The following article aims to clarify the relationship between the Jewish obligation of modesty (in what we both wear and look at) and the sexual permissiveness common in modern Western culture. The conflict between these values has posed a great challenge to Torah-observant Jews, and I hope to contribute a new and enlightening perspective regarding the changes that have taken place in our world and how we should respond to them.
Different groups within the Jewish world view modernity differently. While the ultra-Orthodox see modernity as a fundamentally negative phenomenon from which Jews should distance themselves, the Modern Orthodox believe that modern movements contain positive aspects which can be integrated into traditional Judaism and rectified. Put simply, the ultra-Orthodox approach is "either this (tradition) or that (modernity)," while Modern Orthodoxy wants "both this and that." However, the "both this and that" approach leads to a great dilemma: how exactly should Torah Judaism open itself to modernity's merits while not allowing modernity's negative aspects to damage its integrity? Indeed, the failure to filter modern influences allows a flood of non-Jewish contents, images, and ideals to enter Jewish life unnoticed and penetrate to its heart, diluting Judaism into a muddy mixture of values lacking true Jewish character. Regarding modesty, Jewish law is compromised and its soul-strengthening benefits are lost.
It is my belief that there are indeed sparks of holiness within modern ideas, which can be found and elevated. This requires three steps. First, we must recognize modernity for what it is: a secular movement whose intention has been to dethrone God in favor of the human. Second, we must peel off modernity's heretical, external motives to expose its positive, internal motives—the holy sparks within. Finally, while rejecting the shell, we must identify and internalize the fallen points of light.
The modern decline in modesty is a result of an overall change in our attitude toward sexuality. Sexuality is no longer something hidden, restricted, and whispered about—it is revealed, liberated, and openly discussed. Secular "theology" assumes that this transformation reflects society's maturation. Most modernists are thankful that sexuality is no longer veiled in modesty, since hiding sexuality, it is believed, promotes guilt, and guilt suppresses growth.
This renunciation of modesty is the product of the sexual revolution, which brought sexuality out of the dark Victorian closet into the light of liberalism and liberation. But few recognize that the sexual revolution was in fact comprised of two different revolutions, which we can dub the "erotic" revolution and the "sexological" revolution. Although their adherents cooperated and frequently were even the same people, the two revolutions strived for different ends. The erotic revolution centered on pleasure, and its goal was to transform the body into an arena of abounding and unlimited enjoyment; the sexological revolution centered on knowledge, and its aim was to turn the body into an object of calculated and critical study.
The leaders of the erotic revolution were many and varied, ranging from artists, philosophers, and psychiatrists to advertisers, entertainers, and pop-mystics. They were active in different fields, but their goal was the same: to battle the delegitimization of sexual pleasure that still prevailed in Europe and America in the 1950s. Practically speaking, they wanted to strengthen the already-begun process of legitimizing premarital and extramarital sex. But more generally, their aim was to dismantle sexual taboos, disconnect sexuality from commitment, childbearing, and even love, and to fashion it anew as an independent arena for personal gratification. Historically, the erotic revolution was rooted in the Romanticism of the 19th century, which wanted to overthrow the traditional Christian attitude to nature and culture and establish a new world outlook. Instead of conceiving of nature as a chaotic and destructive force that culture had to rule over and restrain, the Romantics claimed that freeing our natural tendencies and returning to a pre-cultural way of life would give birth to a better, more harmonious society. Much of the modern ethos that we consider self-evident—self-expression, the search for personal happiness, the freeing of drives and impulses—arose from this vision. So did the erotic revolution.
The sexological revolution, on the other hand, arose from a completely different vision. Its members were scientists, doctors, psychologists, and educators who aimed to establish a new science of sexuality. In many senses they wanted the opposite of the eroticists: to neutralize the body's erotic dimension, view it scientifically, and turn it into a respected object of research, analysis, and knowledge. In their view, scientific understanding of human sexuality was essential to free society from the primitive ignorance in which it was mired. They therefore had to quiet, not excite, the strong emotions tied to sexuality and regard it with cool-headed intellect. Historically, just as the erotic revolution was the outcome of Romanticism, the sexological revolution originated in the second major movement of modernity: the Enlightenment. The champions of Enlightenment did not share the Romanticists' sentimentalism and optimism towards nature and vigorously opposed their attack on culture. The goal of humans, they claimed, is not to merge with nature, but exactly the opposite: to disavow nature, observe it from the outside like an inanimate object, and soberly analyze and understand it. The first sexologists wanted to implement this project in the field of sexuality.
Despite their great differences, however, the people of the erotic and sexological revolutions had one common fundamental desire: to rid humanity of the feeling of shame that accompanied sexuality. For the eroticist, shame hindered pleasure; for the sexologist, it hindered knowledge. Both wanted to create a new, literally shameless human. It's as if they believed that, liberated from the burden of this emotion, humanity would return to the Garden of Eden, in which "they were both naked, Adam and his wife, and they were not ashamed" (Genesis 2:25).
