Sunday, January 02, 2011

Modesty (Tzniut) as Theology -

In a conversation with my brother regarding the custom for men to cover their heads, he pointed out that Rambam considers it a matter of Tzniut – modesty. Indeed, Rambam in Hilchot De’ot 5:10 writes –

צניעות גדולה נוהגים תלמידי חכמים בעצמן:  לא יתבזו, ולא יגלו ראשן ולא גופן.

At first blush, it seems a little odd. What immodesty is there in uncovering one’s head? I can accept that being naked in public is immodest but in private? Rambam does not differentiate. As usual, to understand Rambam he has to be read in the broad context of his overall thoughts. in their excellent Rambam tag where they have added some key commentators on each Halacha, points to an obscure sefer Midot Vede’ot by R. Shmarya Leib Horowitz (1878-1938), probably chosen by because he lived and served as a Rav in New York, who links this Halacha with MN 3:52.

We do not sit, move, and occupy ourselves when we are alone and at home, in the same manner as we do in the presence of a great king. We speak and open our mouth as we please when we are with the people of our own household and with our relatives, but not so when we are in a royal assembly. If we therefore desire to attain human perfection, and to be truly men of God, we must awake from our sleep, and bear in mind that the great king that is over us, and is always joined to us, is greater than any earthly king, greater than David and Shlomo are. The king that cleaves to us and embraces us is the Intellect that influences us, and forms the link between us and God. We perceive God by means of that light that He sends down unto us, wherefore the Psalmist says, "In Thy light shall we see light" (Ps. xxxvi. 10): so God looks down upon us through that same light, and is always with us beholding and watching us on account of this light." Can any hide himself in secret places that I shall not see him?" (Jer. xxiii. 24). Note this particularly[1].

When the perfect bear this in mind, they will be filled with fear of God, humility, and piety, with true, not apparent, reverence and respect of God, in such a manner that their conduct, even when alone with their wives or in the bath, will be as modest as they are in public intercourse with other people. Thus, it is related of our renowned Sages that even in their sexual intercourse with their wives they behaved with great modesty. They also said, "Who is modest? He whose conduct in the dark night is the same as in the day." You know also, how much they warned us not to walk proudly, since "the fullness of the whole earth is His glory" (Isa. vi. 3). They thought that by these rules the above-mentioned idea will be firmly established in the hearts of men, viz., that we are always before God, and it is in the presence of His glory that we go to and fro. The great men among our Sages would not uncover their heads because they believed that God's glory was round them and over them.”

The idea of Tzniut thus takes on a completely different form. Indeed, it starts off as a social issue, where nakedness is seen as anti-social. The taboo of nakedness does not come to us naturally but results from our obsession with immediate satisfaction of our physical urges. It is a social custom imposed on society to protect its individuals from each other. Rambam points out in MN 1:2 that a man in a perfected utopian state, one who is totally immersed in intellectual and existential matters, such a person does not see nakedness as untoward:

When Adam was yet in a state of innocence, and was guided solely by reflection and reason--on account of which it is said: "Thou hast made him (man) little lower than the angels" (Ps. viii. 6)--he was not at all able to follow or to understand the principles of apparent truths. The most manifest impropriety, e.g. to appear in a state of nudity, was nothing unbecoming according to his idea: he could not comprehend why it should be so.”

It is only imperfect man with his misplaced priorities that perceives nakedness as wrong.

After man's disobedience, however, when he began to give way to desires which had their source in his imagination and to the gratification of his bodily appetites, as it is said, "And the wife saw that the tree was good for food and delightful to the eyes" (Gen. iii. 6), he was punished by the loss of part of that intellectual faculty which he had previously possessed. … Further observe the passage, "And the eyes of both were opened, and they knew they were naked" (Gen. iii. 7). It is not said, "And the eyes of both were opened, and they saw"; for what the man had seen previously and what he saw after this circumstance was precisely the same: there had been no blindness which was now removed, but he received a new faculty whereby he found things wrong which previously he had not regarded as wrong.”

The taboo resulting from this social norm[2] is the basis for transforming this unsocial behavior into a source of shame and a display of disrespect. That perception of shame and disrespect becomes ingrained into the human psyche and is then used in a positive sense, extending the taboo even to private settings even when a person is alone, even to uncovering parts of the body such as the head that do not interfere with day-to-day activities. This creates a perception of the permanent presence of God. It is taking a human weakness and using it as positive reinforcement by bringing him closer to his utopian potential. It really is no different from most Mitzvot where human traits and weaknesses are used as positive tools for shaping our behavior and eventually our thoughts.

[1] Note how Rambam points to the intellect that links us with God and not God Himself highlighting that point. To be discussed at some future date.
[2] The Halachot dealing with Tzniut as social norm and also as interpersonal behavior between husband and wife as well as other family members and friends are legislated in Hilchot Issurei Biah chapter 21.