Queercrip Tznius: on Modesty, Camp, and Radical Obscurity
Tznius (or tzniut) refers to the halakhic invective towards modesty derived from Micah 6:8 which commands us "...to make justice, love loving-kindness, and move modestly with [our] G/d". In Ashkenazi minhag this is traditionally understood along strictly gendered codes of dress and conduct: men should dress modestly and wear head coverings, married women in particular must cover their hair, and all women should cover their clavicles, elbows, and ankles (with specific methods differing among different communities); women cannot sing in mixed company; men and women should not make skin contact unless married and in private; and so on. Flashy and fancy accessories, behavior, and clothing are discouraged.
Recent years have seen a growth of tznius observance among queer and trans progressive Jews. Many of these Jews are in long-term partnerships that may or may not be monogamous, but there is also a growing trend of veiling regardless of relationship status. Though it is not the minhag (custom) of most Jewish communities on Turtle Island traditionally , unmarried Jews of any gender identity may find meaning in covering: it indicates not being open to sexual, sensual, or romantic advances; it provides a tangible barrier between yourself and the external gaze that can feel like armour; the process of wrapping one’s hair provides a physically and emotionally grounding ritual which can alleviate some of the stress of navigating an overwhelming and dangerous world; it can be a comforting and calming sensory experience; when your hair is covered you don’t have to worry about how it looks; and so on. Drashing off Micah 6:8, Rachel Rubenstein identifies tznius as a potentially empowering process of self-definition through "tzimtzum , spiritual and emotional self-contraction that allows space for growth and power." . While these reasons are far from orthodox, they are each meaningful "enough" on their own to "justify" covering your hair and skin. In fact, the only reasons not to cover are if you don’t want to or are not safe to do so.
We cover for several of the above reasons, including that we see our plurality as a lives-long partnership and commitment comparable to (though not under the framework of) marriage. We are also asexual and for the most part on the aromantic spectrum, and find it powerful to be able to present ourselves queerly as unavailable when so much of our Queer social experience has revolved around dating and flirtation. As a means of signifying our flavor of queerness (asexual, aromantic-spectrum), our transness (genderfluid, genderful, genderless, and xenogender futch fuckery), our cripness (autistic & migraine sensory sensitivity, can’t-be-bothered-with-a-hairstyle fatigue), and our madness (yes we are in a polyamorous plural partnership with ourselves, wouldn’t have it any other way), tznius asserts our agency over a bodymind that is often tugged between extremes of hypersexualization and desexualization, hypervisibility and invisibility. To questions about our sexual, sensual, and romantic availability our headscarf functions as an emphatic #NYB (link) – it is none of your business.
This past Shabbos while reading the Haftarah for Parsha Yisro we came across an old passage shining in a new light since beginning our tznius observance this past year. Along this thread, we’d like to offer a perspective on Isaiah’s vision of the seraphim (Isaiah 6:1-7) that offers inspiration for a queercrip expansion of tznius: Is there room, nigh, precedent for camp in tznius? Can I embody my full, fagadelic freak self without being hypersexual or uncovered? What stake in the Divine is there for a immodestly modest queercrip who is tired of the pressure to be either completely closeted or entirely revealed?
Of Flowing Skirts and Fluttering Wings
Isaiah chapter 6 opens up with a flourish of fantastic imagery as Isaiah describes a vision of G/d seated upon a throne "וְשׁוּלָ֖יו מְלֵאִ֥ים אֶת־הַהֵיכָֽל" — and his skirts filled the Temple. . It is assumed that the reader thinks of the flowing robes of a male sovereign, but we’re tempted towards a vision of the Drag Queen Most High in all Her camp and glory with skirts twirling and overflowing through a sanctuary, the embodiment of the union between Tiferet (balance, beauty) and Yesod (connection) which manifests simultaneously as Malkhut and Shekinah, Sovereign space and Divine presence. This is an image of G/d-as-G/ddexx that commands authority through a show of excess, a performance of grandeur that demonstrates mastery of gender, royalty, adornment, and social nuance. These skirts themselves take the concept of covering — withholding visibility — to the extreme of an overwhelming hypervisible adornment. This is a Self-reveal through concealment and a concealment through revelation.
