Parasha Chukat

Walking Modestly Before G-d
In 2001, Rabbi Aurthur Green wrote a book entitled These Are The Words.  In it he defines and discusses 149 Hebrew words that he believes are the core words of Judaism, words that everybody needs to know in order to understand Jewish civilization.  As our editor so beautifully states, these are the words that "set us apart and in doing so keep us together."  They are the vocabulary of Jewish life, the words that we use that express the essence of Judaism.  We should all know these words, and we should teach them to to our children.
Some of the words that Rabbi Green identifies as central to Judaism will be familiar to everybody. Rabbi Green discusses, for example, the word "kadosh" — holy.  Others words are less familiar, "zehcut" — merit — for example.  One word that he lists is related to a word found in the Haftorah for this week. In it the prophet Micah asks what is "good" and what G-d wants from us. He forthwith answers his own question, "Only to do justice, to love goodness (hesed), and to walk modestly/humbly  with G-d." The word for "modestly", "hats-neah" in Hebrew, is related to the modern Hebrew word for "modesty" — "tsiniut". It is a word that, in Israel, is very important in the ultra-Orthodox community.  Among this community, the concern is with how women dress and the degree of contact between men and women in the course of everyday life. It can seem rather extreme to us here in America. Women among the ultra-orthodox, and those who come into their neighborhoods, must wear long skirts down to their ankles, long sleeved blouses, and collars that come up to their necks. There are even segregated public buses, where women must sit in the back of the bus, men in the front. Some communities consider it "immodest" for a woman to sing at a public event where there are men present. Last December Hilary Clinton criticized ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Israel for what she believes is their attempt to marginalize women in Israeli society. Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel, responded in a radio interview that Clinton "has no real knowledge of a Jewish woman's modesty,….The Jewish people respect women and treat them like queens and princesses."
The idea of what constitutes "modesty" of course differs from community to community, and througout different periods of history.  The idea of what constitutes "modest" behavior will be different at Congregation Beth Shalom in Naperville than it will be in Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, but this does not make it any less important as a Jewish value. We should consider what is it to be modest in our dress and in our behavior for our time and our Jewish community, and try to act on this value and instill it in our children. Only when we can define it can we fulfill the prophet Micah's prescription for how G-d wants us to live.