To uproot and annul shame, both sides protested what they identified as its source: the ideal of modesty. Modesty divides the body into public and private parts; the proponents of the erotic and sexological revolutions wished to erase this distinction and place the body fully in the public realm.
For the eroticists this ambition was consistent with the Romantic vision: because the naked body is natural and clothing artificial, the return to nature should express itself in full bodily exposure. For the sexologists it was consistent with Enlightenment thinking: because ignorance and prejudice had to be eradicated in favor of knowledge and reason, all parts of the body had to be viewed equally and dispassionately and sexual information publicly disseminated with the aid of scientific explanations and diagrams.
Thus these two invisible hands combined to out the body. In recent decades, the media has taken this new ethic of exposure to its logical conclusion, stretching the boundaries of what is permitted and exposing more and more of the body. The sexual revolution has succeeded: the body has been expropriated from the intimate realm and made public.
Partially concealing the body necessarily draws it into an optical game between the revealed and the hidden. It fashions the body into a rolling landscape, as it were, with sun-drenched hills and shaded valleys: a topography of facts and secrets. When the erotic and sexological revolutions made the body public, they flattened the body's topography. The game of hide and seek ended: the variegated landscape was exchanged for a singular, level plain in which everything is revealed, known, and exposed—a flatland of "naked truth."
But notice: although both the eroticist and the sexologist wanted to equalize all parts of the body, their goals were exactly opposite. While one wanted the eroticization of the whole body, the other wanted its total normalization. Overjoyed at having found a partner in the project of exposing the body and eradicating shame, they failed to see the essential contradiction between their two visions: normalization demystifies the erotic. You can't eroticize and normalize the body at the same time, because what is no longer exotic is no longer erotic either. And so it came about that from the two revolutions, only the sexological revolution succeeded. Without realizing it, the eroticists, in joining with their enemies, thwarted the project to which they were so committed.
The proof that the body and sex have lost their magic is the growth of the culture of "cool." Few pay attention to the fact that a dominant commandment in modern society—promoted in movies and television, ads and songs on the radio—is to be cool-headed toward what was once felt to be powerfully moving. Instead of fantasy and excitement, crying and torment, feeling butterflies in your stomach and shivers down your spine, the attitude today is one of complete nonchalance. The widespread attempt to "free oneself from inhibitions" and "get rid of shame" is nothing more than the attempt to be indifferent toward sexuality. The body has become "just a body" and sex "just sex." Whoever feels that either is special or should be saved for someone special is seen as neurotic. The normalization of sexuality has achieved its aim: sex has changed from being a big deal to a "little deal"— trivial, matter-of-fact, everyday.
Furthermore, the sexologist today plays the role of sex tutor. Those who welcome today's youth into life's most emotionally and spiritually charged territory are those who are totally bent on neutralizing sexuality. Talk show hosts and sex education teachers, among others, make it clear that "there's nothing to be ashamed of," disciplining us to adopt the scientific and professional dispassion appropriate for discussing what was once considered an intimate subject. The sexologist's perspective has left the professional domain of clinics and textbooks and entered everyday consciousness. The sexologist's conversation, rational and uninvolved, has become everyone's conversation. This prevailing view has penetrated so deeply that it accompanies people into their private lives, even into their bedrooms.
In short, the culture of "cool" has turned us all into a community of little doctors in white robes. The sexological revolution has triumphed: we are all sexologists.
So the leaders of the sexual revolution wanted to turn us into shameless human beings. But what exactly is shame and why did they view it so negatively? It seems they were battling shame in the sense of feeling small and limited in the face of something greater. Because the revolution wanted to elevate humans as much as possible, it had to destroy shame. Yet there are other understandings of shame which the revolution overlooked. Shame, for example, is necessary for keeping secrets.
Some things are beautiful and valuable only because they are secret. It could be a private, precious memory, or a moving story no one else knows about. Secrets give us the sense that our individual existence has meaning because we have something valuable to protect. But a secret is fragile. When expropriated from the shadows and given over to the eyes of strangers, it ceases to exist. Exposure kills it. The shame we consequently experience—expressed in blood running to our face, our heart stopping, difficulty breathing—is the mourning over its death.
In the Hebrew tradition, "secret" is also the word for "mysticism" (sod). Kabbalistic wisdom is called "the Torah of the Secret," and the Kabbalists, "people of the Secret." In the mystical tradition not only is the body a topography of facts and secrets, but all of reality is understood as mysterious and multi-layered, hiding deep levels of meaning not revealed to the eye. This idea is expressed in the fact that in Hebrew, the root of the word for world (olam) is identical to that of the word for hiddenness (he'elem): the world is a mystery which hides the secrets of God.
