Modesty Controversies in the Messianic Community


Issues involving dress and modesty can be very hard fought in various sectors of today’s broad Messianic movement. How do we identify and navigate through some of the extremes?

Is God at all concerned about the outward appearance of His people? Issues concerning outward appearance, concepts of modesty, personal dress, and various grooming habits, involve various open and private controversies across the broad Messianic community. On one side of the spectrum, there are those you will find who are indifferent to a person’s dress and attire, and on the other side of the spectrum are those who are rather firm and (staunchly) legalistic about how people dress and groom themselves.

Certainly in our experience as a ministry, we have had to field many questions and inquiries about issues of dress, modesty, and grooming. What makes this subject matter so difficult, is that people who hold to a particular set of opinions or values regarding modesty—whether they wish to admit it or not—will frequently use those positions to either judge others or feel superior to others. In much of the Messianic movement, there are various cliques advocating “modesty,” which in wanting to be reserved in their appearance and demeanor, actually draw a great deal of negative attention from outsiders, and are hardly tactful when it comes to their interaction with others. At the same time, there are, to be certain, issues of immodesty to be weighed. These range from people wearing overly-revealing attire, ostentatious clothing, overly-expensive jewelry, women who employ overusage of makeup, and both males and females using their personal appearance as a means to attract attention from outsiders. All of us need to recognize how external clothing and grooming, whether we like it or not, do often reflect the internal character and values of many people.

That external appearance will often reveal someone’s internal values should not come as much of a surprise as we might think. Unwashed and unkempt people are often regarded as anti-social vagabonds. Immodest, tight, and revealing clothing, on either women or men, are thought to reveal or promote sexuality and promiscuity. A business suit, or even a business casual style of dress, is widely thought to promote professional and academic productivity and leadership. Those who regularly wear jeans and denim might have a job involving heavy, manual labor. Military uniforms, from either commissioned officers or enlisted personnel, are intended to command the respect of one’s fellow citizens, and give some sense of command.

I myself am not at all immune to being conditioned to a particular style of dress and grooming, and the values which they convey. My broad family background is one of scholars and educators, military officers, professional ministers and clergy, and business owners. I do my best to make sure that the clothes I am wearing are clean, that I have bathed and that I am not putting off any foul odors, and that whether I am wearing pants (trousers) or shorts, that the shirt I am wearing is always tucked in. My appearance frequently does merit my being called Mr. McKee, by peers my own age, who you would think would be more prone to call me John.

How important can external dress or grooming be? When I went to Israel in November 2004, the new Tel Aviv airport had only been operating for a few days. Our El Al flight arrived from Newark early in the morning, along with the other American flights, and after clearing customs our tour group went to the baggage claim. Standing in front of several of us at the carousel were two men. The first was an older ultra-Orthodox Jew wearing a black suit, black hat, and white stockings, and he really did look like he had just arrived from Seventeenth Century Poland. The second was a Christian, probably in his late twenties, with a mohawk, body piercings all over his ears, nose, and mouth, and with tattoos all up and down both arms. The gentleman I was standing next to from our tour was dressed in jeans and a short sleeve polo shirt. I was wearing navy blue Dockers pants and a long sleeve plaid shirt. We both looked at these two from behind, and then at one another, shaking our heads. While the Orthodox Jewish man was dressed conservatively and modestly, his apparel would draw undue, outside attention. The Christian with the body piercings and tattoos, would definitely draw outside attention—and such grooming would serve as a bad testimony to those well beyond the Orthodox Jewish man, for American Christianity.

This example from 2004 does admittedly represent extremes, as most men and women I have encountered, throughout the broad Messianic movement, do not dress like ultra-Orthodox Jews from the old Russian Empire, and even the most liberal I have encountered are not covered in body piercings and tattoos. Still, there are factors to be acknowledged and weighed per issues of modesty, attire, and grooming—and it is not at all surprising that Holy Scripture does actually issue instructions to God’s people on these matters. But how do we sort through these matters? When describing what is masculine or what is feminine, there are often a great deal of value judgments to be made. How much or how little of this is bound by ancient periods of time versus more modern periods of time, and the diverse cultures, regions, and environments of Planet Earth? The Jewish tradition, which has had to consider the Torah and Tanach instructions on modesty, attire, and grooming, certainly demonstrates a diversity of views and opinions. Messianic discussions involving modesty and grooming do not often consider this.

So much of the hesitancy to address and evaluate issues of modesty or grooming—particularly on the part of those who tend to be more moderate than others—is probably because of some level of conditioning from the word issued by the Lord to the Prophet Samuel, who failed to see His choice of David as Israel’s future king, because he thought that his brother Eliab would be chosen instead. As Samuel was admonished, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7, NRSV). Likewise, is how Yeshua the Messiah issued a stark rebuke to the Pharisaical leaders of His day, describing, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness (Matthew 23:27, NASU). These individuals apparently were dressed appropriately for their day and for their position, but much of their external appearance was used to hide their internal spiritual void.

