By Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz
The wonderful thing about the Bible is that it contains everything. All the life wisdom you could possibly need is found inside its pages. Astrophysicists are just beginning to see that their huge particle accelerators are simply confirming the first few chapters of Genesis. Sociologists are just beginning to see that the simple rules set out in the Torah help build healthy communities.
And when it comes to love, romance novelists should hang their heads in shame when they read certain biblical passages.
Psalm 45 begins by declaring that it is a “love song” (verse 1). But then the text becomes confusing. David declares his love for a “king.”
My heart is astir with gracious words; I speak my poem to a king; my tongue is the pen of an expert scribe. Psalm 45:2
Which king would David be speaking about?
Normally, it could be assumed that David is describing his love for God, King of Kings, but the next verse makes it clear that is not the case:
You are fairer than all men; your speech is endowed with grace; rightly has Hashem given you an eternal blessing. Psalm 45:3
So who is David in love with?
Many commentaries say that in these verses, David is expressing his love for the King Messiah that is destined to come from his house.
But the text takes another twist in verse 14, describing a princess.
The royal princess, her dress embroidered with golden mountings, is led inside to the king; maidens in her train, her companions, are presented to you. Psalm 45:14-15
According to the commentary known as the Da’at Mikra, this Psalm was sung in honor of the marriage between a king and a princess. This could be referring to the “marriage” between the King Messiah and the Jewish people, which will come in the form of the ultimate redemption.
The simple meaning of verses 14-15 has been the source of conjecture among Bible scholars. Rabbi David Altschuler of Prague (1687-1769), known as the Metzudat David, taught about this verse that even the princess, who generally remains inside because of her dignified status, will be brought in beautiful garments to greet the Messiah.
Rabbi David Kimhi (1160–1235 France), also known as the Radak, wrote that the princesses refer to the nations of the world that will accept the sovereignty of the Messiah and the teachings of Judaism.
But the Hebrew words in this verse can also be explained as “the glory of a princess is within.” This is used by many as a biblical source for the Jewish concept of modesty. But what does modesty really mean?
Western culture has a concept of beauty based on public display. Cosmetics are used to accentuate or create images for all to see. But the Psalm describes a different standard of beauty that becomes manifest when it is hidden and private.
Based on this concept of “the glory of a princess is within,” Jewish women traditionally dress modestly and even cover their hair, reserving their beauty for their husbands. And their husbands recognize that their wife is their queen, requiring the utmost dignity and respect.
The Midrash Tanhuma explains that “If a woman remains modestly at home, she is worthy that both her husband and children are the high priest who wears golden clothes.” Many have traditionally understood this to mean that a woman is dishonored by certain types of public exposure.
But another interpretation of the verse was offered by Esther Rubenstein (1881-1924). Esther, the only daughter of Rabbi Chaim Yirmiyahu Flensberg, Chief Rabbi of Shaki, was an extraordinary woman. She studied Torah, rabbinic literature and Jewish philosophy with her scholarly father, founded several Jewish schools for girls and was a passionate Religious Zionist who spoke frequently about the critical role women must play in the return to the Land of Israel.
Esther explained the above verse to mean, not that a woman must stay indoors, but that “the internalized world of a woman is her true glory and ornament.” Meaning, a woman’s true beauty and value lie within her inner self, her thoughts, emotions, and personality, rather than her external appearance.
If this verse does not mean that a woman must remain at home, what is the Jewish concept of modesty and to whom does it apply?
While modesty is emphasized with regard to women, it is not limited to women. In fact, the sages interpret the above verse (14) as referring to Moses, explaining that God spoke to Moses in the Tent of Meeting, and not in public, out of modesty.
So what does being modest really mean?
Modesty means carrying oneself with dignity and respecting one’s own boundaries and the boundaries of others. It means acting out of concern for God and not for the purpose of impressing other people. As Rabbi Norman Lamm (1927 – 2020), a New York Orthodox rabbi and former president of Yeshiva University, wrote:
“A person who has self-respect has no need to wear his virtues like a badge and show them off to the world”. “Tzeniut [modesty] implies kavod [honor] both with regard to oneself and to others.”
Or as Rabbanit Dina Cohen explained, modesty requires an individual to avoid always seeking attention or recognition and to refrain from envying the success and accomplishments of others. Instead, one should embrace the blessings and opportunities given to them by God.
This principle stands in opposition to the prevalent mentality in modern society which prioritizes self-promotion and the exhibition of material achievements.
While there are aspects to modesty that pertain to the way one dresses and interacts with others, modesty does not mean staying out of sight and covering your body from head to toe. Rather, it involves having respect for oneself and for others, respecting your own privacy and the privacy of others, and acting out of devotion to God, rather than a desire to receive recognition or praise.