Next, Isaiah introduces the Seraphim at G/dexx’s side:
"Seraphs stood in attendance on Him. Each of them had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his legs, and with two he would fly."
The ostentatiousness of having six wings — limbs designed for flight — yet only using two of them to flutter above the prophet while using the others to withhold more of your image is inspiring, humorous, and over the top. This takes the art of knowing your audience — a human being for whom wings on anthropomorphic forms is nothing short of miraculous, nevermind 3 pairs — flirting with their expectations, and denying them through excess to the point of mastery. In this way the seraphim’s reveal matches the full-throttle camp of the G/ddexx they attend.
The verb used for what wings of the Seraphim are doing is "יְכַסֶּה" — to conceal, cover, spread over, and even overwhelm. Approaching a human being who can so easily be overwhelmed, these seraphim know that a successful enactment of their Divine duty hinges on carefully balancing the need for revelation with careful concealment. This covering does not mean any sense of theatricality needs to be sacrificed; if anything, these seraphim show us withholding can be a medium for extravagance. They reveal themselves to Isaiah through a delicate and flirtatious concealment that hints at but never gives away their full truth. Their Divine form stretches the imagination of the prophet, teasing him along the tight-rope of Mad prophecy which hovers over the depths of mundane ignorance and Holy obliteration.
The seraphim then proclaim the holiness of G/dexx singing "קָד֧וֹשׁ, קָד֧וֹשׁ, קָד֧וֹשׁ" ("Holy, Holy, Holy!") — even two holy’s wasn’t enough — "the whole of the earth is filled with Your abundance". With their voices the House of G/dexx quakes and fills with smoke, evoking the memory of the awe/fear of the rumbling and smoking revelation at Sinai. Sensing his own mortal imperfection amidst the splendor of the Host of Hosts, Isaiah gives an impassioned "Oy!" and in return a seraph — in an unsubtly homo-, nay, xeno-erotic gesture — purifies his lips with a burning coal from the holy fire of the altar. It is then that Isaiah is ready to receive the prophecy.
The passion! The drama! When facing a regality beyond comprehension it is understandable to become flustered, to feel the need to constrain oneself for fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. The seraphim, however, assert that concealment is not an excuse for stiffly conducting their duties — minimal exposure does not necessitate minimal expression. They take seriously their engagement by taking it beyond seriousness, commanding through their presence that we can conceal ourselves while still being passionate, playful, and provocative. Modesty, say the seraphim, can be inspiration for and manifest through abundance.
To Be Un/Seen
Tznius can be understood as an intentional daily practice of building awareness of and balancing revelation and concealment. When approaching each day and the encounters within them it is necessary that we reveal something of ourselves in the process: access needs, names, pronouns, intentions. Some of these are more necessary than others, and it is not uncommon to be met with high levels of scrutiny, hostility, and violence if those we reveal them to deem them too much, not enough, or incongruous with what they think they should be. Often we are expected or demanded to reveal more of ourselves than we can or should: gender and sexual identities; location; housing or serostatus; education, employment, diagnostic, transition or trauma histories (link). Queer people and disabled people are expected to perform high levels of emotional energy to either remain invisible through rigorously enforced coercive concealment, or to expend that energy attaining and maintaining hypervisibility without being seen as demanding, excessive, or unsightly.
Both extremes come at a great cost, and even after leaving the closet many of us find ourselves having to crawl back in part of the way, or trapped inside a nesting doll of closets that we can never fully leave. In a society where the "default" person is conceived as able, cisgender, culturaly christian, hearing, heterosexual, monogamous, sane, sighted, singlet, speaking, and white (a non-exhaustive list in no particular order), everyone who doesn’t fit these images carries the burden of disclosure and self-/selves-advocacy to combat the violence that threatens to confine them to or exclude them from narrowly-defined personhood. In order to access recognition and treatment as a person one must assert themselves through disclosure, at which point that personhood is subject to interrogation and scrutinized against preconceptions of what that disclosure implies and requires.
"What do you mean you’re transgender? You like [gendered activity] don’t you? I never saw you that way, you can’t really be trans. Oh, alright, but I’ll always think of you as [gender]."
