanted to know whether someone could use milk instead of wine for the four cups at the Seder, since she simply couldn’t afford the wine. He responded by giving her an especially large amount of money. One of the rabbi’s students asked him, “I understand you gave her money because she can’t afford the wine, but why so much?”
The rabbi explained, “If she wants to drink milk at the Seder, it is obvious she has no meat for Pesach either, as mixing milk and meat is prohibited. So, I gave her enough to buy both wine and meat for the entire holiday.”
Being smart, having a Yiddishe kop with wise intuition, seeing the layer beneath what is visible to the naked eye is the name of the game. That brings me directly to this week’s Torah portion, Naso, in which we read about the sotah woman.
The sotah of the Torah is a woman who secluded herself with a suspected adulterer although her husband warned her not to do so. If she wished to remain married to her husband, she would be brought to the Beis HaMikdash, the Holy Temple, and given “bitter waters” to drink. This would lead to her demise (and the demise of her consort) if she was indeed guilty of adultery, but would bring great blessings for her if she was innocent.
It’s a mitzvah that encompasses so many aspects of the human condition: Temptation, suspicion, warnings, betrayal, public humiliation, reward and punishment, unhealthy marriages, adultery, paranoia, and the whole gamut of the human journey of life. It’s a reminder of the importance of following the halachos of yichud, ensuring we aren’t privately secluded with someone of the opposite gender. It’s a reminder of the importance to be faithful in our marriages even if we are tempted to act otherwise. It’s a reminder to observe shemiras einayim, guarding our eyes, to ensure we aren’t looking at things that can damage our marriage and soil our soul. It’s a reminder that modesty isn’t a chumrah of chassidim or yeshivish people; there are myriads of halachos in Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, for both men and women, on how to dress with tznius.
It’s a big deal.
Yet, I think that when we talk about tznius there are a lot of raw emotions that come to the forefront for many people. Our minds start swirling, we get defensive: “Why are male rabbis obsessed with how women dress?” “Why are we so busy with modesty in the first place; it should be to each her own?” I’ve heard people say, “I was so sick of my teachers talking about tznius, about elbows, knees, and necklines, that I went the other direction.”
Talking about modesty has its risk, so why would I choose to discuss it? The answer is that from a Torah perspective, tznius isn’t about covering up part of our bodies because our bodies are bad or because we are trying to hide something; on the contrary, it’s about Hashem giving men and women a path to reveal our Jewish dignity and self-respect.
I was never part of the tznius police, nor do I seek to join. I never understood how men, sometimes respected rabbis, get close enough to woman to know so much about their dress code. I don’t understand why public embarrassment, something considered like murder in the Torah, would be so brazenly administered in the name of Yiddishkeit by people who officially “care.” Sure, Pinchas killed Zimri and his girlfriend, but that was not about tznius, it was about public cohabitation with a gentile woman, the warrior was the holy Pinchas, and it only happened once in Jewish history. I think talking about tznius is like everything else in Torah that needs to be presented positively, as in the words of Shlomo HaMelech in Proverbs: “Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.” Are we teaching about the importance of tznius with the same kindness that we deal with bikur cholim (visiting the sick), giving Jews a proper burial, and helping a needy kallah get married with dignity, or are we being unkind and extreme in how we deal with it?
Modesty is for both men and women. Imagine if we spoke to both genders about tznius with an inspiring message on how these rules are the backbone of a healthy, loving marriage, how these laws are to benefit us and make us more appealing to our spouses or eventual spouses, how these halachos are to help us experience real love and intimacy. Sane men and women are always seeking ways to enhance their relationships, so why not focus on the beauty of what this does for those cherished relations? Tznius shouldn’t be about male chauvinism rearing its ugly head in the name of religion, it shouldn’t be about rabbis talking about an issue that is less relevant to everyone and moving the focus on to a few people who are “chosen” for rebuke. It shouldn’t be about making people feel uncomfortable in the Jewish community. It’s about uplifting Klal Yisrael to its true glory with a deep respect for everyone and a wish that we all live up to a higher standard.
To be sure, Chavie and I have tznius standards in our home, like we have standards with kosher, Shabbos, and language. It’s our home, and we make the rules. But I hope to never join the judgmental team who use modesty as a tool to hurt others, which is certainly not what Hashem wants or what we were hired to do.
Rabbi Chaim Bruk is co-CEO of Chabad Lubavitch of Montana and spiritual leader of The Shul of Bozeman. For comments or to partner in our holy work, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit JewishMontana.com/Donate.