This analysis, addressing some of the major components of modesty and grooming for contemporary Messianic people, is not intended to be extensive. It has consulted a number of Jewish, Christian, and Messianic points of view. And, whether others who have addressed this wish to admit it or not, there are subjective dimensions to these issues, and there are varied components which involve different cultures, settings, and climates. There are various Bible passages which some have taken as universal instructions for all times and places, which are much better understood as pertaining to the ancient circumstances of their original audience, from which we can derive certain principles or guidelines.

Approaching the Topic of Modesty

The issue of modesty, and especially the issue of personal grooming, evoke strong emotions from the Right, the Left, and the Center of today’s Messianic movement. All of us should be able to acknowledge how certain jobs do require a “dress code,” and so it should not come as a shock, to see that there are instructions and admonitions regarding attire and grooming in the Holy Scriptures.

One of the main issues surrounding modesty, is to see that both men and women of God can present themselves to the world as respectable and responsible people. An overarching concern, shared by all who approach the issue of modesty in human clothing, is the avoidance or appearance of nakedness. The human body as Created by God, is indeed “very good” (Genesis 1:31); nakedness, in Scripture, however, is widely regarded as a sign of shame (Genesis 3:7; Deuteronomy 28:48; Isaiah 20:2-4; Hosea 2:3; Revelation 3:17-18). Nakedness is something to be avoided, as bodies should be sufficiently covered by clothing (Job 1:21; Exodus 20:26; cf. 28:42).

Dressing in a manner to be considered modest, means exhibiting some concern for avoiding a mode of attire that can be regarded as sexually provocative. While females tend to garner more attention concerning their attire, males are not excluded from needing to be careful with what they wear. Women need not be wearing clothing that promotes sexual looseness, and men need not be wearing clothing that demonstrates some mode of sexual prowess. It is entirely inappropriate to take Yeshua’s famed instruction of Matthew 5:28, “but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (NASU), and make the lust the fault of the woman, as though a woman’s being inappropriately attired drew out a man’s biological urges for sexual intercourse. Matthew 5:28 has both male and female dimensions to it, but the fault of entertaining lustful thoughts is with the subject, and not with the direct object. (And, women are not immune at demonstrating a lust for men and sexual intercourse as well.)

While personal dress and grooming, the outward appearance of a man or woman, do tend to garner most of the attention on discussions pertaining to modesty—modesty does extend to something beyond outward appearance. The English terms modest and modesty, as witnessed in the definitions provided by Webster’s New World Dictionary and Thesaurus, are definitely worth noting. Among the descriptions provided for the adjective modest, include: “not vain or boastful,” “decorous; descent,” and “unpretentious.” The noun modesty includes the description, “Unassuming or humble attitude…humility, delicacy, reticence, unobtrusiveness, meekness.”[1] An outward appearance of reserve needs to be enjoined to an inward stellar morality. While being immodest is commonly associated with those who dress in a lewd or revealing manner, those who forcibly advocate modesty in dress, are not all immune from being immodest in their attitudes or demeanor. Sometimes their modest external dress can be a cause for an immodest internal spirituality.

Fortunately, we do not have to go too far to see how various contemporary Messianic voices, who believe that Torah observant people should dress “modestly,” actually think what this means for most men and women. In a 2006 article appearing in Messiah Magazine, simply entitled “Modesty,” Tikvah Michael summarizes much of the practice witnessed among those persons and associations which one is prone to find, who strongly emphasize “modesty”:

“As first-generation (or, in some cases second-generation) Torah homes and believing Torah communities emerge, it seems that most of us have broached the ‘dress code’ issue in some way. Our family travels widely throughout the US, and we have found a fair amount of continuity and conformity within our movement to a certain like-minded style of dress. Most Torah groups have defined modest guidelines for clothing, such as loose-fitting clothing and high necklines for everyone; long skirts and loosely fit pants for women; bloomers under dresses for little girls; and, in general, a distinctly different image than what we see in the world around us. In many groups, men and women have also implemented some kind of head covering to their understanding of modesty.

“While I do not believe that anyone can set one hard and fast dress code rule to perfectly define modest dress, I do believe that we are in the process of defining our clothing as something very unique to our own identity. We are becoming more recognizable, and this is a very positive and exciting step.”[2]

Michael goes on to recognize some of the concerns that should be rightly recognized, by anyone who is going to emphasize modesty. She states, “Too often, we stress the externals so much (i.e., clothing, beards, head coverings, tassels, etc.) that at times, we lose our perspective on the internal matters. The areas of character and fortitude in our children will be what carries the Torah-torch into the future and beyond.”[3] She makes light of the imperative of Micah 6:8: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (NRSV). While most always rendered in English versions as “walk humbly,” the verb tzana, appearing in the Hifil stem (casual action, active voice), can mean “be modest, humble” (BDB).[4] Michael’s article then goes on to address some of the issues of immodest behavior and language that she and her family have witnessed during their time in ministry.

