Is Modesty A Lost Cause In This Society?

In "Voices of Faith," religious leaders answer readers' questions.

Comfort for all

The Rev. Holly McKissick, pastor of St. Andrew Christian Church, Olathe, Kan.: I was in the aisle seat. The couple next to me pulled out a small blanket and beneath its scant cover were sexually intimate. If the plane had not been full, the attendant not stressed, and if I had truly believed my eyes, I would have asked to be moved or told them to stop.

Instead, I was unbelievably uncomfortable.

Modesty is not about how we live in our own home, but how we live in public space, shared space. In that sense, modesty is about hospitality: acting in a way that makes others feel welcome, at home, comfortable. At times modesty requires that we reign in our own desires and preferences out of consideration for others. The couple on the plane was self-centered, narcissistic, inhospitable.

But modesty is not just about care of neighbor; it's also care of self. In our culture, girls and women are objectified and commodified. Their worth is equated with their bust size. Just as traditional cultures pressure women to cover up, our culture pressures women to uncover. When teenage girls go to school with little on, not only do they make others uncomfortable, they internalize society's valuation and commodify themselves.

I hope modesty is not a lost cause, for it's not about outdated, old-fashioned rules. It's about being at home in our own skin and helping others feel at home, too.

Sorely lacking

Rabbi Robert L. Tobin of Congregation Beth Shalom, Overland Park, Kan.: "He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God; then will your name achieve wisdom." (Micah 6:8)

"To walk modestly with your God" means to both present ourselves physically with "tzniut" — modesty — and to comport ourselves with "anavah" — humility. Both are sorely lacking in our culture today.

There are certain settings — synagogue, church or mosque, for example — when certain attire would seem scandalous. We all have a line we draw, though we don't all draw the line in the same place. The Jewish tradition teaches us to expand that sacred and respectful space beyond our sanctuaries and into our lives, dressing respectfully at all times. Some of us even wear special prayer shawls, called tzitzit, under our shirts to remind us of our obligations at all times. Yet also important — neither more nor less — is the call to wisdom that comes from genuine humility.

Modesty and humility are the keys to a life of fulfillment: Truly listen, even when they are wrong. Find the best in the person, no matter what happened. Know that all people are created in God's image and for God's purpose. And what we don't know will always far surpass what we do know.