Bells, Stairs, and Pomegranates- thoughts on privacy and modesty
Who needs to know? This is a vital principle in the US Army and, I’m sure, in many other business enterprises. It is a vital principle in our personal relationships, where communication is the foundation of intimacy. Who needs to know? Knowledge is power and, when vital information is NOT shared, the consequences can be devastating.
Cutting edge technology enables us to share information as never before, turning the question on its head- who NEEDS to know, becomes, rather, who ELSE needs to know? Does EVERYONE need to know? Apparently, in the age of Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat, everyone needs to know everything, right now!
I’m not sure that this over-sharing is a healthy phenomenon, and I’d like to talk for a few moments about a concept little known outside of the Orthodox world called- tzniut. Interestingly, tzniut can refer both to privacy and modesty, as well as to humility. Privacy and modesty are prescribed in the Torah, and both are concepts that are endangered in our lives today.
I want to focus on two relatively obscure verses that will shed light on the need to protect our privacy and our modesty, requirements that emerge in the context of the code for priestly conduct. Exodus 28:34 prescribes that the hem of the priestly robes should be adorned with bells and pomegranates in alternating design. Thus, the gentle tinkling of bells will precede the arrival of the priest himself. We learn from this, our tradition tells us, not to sneak up on people, to respect their privacy, to announce our arrival.
The second verse comes from parshat Yitro, the same parsha that gives us the 10 commandments. Following those grand and glorious eternal moral constructs comes this odd reference in Ex 20:26- “Do not ascend my altar on steps, so that your nakedness not be exposed.” The Torah is concerned that the back of the priest’s lower leg not be visible as he walks up the stairs. Today we struggle to navigate between two extremes- a world where the human form is to be entirely covered from head to toe, and a world where there is no part of the body that is considered to be private. Where is the balance in these challenging times?
Let’s talk first about privacy. Jewish law dictates that if you come to someone’s home to collect on a debt, you may not enter that person’s home without permission. Even if you have every right to the money or the object you are seeking, halacha requires that you wait politely outside the door. Respect for the individual’s right to privacy is paramount.
When the Israelites camped in the desert wilderness following the exodus from Egypt, the prophet Bilaam exclaimed, “Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov- how good are your tents, O Jacob.” What was so good about their tents? The midrash tells us that the tents were erected in such a way that the door of one tent did not face the door of the tent next to it, so that each household was afforded a modicum of privacy even in those very crowded circumstances. This sense of respect for privacy was what the prophet Bilaam was admiring.
In contemporary culture, on the other hand, there is no respect for privacy, there is nothing that is too personal to be shared with the whole world. When we give up our privacy, we give up our freedom. As Jews, we recall the exodus on a daily basis. We never want to forget the struggle for freedom. Will we abandon our freedom now by abandoning the notion that privacy is a value worth preserving?
A Dilbert cartoon strip this past year gave voice to this cultural shift. “When someone takes your picture,” Dilbert is told, “the flash spot stays in your vision for a few seconds.” His boss challenges him- “I want you to figure out how to place ads on that little spot.” Dilbert replies, “That would be a huge personal violation.” “Bah!,” comes the response. “You said the same thing when we took your privacy.”
In his review of the book Necessary Secrets, Alan Dershowitz writes of the tension between the government’s need to keep secrets, the press’s desire to learn about and publish secrets, and the role of the courts in navigating the balance between these competing needs. Privacy for its own sake, secrecy and denial of access to public information, is destructive of our democratic way of life. Privacy in our so-called private lives is essential. Privacy in protecting national security is vital. Privacy when it takes the form of over-classification of public information is problematic.
Cyber-security is among the top threats to our national security. We live in a dangerous world and the stakes are the highest. A certain amount of caution with regard to disclosing our most personal information is appropriate and advisable. Perhaps it is in response to the NSA’s “vacuuming metadata” that the courts are moving towards greater protection of individual privacy?
Privacy is practically an extinct commodity, and, as such, its value is increasing. A recent article on celebrity weddings quoted a Brides’ magazine executive as follows, “It’s almost a status symbol to keep your wedding private.” “Privacy,” the author notes, is all the more paramount these days because ‘it’s gotten harder and harder to achieve’.” Perhaps the time has come to take a step back from our desire to share everything, all the time, immediately? Perhaps we can look to enhance our intimacy with a few good friends, rather than spending our precious time sharing the superficial with our 1000 Facebook friends? It’s ironic, I suppose to quote a viral Youtube video to illustrate this point, but, in the words of “Look Up,” a video plea that we set aside our devices, stop looking down, and look up at each other instead, “Give people your love, don’t give them your like.”
This year we’ve seen numerous headlines warning that our personal data is constantly being mined for research purposes. In an article entitled, “They’re Studying You,” Sharon Jayson notes that, “. . .some users may not like having their behavior under the microscope,” an understatement if there ever was one. “The word ‘caution’,” she suggests, “is coming from all sides.”
Madonna was famously quoted as saying that life is meaningless unless it takes place in front of the camera. This goal has become a cultural norm. Nothing is meaningful unless it is shared with the world. Now, I am an active participant in Facebook, but I am also blessed with meaningful work and deep friendships that take place off-camera!