"You aren’t really disabled, I would know if you were. You did [activity] just fine all this time, you don’t need accommodations. We’ve all felt that way, haven’t you tried [unsolicited medical advice]?"
"You can’t really be plural, you just haven’t made up your mind. Multiple Personality Disorder isn’t even real, anyway, they made it up to sell books. Besides, if you did have it I would have noticed."
Our choices when confronting micro- and macro-aggressions against our self-determination are limited, but not always limited to these two extremes. Despite popular assumptions about Queer and disabled desires, visibility is not the end goal no matter how stifling invisibility may be. There is something to be treasured in having the space and the agency to say "no, i do not want to disclose this right now and no one is entitled to that part of me." There is a great deal of revolutionary potential in the refusal to disclose, be it withholding through covering one’s hair or being careful with one’s history. However, we can use our visibility to engage in a radical critique of the demands placed on us to conceal/reveal.
Coined by Sky Cubacub, Radical Visibility is a “politically forceful aesthetic style” and “a call to action: to dress in order to not be ignored, to reject ‘passing’ and assimilation.”  This is a militant approach to queercrip erasure that commands criticism of neoliberal calls for rights within an imperialist and capitalist framework — a framework which must exclude bodyminds in order to maintain its corrosive system of exploitation. Radical Visibility identifies our social presence as a site of power even just in the act of adorning our bodies. By refusing to accommodate the pressure to invisibalize our differences, we can affirm our right to access as full persons with our Queerness and disabilities sources of inspiration and beauty. In conjunction with Radical Visibility, we propose a parallel movement embracing Radical Obscurity.
Radical Obscurity is a framework that resists the idea that the burden of visibility as a person rests on the individual cultivating an intelligible identity, and rebukes the claim that acknowledgement and access must be restricted to those who fit easily consumable compartments of identity and ability. To be obscure is not to be invisible and erased, but to maintain that no one owes anyone else disclosure in order to have themselves acknowledged. When disclosure is the price to pay for accessibility in a society built on “individual responsibility”, ultimately those without the resources to support, identify, and advocate their needs will be blamed for their own suppression. By rejecting invisibility and using our social presence to affirm our own and others rights to access regardless of disclosure, we can build towards a society built on affirming interdependence and collective responsibility where accessibility is the default organizing perspective. We can harness the wisdom learned from our experiences of concealment and demand for each other the right to obscurity as a necessary component of true accessibility. Though this essay is rooted in Jewish textual engagement, Radical Obscurity is not an exclusively Jewish framework and those who are not Jewish are encouraged to develop their own understandings and relationships with this framework.
Holding firm to both Radical Visibility and Radical Obscurity, we promote greater awareness of the ways logics of oppression control our lives while creating pathways for logics of liberation to burst through. We can use this dance of interwoven visibility/obscurity to command attention to ways of being social persons — not through assimilation into an unquestioned normalcy — but through a commitment to plurality rooted in interdependence. This is an interdependence of mutual recognition and respect that does not demand disclosure as a prerequisite for belonging but embraces creativity of identity and expression. The choices we make around disclosure will be unique to each of us and each moment we face, and by honoring the right of self-determination in ourselves and each other we acknowledge that any person’s choice to disclose or not to disclose does not command a moral judgment if no one is being harmed.
Uplifting the Mundane through Tznius
Beneath the skirts of the G/ddexx and the wings of the Seraphim we are reminded of our own careful task of concealment amidst revelation. Whereas traditional understandings of "modesty" would have us deny our desire to express ourselves exceedingly, extravagantly, marvelously, and Madly, we propose a reframing of Tznius as a process of engaging unapologetically with our desire and fear of revelation. That we must grapple with the mundane in order to survive does not mean we must live our lives mundanely. By embracing the challenge of withholding when we are commanded to give, and balancing that with the burden of revealing ourselves when we are suppressed, we can create justice in this world that uplifts the mundane that much closer to the Holy.
