On My Mind

Is Compromised Tzenius the Cost of Being a Communal Leader?

Tzenius was never really on my radar screen when I was a pre-teen. If mentioned at all, it was referenced as a dress code, most pertinent when in school or shul and, even then, only for girls. When my classmates were having bar mitzvah parties, there was chatter regarding tzenius rules for girls. It left me with the impression that tzenius is a set of attire restrictions intended to frustrate the provocation of promiscuity. In my thirteen-year-old mind it struck me as similar to the restrictions of muktzah, which I had learned were rabbinically introduced to impede the violation of the Biblical prohibitions of Shabbos.

While attending the all-boys Ner Israel high school, I was taught that tzenius, in addition to being a set of rules, is a character virtue. But unlike other traits like anivus (humbleness), hasmadah (diligence) and chevrashaft (fraternity), tzenius was only sporadically mentioned. During those early yeshivah years I primarily encountered tzenius when overhearing the older bachrim reference a proposed shidduch candidate’s tzenius practices as reflecting her degree of alignment with the lifestyle values of the bachur. Tzenius evolved in my mind from being a tool for behavior modification to a tool for judging people, women in particular.

Little did I imagine that decades later I would be grappling with the esoteric religious value of tzenius when pondering whether to assume the role of OU president.

Uncovering Tzenius

Over the years I began to awaken to the nuanced mindfulness and behavioral choices contained within the ethos of tzenius. In small incremental steps and by arduously discarding prior misimpressions, I gradually discerned the expansiveness and import of tzenius. Most unexpected was discovering the significance of tzenius in accessing spirituality.

The first indication that tzenius was more than about criticizing sleeve lengths and tight garments was when I noticed that the word tzenius was also being employed to criticize many other behaviors and practices, such as materialistic opulence and personal swagger. Before delving into why those types of behaviors were criticized as tzenius violations, I had to consider the possibility that tzenius is simply a word appropriately used whenever conveying disapproval. 

The next route was exploring the commonality among the types of behavior that elicited tzenius grievances. My first observation was that, though frowned upon for other reasons, extravagance and lavishness are not criticized as being “un-tzeniusdik” when they are indulged in privately, but suffer such criticism when conducted deliberately for public display. Similarly, pride in extraordinary personal accomplishments is encouraged when shared with friends and family but may be castigated as “un-tzeniusdik” when broadcast publicly and loudly for all to hear. 

It became evident to me that, as I had been taught in yeshivah, tzenius itself is actually a character trait. By its nature, it encompasses certain areas of halachah, but it is much more than that. And most certainly, the trait of tzenius applies to men as well as to women, as reflected in its Biblical source, “U’mah Hashem doresh mimcha ki im asos mispat, v’ahavas chesed, v’hatznei’a leches im Elokecha—And what does G-d require of you but to employ justice, and to love goodness and to walk modestly with your G-d” (Michah 6:8). Not only are there no gender allusions, but the pasuk is understood by the Talmud in Makkos (24a) as the prophet Michah providing the basis of all 613 mitzvos, not just those that are applicable to women.

Three Dimensions of Jewish Focus

As reflected in Pirkei Avos (1:2, 2:11 and 4:21), Judaism sees personal religious development in three facets: our relationship with others, our relationship with Hashem and our relationship with ourselves. In addition to being applicable to our overarching religious growth, this three-dimensional view of Judaism applies equally to each character trait that demands our attention, whether it is a personal strength that we are charged with harnessing for growth or a personal weakness that we are challenged to overcome. Tzenius must therefore be studied in all three dimensions. 

When contemplating the assumption of the OU presidency, I recognized that the implications and impact of tzenius are particularly acute for those assuming highly visible communal roles. I realized that this same challenge is posed to anyone undertaking a high-visibility professional communal position such as a rabbi, educator or politician. Needless to say, entertainers are particularly vulnerable to tzenius challenges. I therefore explored from each dimension the tzenius implications for public figures.