In a book called, There is No App for Happiness, Max Strom writes that “I’m not against social media. . . I’m pointing out. . . the habitual use of it and dealing with people you don’t even know.” Look up- look around this room. How many people are here whom you deeply love, are so excited to catch up with, and yet don’t make time to see throughout the year? Perhaps we are spending too much time updating our status and not enough time living our lives with the people we love?
Privacy should not be just for celebrities who can afford the best security. We can, and should, reclaim our own privacy and reserve something special for our deepest, most intimate relationships.
Tzniut also means modesty. The Talmud tells us (Yevamot 79a) that there are three distinguishing characteristics of the Jewish people- we are compassionate, we are preoccupied with loving acts of kindness, and, we are modest. Modesty can be understood both in a physical sense, how much of our bodies we choose to display, as well as how we live our public lives. How quaint is the Torah’s concern that we not see the back of the priest’s ankle as he ascended the stairs to prepare the altar for worship!
Rabbi Michael Gold writes about privacy and modesty, suggesting this contemporary analogy- “Perhaps a secular way to understand (privacy and modesty) is to consider a stretch limousine with tinted windows?. . . (how do we cover) up in order to achieve a sense of holiness?” Clearly, the passengers in the limousine appreciate the value of privacy. Rabbi Gold reminds us that Adam and Eve’s first action when they became fully awakened human beings was to cover their bodies.
How do we, in the non-Orthodox world, define a standard of appropriate dress that allows for freedom of expression and pride in our appearance, yet expresses respect for our bodies as the image of God? Not a simple task! When I was in junior high school, it was easier. We had to wear skirts to school, of course, and the hem was required to be below our fingertips. That was a clear, objective standard.
When we speak about modesty in the contemporary world, a word of caution is in order, as the notion of modesty has historically been used as a tool to oppress women. This is never okay, as it is never acceptable to use a woman’s appearance to justify violence against her.
Without an objective standard to guide us, such as that provided by my junior high school principal, each of us must develop our own standard as to what is the image we wish to project by our attire. Quite the challenge in a culture that objectifies our bodies, yet a conversation worth having. You’ll notice that as we remove the sefer Torah from the ark, we keep it covered when it is not being read. Covering the Torah is our way of protecting its holiness. How might we want to cover ourselves in recognition of our holiness as images of God?
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz argues for modesty as it applies to life-cycle celebrations. He suggests that clergy are responsible for counseling the virtue of modesty and helping our communities to maintain the focus on the spiritual aspect of our major events. He writes that, “. . . we should leave celebrations feeling uplifted and inspired by those we are celebrating and the core values they are committed to.”
We set aside this time of the High Holidays to examine our own lifestyles and ask ourselves the hard questions regarding how we might live more modestly and renew our commitments to tzedakah and social justice. Study after study reinforces the notion that the foundation of happiness in our lives is having a sense of meaning. How blessed we are to be connected to a temple and to a tradition that reinforces the sense of meaning and purpose in our lives!
Modesty is the opposite of arrogance. Our culture values fame. Fame has become an end unto itself, rather than the consequence of being known for our good works. A healthy sense of self-esteem is important, but we should remember that our greatest leader of all, Moshe Rabenu, Moses, was known, first and foremost, for being the most humble person who ever lived. Modesty might dictate that we refrain from instantly advertising our achievements.
The Hebrew root of the words for modesty and privacy appear most famously in the book of Micah, (6:8), where the prophet offers a one-sentence guide to our behavior. “What does God really want from us?”, he asks. And, in good Jewish fashion, he answers his own question- “To do justice, to love goodness, and to walk modestly, humbly, privately- hatzneah lechet, with God.” What might it mean to walk modestly, humbly, privately? As we enter the year 5775, perhaps it means that we think about what we share with the whole world vs. what we share in our most intimate relationships, and that we renew our commitment to deepening those real-time relationships, that we keep our noses out of other people’s tents, that we think about how we dress appropriately for the occasion, and that we reflect on our public celebrations with an eye towards doing the most good with our limited resources.
Today is Shabbat. Yom Kippur is Shabbat Shabatot, the Sabbath of Sabbaths. It is a most appropriate day to set aside our technology, to look up!, to look into each other’s eyes and into our own hearts, and to think long, and hard and deeply about who we want to become in this new year that is upon us.
Dershowitz, Alan M., “Who Needs to Know?”, NY Times Book Review, May 30, 2010, p. 13
 Robb, Robert, “4th Amendment is Getting a Much-Needed Boost From the Courts,” Arizona Republic, July 10, 2014
 Lauren Ianotti, quoted in Barker, Olivia, “Celebrity Weddings Go Low-Key,” USA Today, April 22, 2014, p. 7B
 ibid., quoting Elizabeth Graves
 Jayson, Sharon, “They’re Studying You,” USA Today, March 12, 2014, p. 6B
 quoted in Lindgren, Suzanne, “Click Your Poison, “ Utne Reader, Jan.-Feb. 2013, p. 65
 Gold, Rabbi Michael, Parshah Terumah, torahaura.com
 Yanklowitz, Rabbi Shmuly, “Modesty is Better When Celebrating Religious, Life Events,” Arizona Republic, January 18, 2014, p. B10
 see, e.g., Lindgren, Suzanne, op. cit.