The sexual revolution, which put an end to the mystery of the body, was only one part of a larger campaign: the campaign for secularization, whose objective was to demystify all of reality. In the imagery that repeatedly appeared in the writings of the first modern scientists, "Nature" was depicted as a young woman, and the scientist as a man courting her, undressing her, and exposing her nakedness. Modernity has gradually killed the sense that a deep secret hides behind the curtain of reality, and has replaced it with a new feeling, prideful and cynical, that "what you see is what you get." The sociologist Max Weber described this as "the disenchantment of the world."
One result is that as scientific interest in developing mechanistic theories to explain physical reality has grown, imagination has atrophied, especially the ability to imagine and believe in the existence of a sublime and completely hidden reality.
The emotional impact of this view on our culture is enormous. We are left feeling that, in the final analysis, everything is of equal value—that "nothing is holy." Holiness means that a certain place, moment, or event is separate from the rest, that it possesses some uncommon quality that cannot be physically identified, only imagined. But as we have said, the modern world has no place for this kind of imagination. The more the outside world has become illuminated, the more the inner eye has darkened. Modernists are convinced that through inquiry and investigation they have conquered and defeated the external world, while in fact the external world has conquered and defeated them.
According to Jewish belief, everything, including all human desires, receives its life force from a higher source. We must therefore try to explain the Godly source behind the desire to know everything, and how the opportunity to use it correctly was missed.
Judaism has always understood there to be a fundamental connection between the drive for sex and the drive for learning. This connection can be seen in the word for knowledge, da'at. The very first time the verb "to know" appears in the Bible is in the first explicit mention of a sexual relationship: "And Adam knew Eve, his wife" (Genesis 4:1). The physical knowing that occurs between man and woman is often an analogy for the spiritual knowledge of God and Torah. According to the prophets, our future loving connection with God will be realized in knowing God: "For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of Hashem, as waters cover the sea" (Isaiah 11:9), "And it shall be on that day, says Hashem, that you shall call My Husband and shall no more call me My Master…. And I will betroth you to me in faithfulness; and you shall know Hashem" (Hosea 2:18-22). Learning Torah is likewise portrayed as an act of love: the Book of Proverbs says of the Torah, "let her breasts satisfy you at all times, and be always ravished with her love" (Proverbs 5:19). The Zohar (the mystical Book of Splendor) describes the Torah as a "beautiful beloved" hiding in a tower, alternately "revealing and concealing herself," gradually giving herself to the one who learns her out of love, and eventually revealing to him "all her secrets" (Zohar, part 2, 99a-b).
As we can see, there is an unmistakable similarity between these images and those accompanying the beginnings of modern science. Both describe a mysterious reality clothed in external garments, where humanity's wish is to redeem itself from ignorance by removing the garments and exposing that reality. Yet there is a decisive difference between the two: while Torah imagery alludes to a spiritual reality hidden by the physical, modern imagery views all reality as physical (with revealed layers covering more hidden layers). We must then question: What occurred to the wish for discovery between its expression in the Torah and its expression in modernity? How did the first develop into the other, and what change in world outlook does this reflect?
According to Kabbalah, the source of God's hiddenness lies in the process called tzimtzum, "diminishing." God is described as an "endless light," unlimited, equally present in every place and time. "Light," in Kabbalah, always means consciousness. But this consciousness lacked awareness of, and therefore the ability to give to, another. God therefore "diminished" Himself, creating an "empty space" of darkness—our world—to receive His goodness. The world is described as the "vessels"—a synonym for "garments"—that God wears. Our challenge is to see God beyond the world, which requires searching for the hidden lights behind the vessels, the reality beneath the garments.
Now we can see the connection—and also the difference—between the modern desire and the Torah's desire for discovery. Both aim for complete knowledge of reality. But modernity sees the world as the "universe"—in Hebrew, yekum, from kayam, existing, implying everything that exists—and believes that the reality we must reveal is the infrastructure of the world itself. One who believes in God sees the world as a "creation," a partial reality that conceals its Creator, and it is the Creator hiding within the world that we must discover.
In other words, when the world itself is the object of our search, a terrible inversion is created: understanding darkness as light. Instead of seeing beyond externality, we penetrate to its depth and are then convinced we have found internality, when in fact we have arrived only at the flatland of naked truth, falsely appearing as the longed-for, unknown world of infinite light.
The error of the scientific paradigm is duplicated on a smaller scale in the sexual revolution. The revolution's intent, as we said, was to recreate the reality of the Garden of Eden before the sin, in which humans "were not ashamed." In Kabbalah, however, the Garden of Eden represents an elevated spiritual reality in which people, as souls without bodies, could clearly see each other's essence. The sin and expulsion from the Garden express the covering of spiritual reality by external "shells"—clothing the souls in bodies which hide their true spiritual nature. We can no longer see each other's deeper layers. Our external appearance, along with our behavior and the image we project, hides our essence. Removing physical clothing from the body, therefore, does not reveal our true selves but merely another level of clothing. The sexual revolution can be seen as a lofty attempt to get to the deepest layer of our humanity, which completely missed the mark by mistaking the unclothed body for man's true essence.