Dimension 1: Relating to Others through Integration

Curiously, although we are introduced to tzenius by a pasuk addressing only our relationship with Hashem, we confront tzenius most often in the way we appear to or communicate with others. Recognizing the exact types of behaviors or language that can result in a breach of modesty may identify those social dynamics that the trait of tzenius is intended to influence.

   While provocativeness and inciting envy are two commonplace examples of immodesty, they are merely representative of numerous actions or behaviors that violate tzenius when employed to purposefully draw attention to oneself. Even when not provocative, being inordinately loud and boisterous, adopting attention-grabbing antics and wearing flashy, outlandish clothing may all be considered violations of tzenius. 

   My father, a”h, once observed that drawing attention by driving a strikingly beat-up jalopy (when you are well-to-do) may be as much a deficiency in tzenius as another fellow driving an exceptionally flamboyant sports car.  

   What is common to all these immodest behaviors? They all relate to whether the individual is seeking to meld into the community of Klal Yisrael or be distinct and apart.

    Identifying oneself as an integrated member of our community is core to being a Torah Jew and our character and behavior should advance this goal. Dereliction in the middah of tzenius compromises this identity by allowing our actions or behaviors to create detachment and distinctiveness. This should not be misinterpreted to suggest that the Torah discourages individuality. However, our personal uniqueness is intended to serve as a part of the collective fabric of the tzibbur. The ethos and behavioral parameters of tzenius provide guidance on how to cultivate our individuality while remaining interwoven with our peers and thereby with Klal Yisrael. 

Individuals in high-profile communal roles are particularly challenged in ensuring that their avodas Hashem is conducted with the trait of tzenius.

Admittedly, I have always been somewhat idiosyncratic and have often been taught by my rebbeim that we each have a personal life mission. But I have also cherished being part of a chevra and have embraced my primary identity as being a member of Klal Yisrael. So I worried that the exaggerated degree of visibility and distinction often caused by adopting a public role, such as that of OU president, could be exactly the kind of compromised tzenius I was schooled to avoid.

   While certain highly visible communal leaders become pompous and arrogant, the majority of rabbis, public speakers and communal leaders retain their integrity and wholesomeness (for the most part) and avoid forfeiting their essential identity as a communal member. How do individuals perpetually in the communal spotlight retain their sense of tzenius and the connectivity with others that tzenius nurtures?

   Eventually I became comfortable with assuming the OU position upon recognizing that, if performed appropriately, communal roles such as a pulpit rabbi or institutional head are actually opportunities to intensify one’s integration into the tzibbur, rather than to become distinct from it. Undoubtedly, if the position is exploited for self-aggrandizement, gratuitous visibility or personal benefits, the leader’s sense of self will inevitably drift from the rank and file he is serving. But when selflessly faithful to the mission, a community servant invests his essence into the klal, creating an unparalleled opportunity for genuine integration into Klal Yisrael. 

   The challenge of assuming a public profile is thus not the compromising of tzenius but rather the difficulty of staying mission-focused and overcoming the allure of entitlement that even minimal fanfare tends to generate.

Dimension 2: Relating to Hashem through Intimacy

Married life is launched with a wedding, incorporating our family and friends into our nuptial celebration. Thereafter, the relationship is enhanced by the couple being connected to both a nurturing extended family and a supportive community. But the marriage relationship truly flourishes through sublime and endearing spousal gestures of love, both physical and verbal. 

   The middah of tzenius dictates that such demonstrations of affection take place while in seclusion. Judaism’s emphasis on such privacy is not a reflection of prudishness. To the contrary, our Torah values encourage and celebrate these very expressions, albeit only when out of the sight of others. This dimension of tzenius engenders a most precious and treasured relationship, one that emerges from the intimacy achievable only while alone. 

   Nurturing a relationship with Hashem is no different. Just as in marriage, much of our avodas Hashem takes place in the context of community. Many mitzvos are collective communal functions, and even personal activities, such as prayer and Torah study, are encouraged to take place publicly, in a shul or beis midrash. Personalized expressions to Hashem of gratitude, joy or grief also commonly and appropriately take place in the company of others.