While Michael’s 2006 article on “Modesty” summarizes a good part of the sort of attire and grooming one will witness in various sectors of the Messianic community, the article does focus heavily on external appearance being balanced with internal ethics and motives. Others who will be encountered in the Messianic world, are much more firm, and even forceful, when it comes to their concepts of modesty, clothing, and grooming. Widely representative of those who you will more often than not encounter within the independent Hebrew/Hebraic Roots sectors (which may or may not call itself “Messianic”), is a voice like Daniel Botkin. Writing on, “The Outward Appearance of God’s People: Does it Matter?”, he adheres to a patriarchal ideology, where the clothing of men and women must be rigidly distinctive, and any blurring of such male-female distinction is not only believed to be an aberration, but even Satanic:

“Satan’s goal is to blur the distinction of the sexes, because the distinction of the sexes is a testimony to the authority God has established on earth. God created the human race male and female. There are gender-specific roles in the family and there are gender-specific roles in the Body of Messiah. Working through the feminists, the sodomites, and the fashion designers, Satan changes the world’s definition of what is modest, what is appropriate for men, and what is appropriate for women. A short time after the world has accepted these changes, the Church embraces them, and anyone who questions the wisdom of this is called a legalist….

“The Enemy’s attempt to blur the distinction of the sexes should cause God’s people to go on the offensive and make it a special point to wear clothing and hair styles which clearly distinguish males from females. My beard and my pants distinguish me from my wife; my wife’s long hair, dress, and head covering distinguish her from me. This serves as a silent testimony to Satan, to the angels, to the world, and to the Church that God has authority in the earth. Proper clothing and hair do not produce holiness, but true holiness will result in proper clothing and hair.”[5]

In his article, Botkin goes on to mention how certain modes of dress have been associated with the Orthodox Jewish community, and Christian sects like the Mennonites or the Amish, to keep them distinct and coherent. While few in the broader Messianic community would disagree with Botkin, that men and women need to be easily identifiable, it would be safe to say that most Messianics in both Israel and the West, would have little problem with females wearing pants (trousers), and would not consider it to be some sort of blurring of the genders, among other things. Most Messianics would also place much less of an emphasis on gender distinction somehow being a sign of God’s authority on Earth,[6] and much more of an emphasis on the work of His Holy Spirit in equally changing the lives of both men and women (cf. Joel 2:28).

A third perspective to be weighed is offered by Blu Greenberg, author of How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household. She largely represents what would be considered a modern Orthodox approach to modesty, which weighs various Biblical and Rabbinical sentiments about proper attire, with modern Western realities. She addresses how the modern Orthodox in North America consider themselves very modest, but also very Western. Messianic people one will find, who are widely indifferent to issues regarding modesty and grooming, are likely, however, to agree with some of her thoughts here. As a faith community informed from Judaism, the Messianic movement is going to find various points to agree with—likely more than the previous two perspectives mentioned:

“By and large, a modern Orthodox Jew can physically blend into the community, in Las Vegas as in New York as in Dallas. The men are generally clean-shaven and do not wear earlocks. (However, they use only electric razors; Leviticus 21:5 prohibits applying a razor directly to the face.) They wear three-piece suits and sports clothes quite like other American men. The women are up to the latest in fashion. But there are differences—among Orthodox Jews and also between the most liberal Orthodox Jews and the non-Orthodox. The differences lie in the virtue of modesty.

“Modesty is, of course, relative. Still, I would characterize Orthodox Jewish dress as modern but modest. For example, modern Orthodox teenagers, both male and female, wear the universal uniform—jeans—but not skintight ones, and not to their yeshiva schools. Young women will wear bathing suits, but not the teeniest bikinis; generally, a woman will head for the one-piece rack. When skirts were mini, Orthodox women wore them, but not the shortest ones. In fact, hemline inches could be significantly correlated to identity positions along the Orthodox continuum. At a fashionable Orthodox wedding, you won’t find strapless or décolleté dresses except on an unknowing outsider. Some Orthodox women wear slacks, but others consider it ‘male gender attire’ and would not wear such. These women who do wear pants would never wear them to shul. Many modern Orthodox women wear sleeveless clothes, but never to shul; and some would never wear anything cut above their elbows. A woman from the Chasidic or right-wing sectarian community would never wear a short-sleeved dress, but she might wear a modest one-piece bathing suit at a Catskill hotel. An American Orthodox woman would not think of entering the shul without stockings, even in the summer heat, but her right-wing counterpart in Israel wouldn’t hesitate to come to prayer in sandal-shot bare feet.

