Jewish Thought

Tzenius: The Key to an Inner Life

Tzenius is a gift to our generation. To appreciate this gift, we need to understand its meaning. 

What is tzenius?

In its original context, tzenius describes a way of life (Micah 6:8; Mishei 11:2) characterized by privacy and concealment. It is directed to everyone: men and women. It directs us to live with an inner focus, veiling our outward actions under the cloak of privacy. Tzenius calls on us to pursue what exists beneath the surface. It draws our attention away from a physical, measurable, external world and directs us to a life within ourselves. 

This internal orientation directs all of us—regardless of gender. Its focus contrasts with living by paying attention to the external world—what we term in Hebrew makom, which is the realm of objects and things that occupy space. The world of makom is characterized by limits (by definition every physical object is finite) and scarcity (there is a limit to the quantity of all physical things). The out-facing world is where we compare and measure ourselves against the things and size of others. By contrast, the inner world—the spiritual world—is intangible and has no boundaries. It is endless, as it is connected with Hashem, the endless light. 

We all know this intuitively: spirituality is found in one’s inner experience in moments of connection and meaning that exist in a person’s inner world. We know that spirituality, transcendence and G-dliness are felt within. This is why a person can have his own spiritually connected moment standing before candles in the windowsill on a winter night while a passerby feels nothing. Spirituality is found deeply within a person. It resides in our concealed, inner self.

Tzenius directs us to live life oriented to this inner world—the immeasurable, concealed world of spirituality. “Kevod Elokhim haster davar, It is the glory of G-d to conceal a matter”(Mishlei 25:2). The outer world—known as alma d’isgalya in our tradition—can distract us from our spirituality. Pursuing a life that focuses on what lies beneath the surface—the spiritual world— brings us closer to spirituality: hatznei’a lechet im Elokecha. 

This inner world of spirituality is the authentic source of our self-awareness and self-esteem. Self-esteem means feeling our own value and worth. Self-worth is nurtured by an awareness of every person’s unique Divine spark, which gives each human being purpose.  

We can appreciate the source of our worthiness. Looking externally, to others, for validation is unhelpful; it can be elusive, fleeting or lacking entirely. By deepening our spiritual connection, we gain an appreciation of our true self—our spiritual identity. This is the source of our worthiness: the realization that our Divine spark is our identity, and we are spiritual agents in this world. Even if nobody else acknowledges me, I sense my spirituality, which means G-d acknowledges me. This spirituality can only be found within, in the depth of our being. In this way, self-esteem is correlated with spirituality, and spirituality is correlated with our inner world. This is the meaning of tzenius.

In our generation—perhaps more than in previous eras—we need tzenius. Today we are beset by unique challenges; we know them as we confront these questions: Are we struggling with acquisition of material things, consumption of products (How many Amazon boxes arrived today? Does anyone know what’s in them?) or visual images?  Are we, or people in our close orbit, struggling with mental health issues? Are we finding it hard to maintain personal boundaries and privacy (consider that there was no social media twenty years ago)?

We can approach these various, although seemingly disparate, challenges in a unified way guided by a fundamental, powerful teaching of Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski, zt”l. This Chassidic rabbi and psychiatrist who treated over 40,000 patients with nearly every type of mental health challenge and whose guidance saved and transformed lives, identified the ability to maintain the quality of self-esteem as life’s central challenge. Self-esteem, defined thoughtfully as accurate self-awareness, is the foundation of the good life we seek. Rabbi Twerski made this theme the focus of his broad literary and spoken contributions. His approach to self-esteem is a keen and refreshing take on an often-misunderstood concept. Upon reflection, we realize that tzenius guides us to self-awareness and self-esteem.

Tzenius is a gift to our generation. To appreciate this gift, we need to understand its meaning.

The remarkable explosion of the outer, revealed world in our time pulls at us. Yet, procuring goods and comparing ourselves to what others project actually chips away at our spirituality and often depletes our self-esteem. When we post personal photos online, are we sharing because of an inner spiritual motivation or some external pressure? How much time do we spend looking at what other people are posting? Why? To live the rewarding and meaningful lives we seek, we must commit to living inwardly. By focusing on our inner world, we turn away from the externally appealing images that can distract us from the spiritual. This explains why tzenius is so connected with seeing and what we see; leading a spiritual life is seeing what is beneath the surface. With tzenius as our manner of living, we build healthy self-esteem and a deep spirituality, directing us toward a meaningful life.

Our inner focus is required not only in the mundane aspects of life, but also in our religious lives. We—men and women—must ask ourselves, for example: Is our shul attendance focused on the pilgrimage of our inner, spiritual development or is the kiddush food or the social identification the greater concern? When we arrive at shul, are we thinking of how others perceive our appearance? Are we focused on how others look when they arrive and what they are doing? Do we engage in tefillah based on the looks of others? Or can we tap into an inner, spiritual experience in which we settle into a few moments with the Source of Life that resides deep within ourselves? 

On the deepest level, the ideal of living an inward-focused life is a calling even when we are engaged in important spiritual pursuits. For those involved in talmud Torah, are we doing so for some extrinsic reason? Or are we able to tap into the spirituality that is beneath the written and spoken word?

Certainly, tzenius has many layers, practical applications and a complex (sometimes controversial) reputation. In an authentic, healthy and balanced system, all aspects and dimensions of tzenius express and reflect its core meaning: inner spirituality. By tapping into this remarkable lifestyle and energy, we create and live healthy, illuminated lives and transform the gifts of our age into conduits that refract the inner, spiritual light of our life.

Rabbi Reuven Brand is the rosh kollel of the Yeshiva University Torah Mitzion Kollel of Chicago.

More in this Section

Rethinking Tzeniut by Bracha Poliakoff

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

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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