But just as a married couple’s most intimate moments occur in a cocoon of privacy, significant religious experiences conducted beyond the observation of others are essential to our connection to Hashem. The trait of tzenius ensures that we include the community in our religious observances but refrain from flaunting them. The berachah on food that we recite while alone, the anonymous acts of charity, the private utterances to G-d when grateful or in need, and the discipline to resist improprieties in solitude are all acts of tzenius, and they are the foundation of the most precious aspects of spiritual intimacy. 

Moreover, these unseen acts of devotion are essential to ensuring that our practice of Judaism is more than just a quest for social acceptance, and that our religious discipline is not merely fostered by an eagerness for respect and approbation. These messages may well have been the primary lessons conveyed by the prophet Michah when directing us to walk modestly with Hashem. 

A disproportionate portion of the religious practices of rabbis and communal leaders is communal, with fewer opportunities to generate the particularly beautiful relationship with Hashem that can only be cultivated in private. Moreover, since the commitment they bear to mitzvah observance is so often under a watchful (and judgmental) public eye, they also have fewer opportunities to crystallize the purity and sincerity of their devotion. 

While contemplating whether to assume the OU presidency, this challenge initially concerned me. Honesty and self-awareness, however, compelled me to acknowledge that the private, intimate aspects of a relationship with Hashem had never before been my focus, and thus, greater communal visibility would introduce little downside. If anything, I mused that the weight of communal decisions might actually cause me to increase instances of turning to Hashem in private supplication. 

In any event, as it turned out, I spent about a quarter of my presidency in Covid-induced yechidus (seclusion), alone with either my wife and/or the Creator. I wonder whether there was another period in recent memory in which each of us was afforded such an extended opportunity to walk with Hashem with tzenius.

Dimension 3: Relating to One’s Self through Authenticity

Tzenius’ greatest impact, subtle and often overlooked, may be on our relationship with ourselves. Tzenius violations of all types, whether in action, behavior or demeanor, are all efforts to affect how one is viewed or perceived by others. Eye-catching opulence, seductive attire or simply making a spectacle of oneself are all efforts to frame one’s identity through the eyes of others, rather than by one’s true inner self. 

An essential, in fact, foundational, prerequisite to being a pious Jew, an oved Hashem, is authenticity. One’s soul, his neshamah, serves as the basis of his connection to Hashem, and a neshamah cannot be twisted, adulterated or misrepresented. Connecting to spirituality relies on sincerity and genuineness. The trait of tzenius, perhaps above all else, ensures that we retain and hone our authenticity by shedding efforts to focus on the external, rather than our inner self. The trait of tzenius should help us be “real.”

As noted earlier, public visibility, and certainly celebrity, risk both disorienting our relationship with G-d and tainting the realness and connection we might otherwise achieve with others. But the greatest damage might be that of jeopardizing one’s own authenticity. Each of us struggles with balancing our natural concern for how others see us and our eagerness to remain true to ourselves. But the role of highly visible communal leaders actually demands that they deliberately project an appropriate image and make lifestyle choices that accommodate public expectations. I worried that assuming such a role would make me particularly vulnerable to losing touch with my real self.

I never fully resolved this concern, and remain wary of the risk of a high-visibility role deluding even the most sincere individual into confusing his authentic self with his public self. But this concern extends to all of us, whether or not we play a public role. We receive mixed rabbinic messages, with many teachings directing us to be mindful of appearances and others urging us to be indifferent to the perceptions of others. 

But what I ultimately realized (and what I suspect many rabbinic and lay leaders similarly conclude) is that if my strengths and the opportunities afforded to me introduce avenues to significantly advance the needs of the community, I cannot justify evading that duty due solely to the risks it poses to my personal needs. Moreover, if my strengths, skills and passions dictate adopting a visible public role, assuming that role may actually be the most authentic expression of my personal mission.  

Moishe Bane, president emeritus of the OU, serves as a contributing editor of Jewish Action.

This article was featured in the Summer 2024 issue of Jewish Action.
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