“So the lines are drawn like a crazy quilt. Perhaps in no other area is there as much diversity among Orthodox Jews. The same holds true for married women covering their hair. Some women wear wigs; some, hats; some, scarves; some, nothing at all, except for when they light candles or go to shul. There are some families where the mother doesn’t cover her hair and the married daughter does. There are differences even among those who wear hats or scarves. Some wear them all the time, some only when they go out of their own homes.

“In my community, the Modern Orthodox, most of the women of my generation do not cover their hair. But it is also true that the numbers of younger women who cover their hair at marriage has increased over the past generation.”[7]

The overall theme to be taken away from Greenberg’s statements is that there is diversity regarding what may, or what may not, be taken as modest by the modern Orthodox Jewish community—and yet with all of these, and other options and practices present, all of these people are considered Jewish, a part of the same community, and legitimately applying the Torah and Jewish tradition in their setting in life. Being modest hardly means having to wear clothing like that worn in the Ancient Near East, or even Jews living in the old Russian or Austro-Hungarian Empires. Accommodations to where a Jewish man or woman is presently living can certainly be made. And indeed, finer details not withstanding, most people in the Messianic community would adhere to a similar ethic regarding modesty.

While one would think that discussions, of modesty and proper attire for today’s Messianic people, would focus more around various passages and verses from the Tanach or Old Testament—it is actually various passages from the Apostolic Scriptures or New Testament, which garner more attention and controversy. Two passages which perhaps have created the most amount of tension regarding modesty and proper dress, for not just Messianic people forcibly emphasizing such, but even various Christians over many centuries, are 1 Timothy 2:8-10 and 1 Peter 3:3-4:

“Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension. Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments, but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness” (1 Timothy 2:8-10, NASU).

“Your adornment must not be merely external—braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God” (1 Peter 3:3, NASU).

For many, instructions such as these, are universal directions for Messiah followers in all times and places, and may represent a moratorium for certain on wearing jewelry, but also certain hairstyles for women, and a definite emphasize on a certain drab or dour style of clothing being worn. There is little doubting the fact that Paul wanted Believers (1 Timothy 2:9) to be kosmios, “well-ordered, regular, moderate,” or “orderly, well-behaved, regular, discreet, quiet” (LS).[8] Who we are as people is to be decisively present via our character and good works. But not all would be convinced that the moratorium on jewelry, or the prescription for certain types of clothing and prohibition of certain types of hairstyles, are universal for all generations of Believers since.

Bible readers such as myself, for example, do not primarily look at either 1 Timothy or 1 Peter as abstract essays, but rather as letters written to Timothy in Ephesus to having fix problems that have erupted from various false teachings, and to Jewish and non-Jewish Believers “throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1 Peter 1:1), who were needing to be directed as Messiah followers functioning as a sub-group within Judaism in an often hostile Roman Empire.[9] A particular hairstyle or article of clothing, worn by people in the First Century Mediterranean, might have communicated lewdness or promiscuity to ancients, but today—given the ever-changing contours of fashion, much less the much greater diversity of cultures, geographic settings, and climates where God’s people have been placed—might instead communicate conservativeness, proper etiquette, and indeed modesty.[10] It is along the lines of (1) reading various instructions regarding their ancient audiences first and modern Believers second, versus (2) those who read various instructions as universal for all times and settings, where significant opinions and divisions are noticeable among today’s Messianic people.


NOTES

[1] Webster’s New World Dictionary and Thesaurus, second edition (Cleveland: Wiley Publishing, Inc, 2002), 410.

[2] Tikvah Michael. “Modesty” Messiah Magazine Issue 91, Bamidbar 5766 (2006):18-19.

[3] Ibid., 19.

[4] BDB, 857.

Cf. Proverbs 11:2, where the related noun, tzanu’a, appears.

[5] Daniel Botkin. (n.d.). The Outward Appearance of God’s People: Does it Matter? Gates of Eden. Retrieved 22 July, 2014, from <http://www.messianicpublications.com>.

[6] Be sure to have read the author’s exegesis paper on Galatians 3:28, “Biblical Equality and Today’s Messianic Movement,” appearing in Confronting Critical Issues. This defends an egalitarian orientation for gender roles in the Body of Messiah.

[7] Blu Greenberg, How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983), pp 185-186.

[8] LS, 446.

[9] Consult the entries for the letters of 1 Timothy and 1 Peter in the workbook A Survey of the Apostolic Scriptures for the Practical Messianic.

[10] A moderating solution to the controversies that can be caused by 1 Timothy 2:9, is seen in the paraphrase offered by the NEB: “Women against must dress in becoming manner, modestly and soberly, not with elaborate hair-styles, not decked out with gold or pearls, or expensive clothes.” This would communicate an extra-generational sense of beyond what Timothy in Ephesus was having to see regulated.