My Tzeniut Journey

Call me shallow, but I’ll spend hours deciding what to wear. I care deeply about how I’m dressed and, even more so, about tzeniut. It’s my favorite mitzvah because, when genuinely embraced, it allows me to be a true embodiment of my neshamah. And yes, I know I sound like an off-the-shelf tzeniut guidebook.

I didn’t grow up observant, and my clothes as a child and young teenager certainly weren’t halachically tzeniut. When I chose to become religious, tzeniut was one of the first mitzvot I took on. This was a very deliberate choice; I was able to use my mode of dress to change how I saw myself. But it also represented a deeper transformation, a journey from external to internal, wherein dressing with tzeniut helped me to behave tzanua as well. By virtue of its nature, the mitzvah of tzeniut gave me a sensitivity for all mitzvot by fostering an attitude of humility and self-awareness within me. Being mindful and modest in the way I dressed and behaved, I found it easier to be mindful in my observance of mitzvot such as kashrut, Shabbat, gemilut chesed and tzedakah.

Of course, for many, adopting tzeniut is a journey filled with challenges. Specifically, focus on the external can make tzeniut seem superficial and oppressive, something that did not resonate with me when I was living steeped in secular culture. In such an environment, the rules about dress and behavior involved in the practice of tzeniut can sometimes be seen as overly restrictive, and appear to limit personal freedom to dress and act as one pleases. In all honesty, I had to try tzeniut myself to really believe in its importance and power. I find that my experience mirrored the Jewish proclamation at Har Sinai: “Na’aseh v’nishma”—we will do and we will hear.” “Hear” is often translated as “understand,” and just as the Jews were meant to accept the mitzvot only to understand them later, it was solely by becoming tzanua that I grasped the deep impact my dress could have on me.

Modesty doesn’t mean being unfashionable. It’s about mindful selection, ensuring that what I wear resonates with who I am.

What enables me to embrace tzeniut every day is the focus I have chosen to place not on concealing my body, but instead on the intention to outwardly portray my neshamah. I have never defined my relationship with tzeniut through my struggles, because I know that whatever hurdles come along the way are not important in light of the overarching goal: doing Hashem’s will and knowing that He only wants good for us. This understanding far surpasses forgoing fashion trends.

Adopting tzeniut when most of my peers didn’t never bothered me. I was blessed with both a strong will and an accepting environment. The self-respect and inner confidence tzeniut instilled in me meant I didn’t need to look outward anymore for validation. I was able to rely on an inner sense of self-worth, one based on the connection I created with Hashem through my attire. 

Importantly, my affinity for clothes didn’t wane. In fact, it intensified, and to assuage any doubts, I can attest that my friends still very much consider me well-dressed. To me, modesty doesn’t mean being unfashionable. It’s about mindful selection, ensuring that what I wear resonates with who I am. To equate tzeniut with unstylishness is, mildly put, a misconception.

Nevertheless, there absolutely were struggles along the way, some of which remain even now in my early twenties. Parting with some of my beloved non-tzeniut outfits was hard. They felt intrinsically “me,” but they also stood between me and the person I aspired to be. I had to recognize that while certain pieces flattered my body, they didn’t necessarily flatter my neshamah as well. Sometimes I’m tempted by beautiful, yet non-tzeniut items, but I remind myself that the true me, the truly beautiful me, is not just with my body. As humans we are naturally drawn to look at faces, and a person’s eyes provide a window to their soul. Modest dress directs attention toward our face, emphasizing the value of the neshamah and highlighting the self that lies within.

Josepha Becker is pursuing a graduate degree at University College London.

More in this Section

Rethinking Tzeniut by Bracha Poliakoff

Modesty: An Educator’s Perspective by Shifra Rabenstein, as told to Barbara Bensoussan

A New Approach for Teens by Dr. Zipora Schorr

Tzenius: The Key to an Inner Life by Rabbi Reuven Brand

Can Social Media and Modesty Coexist? by Alexandra Fleksher

Public and Private in the Age of Instagram by Rabbi Yisrael Motzen

To Post or Not to Post by Gila Ross

Walking a Tightrope by Rebbetzin Ruchi Koval, as told to Barbara Bensoussan

High Fashion, Higher Standards by Sandy Eller

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