Tznius through the lens of intertwined Radical Visibility and Obscurity uses the socially performed self as a medium for building an intentional relationship with our own visibility as we interpret the command to move modestly with Divinity anew each moment. This means covering or revealing our bodyminds — even simultaneously — in ways that promote a sense of agency and security when we engage with others. It also means withholding information when we do not feel safe, certain, or comfortable disclosing (with the caveat that we do not withhold information that may be pertinent to ours or others safety and accountability), as well as learning to recognize when disclosure is the more liberating move. It absolutely means treating the vulnerability of revelation as a powerful opportunity for decadence, drama, and humor as we pave the way for greater connection in our relationships. Obscurity does not have to mean self-sacrifice, and visibility does not have to mean assimilation. Underneath our capable wings we have space for endless revelations and concealments, limitless expansions and contractions, on the flight towards queercrip liberation.
May each of us find ourselves held close by our wings and our communities, appreciated by those we reveal ourselves to and appreciative of those who reveal themselves to us in turn, and creative in our concealment as we build new possibilities for self- and selves-expression.
1. Sourced from Sefaria, our translation. The source sheet for this essay can be accessed here: link
2. “Progressive” here refers to halakhic interpretation, not political alignment.
3. It is important to note that for Jewish communities that live or lived in areas where unmarried women cover their hair it was and is definitely the norm.
4. From neohasid.org: “Contraction: The essential state of reality is God, the fullness of divinity in and through all things. Were this to be manifest, all things would be overwhelmed and cease to exist. In order for there to be "room" or a "space" (chalal) within which creation could take place, there needs to be a contraction, tzimtzum, within the infinite which leaves a clear space.” David Seidenberg, Shir-Yaakov Feinstein-Feit, and FourWorldsDesign.com. “Some Concepts Related to Creation.” Neohasid.Org, www.neohasid.org/kabbalah/creation. Accessed 26 Jan. 2022. (link)
5. ELI Talks, and Rachel Rubenstein. “Tapping Your Hidden Power: Modesty Beyond the ‘Cover-Up.’” YouTube, uploaded by ELI Talks, 4 Mar. 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=7QPPnBLITRY. ( link)
6. We strongly encourage putting in research before starting to cover your hair, especially if there is not precedent for it in your culture(s). Even if there is no precedent, you can still do so without appropriating if you are careful about the methods you use. Doing research can also help you prepare for the kinds of questions people may ask you about covering, including helping you understand why you want to do it and what you are getting into.
It is important to note that the main reason why it is unsafe to wear headcoverings in many places is due to rampant Islamophobia, propagated in large part by the amerikan empire’s so-called “war on terror.” Even in countries where it isn’t illegal to cover your hair, dress codes at work or school will discourage or outright prohibit veiling and combating this discrimination is a burden solely on the employee/student – who more than likely does not have the resources to pursue legal action. Further, head coverings – including the yarmulke – create a visible marker that identifies the wearer is Muslim or Jewish, making one especially vulnerable to Islamophobic and antisemitic violence. This violence is rooted in imperialism and white supremacy, and who is targeted for violence (and the frequency and severity of that violence) is determined in a large part by one’s relationship to whiteness and capital.
7. Isaiah 6:1, accessed from Sefaria (link)
8. Isaiah 6:2, accessed from Sefaria (link)
9. Strong, James. Strong’s Hebrew Dictionary of the Bible (Strong’s Dictionary Book 2). 1st ed., Miklal Software Solutions, Inc., 2011.
10. Isaiah 6:3, accessed from Sefaria with our adapted translation: (link)
11. Isaiah 6:4-7, accessed from Sefaria with our adapted translation: (link)
12. “Radical Visibility Zine.” Rebirth Garments, rebirthgarments.com/radical-visibility-zine. Accessed 25 Jan. 2022. (link)
13. This is not to say that those who have perpetuated harm are excused from being accountable to that harm (though there are limits on what it is justifiable to demand be publicized). It is important that we are critical – not dismissive, but critical – of claims that information is required for others safety. For example, if someone has or potentially has COVID-19 (or any other virus that our planned interaction may result in exposure of myself and those I live with) and they plan to enter my home, I am absolutely entitled to that information. The choice to not disclose, say, their dating, medical, or transition history, is not harming anyone and no one is entitled to that information regardless of how “well intentioned” the asker may see themselves.