So how can things be fixed? How can we actualize the pure root of the revolution—the desire to peel off falsehood and reveal inner truth—without falling into the trap of externality and illusion?
By restoring hiddenness to the world.
We explained earlier that the scientific paradigm underlying the sexual revolution destroyed imagination and spiritual vision. We must therefore create a space in which these forces can reawaken. To do this, we must block part of the external eye's field of vision, creating a "blind spot" which in turn will attract a deeper, internal view.
The Talmud tells us that "blessing is found only in that which is hidden from the eye" (Baba Metzia 42a, Ta'anit 8b). "Blessing," it can be said, is the enchantment in the world. We have to think anew about the act of hiding something: it can be a tool of repression but also of liberation. In concealing part of the body, we recreate all the wonder of its lost topography. Imagine this: again dark valleys, filled with the waters of quiet mystery, dip at the foot of sunlit hills; again the well of secrets that we thought had dried up forever is opened wide before us, deep and inviting. And the possibility for holiness is restored.
This re-spiritualization is achieved by the laws of modesty. It might at first seem that, if the body is a garment for the soul, clothing it is adding garment upon garment, distancing us even further from the soul. But not so, for covering the body puts an end to the illusion that the body is the "real thing." It reminds us that internality is still hidden, and redirects our view to that which lies beneath both garments. Modesty encourages us to search for and reveal the soul.
This focus on the internal is reflected in the fact that Jewish women do not veil their faces. The face (panim) reveals the inside (penim; the two words are spelled identically in Hebrew): in radiating our personality, the face does not allow the external view to "get stuck" on it, but draws it inward to our deeper self.
Modesty gives birth to an important concept: sublimation. Today, sublimation has become a synonym for repression. We associate it with the Christian ideal of monasticism—abstaining from sex and totally suppressing the sex drive. Yet sublimation in truth means redirecting and refining our basic instincts. As we have seen, the drive for sex and the drive for learning are two expressions of one basic desire: to deeply "know" and join with one's beloved. When channeled physically, this desire expresses itself in sexual desire for someone; when channeled spiritually, it expresses itself as a desire for mystical cleaving to God and the Godliness in another. In limiting how much of our bodies we expose and consequently what our eyes can see, sublimation changes the channel: we encourage the sex drive to leave its raw, physical state and embark upon a journey of spiritual search, growth, and change. Jewish sublimation does not repress the sex drive—it elevates it.
Spiritualizing sexuality results in the achievement of a true bond with another. That same blind spot that awakens our imagination whispers in our ear about the possibility of genuine, spiritual love and inspires us to seek it. This connection is hinted at in a saying of the Sages, "whoever sees nakedness and does not feast his eyes upon it merits welcoming the face of the Divine Presence." Whoever knows how to close his eyes to external expressions of sexuality merits seeing its internal expression: his power of love is refined and turned towards the face of the Divine Presence—the hidden presence of God in the world and in others.
According to Kabbalah and Chassidic teachings, elevating sexuality leads to the body itself becoming holy. When we cease viewing the body as a god and instead as a dwelling place for God, it begins to reveal genuine Godliness. The Zohar teaches that "when a man is sexually intimate with his wife in oneness, joy, and desire, and a boy and a girl come out from them," he becomes "whole as the world above" (Zohar, part 3, 7a). Chassidic writings similarly speak of a future in which the physical body will be Godly. These statements seem to express the goal of the sexual revolution—but with one significant difference: while the sexual revolution turned the body into a god by failing to recognize the soul and its superiority, mystical teachings encourage us to make our bodies Godly by purifying them to be fitting vessels for our souls. Thus elevated, the body can shine with a spiritual light.
To sum up: While tragically misfocused on physicality, the sexual revolution expressed a God-inspired desire to get to the essence of things. In redirecting that desire toward spiritual essence and embracing modesty as fuel for perceiving spiritual depth in others, we can redeem the fallen sparks buried within the sexual revolution and take a giant step forward in redeeming our world.
It is true that implementing a modest dress code does not guarantee the flourishing of a more spiritual consciousness. Overstressing the details of external appearance misses the purpose of modesty, which is to strengthen our internal view and appreciation of holiness. But the actual laws of modesty remain a necessary condition for developing this spiritual consciousness. The ideas I have presented can help us understand modesty not as something repressive but as a gift from God that lends enchantment, beauty, and wonder to the world. Understanding the secret of diminishing will annul the diminishing of secrets that modernity has caused. Modernity's failures will be rectified, and its inner wish will be actualized.