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#MeToo and the Pursuit of Modesty

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There can be no denying the significance of the #MeToo movement. It has confronted, and continues to confront, a major problem within our society and, for this, it deserves acknowledgment. What I find somewhat interesting, though, is the response of some involved in this movement. They argue that women must also consider how they present themselves. The contention is that if women portray themselves in an overtly sexual manner, this can also be a factor leading to abuse and, as such, should also be addressed as part of this social correction. There are those, though, who find this very suggestion to be offensive.
 
Some define this argument as a form of blaming the victims; no matter how a woman is dressed, that is no justification for another’s wanton behavior. Others see this contention as infringing on the rights of the individual; if a woman wishes to dress a certain way, it is her right to do so. The issue, for me, though, raised by this discussion is not culpability, blame and/or rights – although these are matters that clearly do have to be addressed – but, rather, communication, specifically the way, often subtly, we present ourselves and interact in the public forum.
 
The argument would be that individuals should be allowed to express themselves to the fullest extent possible. As such, any restriction on such expression of self, arising from public concerns, should be greatly limited. One should simply be allowed to be, and therefore communicate, who they are in public. This consideration should also be applied to dress. In fact, the contention could be made that if one is being directed to not dress a certain way and thereby not to be oneself, this very call, in itself, could also be considered somewhat abusive. Indeed, we could perceive the Bnei Anousim, for example, to also be victims of abuse by the Inquisition, even if they were not directly harmed by this body, in that they could not live as they wished. Yet, is that necessarily the case here?
 
Such advice may actually be of a more positive nature, framed with the sole intent of what is best for the person in and of themselves. This counsel as to how one should dress may simply be just that, a recommendation of a more complete way to actually better portray oneself. The argument may thus be not to change the way one dresses and thereby refrain from presenting oneself in public as one wishes, but, rather, to actually consider, in this regard, one’s full being and personality, and then dress in a manner that truly reflects this complete personhood. The further argument would then be that when one presents the fullness of one’s spirit and character to others, there is less chance for abuse (although one cannot say that this is absolutely foolproof).
 
The Torah concept of tzniut is actually a reflection of this perspective. In misreading this value, many people think that tzniut is just a call for a woman to greatly limit the presentation of her own sexuality at the expense of the portrayal of her personality. In fact, though, the concept of tzniut reflects the opposite intent and is actually a call to connect with others and portray oneself in consideration, in fact, of one’s total being. Its goal -- with applications, in many different ways, to both men and women -- is the unified portrayal of the divergent aspects of one’s being in a totality of personality. Its direction, in our specific case, is not to disregard sexuality but to guide one in how to optimally present oneself, including one’s sexuality, to the world – and this should be as a reflection of the totality of the person. The call is not to limit the full portrayal of oneself but, rather, how to best, fully express oneself.
 
The argument is, thus, that a presentation of overt sexuality is problematic because it promotes a focus on one part of the personality to the exclusion of other traits. Of course, sexuality, as an aspect of a woman’s being, has its place. But it should not be at the expense of the portrayal of her full personality. The Torah’s positive references to a woman’s beauty clearly indicate its recognition of this value on many levels within a woman’s own self-perception. Any suggested limitation in presentation of sexuality thus informs us that it is important to recognize that it is not everything. A call to direct someone to be concerned about how one dresses may thus, not, necessarily, be a directive to limit the expression of self. It could, rather, be a call to not misrepresent oneself by drawing attention to only one aspect of one’s being at the exclusion of the full personality.
 
This is what tzniut is actually all about in its broadest form – how to best present oneself, how to connect with the world – in full reflection of one’s total being. The key to this, in my opinion, is gracefulness – and it is with this consideration in mind that we should determine our attire and consider our behavior in many ways. As sexuality is an inherent part of an individual’s being, the call of the Torah would thus never be to simply suppress it.
 
What the Torah does direct is the proper expression of this trait in a manner that reflects the totality of the person. If this is the nature of the advice of those who call upon women to consider how they present or mispresent themselves, this is advice to be taken into account. It is actually part of a broader call for both men and women to portray their full selves in the world, and thereby dress and act in accurate contemplation of the totality of their complex beings. This should serve to sharpen perception and communication between civilized humans, yielding more positive interaction amongst all of us.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht is the Founding Director of Nishma, which fosters the critical investigation of contemporary issues. For further info, see www.nishma.org and nishmablog.blogspot.com. You can follow Rabbi Hecht on Twitter @NishmaTorah.
 
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