Value vs. Ideal

One question that is often raised while studying the topic of tzniut is whether tzniut is a value or an ideal. At first glance these two categories might be considered synonymous for aren’t our ideals composed of what we value and isn’t what we value reflective of what we consider ideal? While this is true, there is still a significant difference between the two possible labels. Rambam, Hilchot Daot, chapter 1, prescribes that in order to develop proper moral character one should, at least on most occasions, follow the golden mean that lies between two opposite extremes. For example one should be neither overly generous nor overly stingy, but should know when to give and when to refrain from giving as the situation prescribes. Generosity is a value, just as self-preservation is a value, but as values they must interact on an equal plane with a wide medley of values, at times they take precedence and at times they are inappropriate. However, while the specific value expressed in a situation is not always the same, the general goal, proper character, does not change. One is not advised by Rambam to sometimes refrain from generosity because it is ever important to do the wrong thing! Proper character is always the ideal. Ideals are more vague than values because they represent goals that forever lie partially undiscovered in the future. They are more general than values because they are constants that incorporate beneath them many extreme values left to each individual to analyze and utilize towards maintenance of the ideal. In asking is tzniut a value or an ideal what one is asking is whether tzniut may or should ever be laid aside, or is tzniut an umbrella concept covering various extremes, but always something to strive towards?

  • Look at Micah 6:8, where “walking tzniutly with God” is included with doing justice and loving kindness as the three things that are good and that God asks of us. Such a small list, trusted to fulfill such high demands, implies that this is a list of ideals not just values. See the Malbim who seems to support this reading by equating the general precept to be holy because God is holy with being tzniut.
  • See T.B. Shabbos 53b and Rav Yakov Emden there. The Gemora tells the story of a man who does not know that his wife has a deformed arm until her death. The Gemora uses this to prove the unusual level of tzniut this man possessed, and Rav Emden uses the Gemora to prove that those who are tzniut in this way are exempted from the commandment on men to see their brides previous to kiddushin (see Rambam, Hilchot Aishot, Chapter 3 Halacha 19). On one-hand, tzniut is not dismissed in the face of a conflicting commandment; on the other hand, tzniut is not demanded nor even legally allowed in the average case.
  • See T.B. Ketubot 48a. We are told there that while the Persian custom was to have relations while clothed, such a demand by a Jewish husband on his wife would result in divorce with the woman receiving her ketubah. See the Ritva who explains that the Persian custom stems from tzniut and Ramban, Exodus chapter XXI verse 9, who explains that the Halacha stems from the value of closeness between husband and wife.

There seem to be times in which tzniut is discussed as an ideal, and times when it is considered a value. Perhaps this dichotomy in our understanding of tzniut is similar to what the Maharsha, T.B. Brachot 62a, is referring to when he says that the tzniut discussed in the Torah and the tzniut discussed by the rabbis are two separate concepts—see Chai Hecht, Walk With God: An Introduction to the Search for Tzniut, Nishma Introspection 5764 #1.

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