Rethinking Tzeniut

Of all the things that surprised me about the recently published book Reclaiming Dignity: A Guide to Tzniut for Men and Women, which I co-authored with Rabbi Anthony Manning, first and foremost is my own involvement. If someone would have suggested to me five years ago that I get involved in a project about tzeniut, I may have just run the other way. Tzeniut was something I struggled with, though not in the practical sense. The term “tzeniut” produced a general sense of uneasiness in me, bringing up feelings of tension and uncomfortable past associations. Ironically, it was my own conflicted relationship with this topic that ended up being a catalyst for the creation of this book.

 My journey really began in young adulthood. At that time, I recognized that I was struggling to connect to this mitzvah in a positive and healthy way, and that I needed to better understand it and find a way to relate to what I knew to be an important Torah value (according to the Gemara in Makkot 24a, based on Michah 6:8, tzeniut is one of the top three characteristics that every Jewish person must embody, along with chesed and mishpat). For that reason, I decided to try to learn more about tzeniut from different perspectives.

 One watershed moment in my journey was coming across the shiurim of Rabbi Anthony Manning, co-director of Midreshet Tehillah and a well-known Torah educator in Israel, whose understanding of tzeniut is based on the teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits, rosh yeshivah of Aish HaTorah and a well-known rosh kollel and posek in Yerushalayim. 

 Tzeniut, he taught, neither starts nor ends with women’s dress. It is partly a mitzvah requiring us to act in a dignified manner; partly an area of halachah, as delineated in the Shulchan Aruch; and partly based on minhag, comprising more subjective communal norms—all of which are applicable to both men and women. Tzeniut is not a one-size-fits-all dress code; there are nuances. And therefore context, such as community norms, matters when determining halachic practice. 

I was also exposed to another facet of tzeniut: tzeniut as a middah, a character trait related to internality, sensitivity and seeing the world with depth. This middah, which Chazal emphasize for both men and women, is something that can be developed and cultivated over time. It is not just something we do, but a way of being in the world. To be tzanua is to change our focus from the external (thinking about what other people will think) to the internal (thinking about what really matters and what Hashem will think). This expansive view of tzeniut seemed to be part of the answer. Through my learning, I began to realize that in many ways, we had societally reduced tzeniut to being about medidah, measuring. In doing so, we were missing the depth of tzeniut—the middah. 

The overwhelmingly positive response to the book showed me that I am not alone in my struggle to connect to tzeniut.

As I was slowly beginning to heal my own relationship to the concept of tzeniut, I became more aware of how many others around me were also struggling in this area. So many women that I spoke with, spanning varied ages and religious backgrounds, had difficulty connecting to this important Torah value. Men, on the other hand, were more apathetic, feeling that tzeniut was purely a woman’s mitzvah that did not apply to them in any meaningful way. I also heard numerous community leaders, educators and parents express that they did not know how to teach this topic to the next generation due to their own conflicted or negative feelings around it.

It saddened me that so many individuals had no connection to this important Jewish value, and I began to think about what could be done to remedy the situation. I decided to explore the possibility of publishing a book on this topic l’ilui nishmat my mother, Debra (Pernikoff) Friedman, a”h, who exemplified the middah of tzeniut in so many aspects of her life. 

My goal in writing the book was to go back to the original sources—to “reclaim” what tzeniut is—and to show how tzeniut can be beautiful and meaningful for both men and women.

Since it was first released a little more than a year ago, we have heard from many people—rabbis, teachers, principals, kallah teachers and community members—telling us how the book has helped them better understand tzeniut and, in many cases, heal their own strained relationship with this topic. One senior educator in Chicago told us she will be revamping aspects of her tzeniut curriculum based on the book and is starting a book club for young women to read and discuss the essays. We heard from men who were surprised to learn that tzeniut is an important value for them that can enrich their own lives. And we have heard from many who gained a greater appreciation for the halachic diversity of the Orthodox community and the role community minhag plays in determining halachic practice. 

Readers told us they were surprised that a book on a topic that is often considered polarizing could be so incredibly popular. Yet somehow, b’ezrat Hashem, the book has been successful across the US and in many other countries around the world! We are aware of groups learning the sefer in both Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Though we believed in the importance of this work, I don’t think we realized just how much interest there was for an approach like this one. We were shocked when the first printing sold out within just a few weeks, with subsequent printings selling out almost as quickly. Mosaica Press, the publisher, shared that this was a record for them. Since the release of the book, over 6,000 copies have been sold and we will be releasing the second edition of the book this fall, which will be our fifth printing. 

The overwhelmingly positive response to the book showed me that I am not alone in my struggle to connect to tzeniut. But even if you don’t struggle with tzeniut at all, I hope that you walk away from this book with a new appreciation for this important Torah value. As one of our readers wrote, “As an introvert and rule-follower, it’s not really a topic I thought much about until I read your book . . . . It really gave me an appreciation for this mitzvah and a realization that I am probably missing out on the beauty of so many other mitzvot that I take for granted.” 

I hope that as people become aware that there is much more to this mitzvah and middah than meets the eye, they will connect to tzeniut more deeply, each in his or her own way.  

Bracha Poliakoff, LCSW-C is a licensed clinical social worker, speaker and writer. She currently serves as the founder and director of continuing education at Bright Ideas Continuing Education, where she provides high quality continuing education programs for mental health professionals in the United States and Canada. Bracha lives in Baltimore, Maryland, with her husband and three children. 

More in this Section

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

My Tzeniut Journey by Josepha Becker

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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