“Let’s Talk About It!” – The Baseless Hatred of Clothing – Part III

[Note: The below is for information purposes only, as is everything on this site. The decision to act upon any of it or not is the personal decision of the reader and any details regarding the observance of any halakhah – especially those laws which are intricate, complicated, and/or severe – should be discussed with a competent rav.]

Now that we have discussed the legal and historical background of “Jewish” clothing in general, and Haredi-Hasidic garb in particular, I would like to give my proposals for possible change. But what is it exactly that we want to change? What about this needs to change?

This series of posts has been entitled “The Baseless Hatred of Clothing” and the baseless hatred or sinat hinam that arises due to clothing is found most often in people who judge others as either avaryanim (“sinners”), kalim (“lightweights” – i.e. those who are not careful with the performance of the mitzvot), ammei ha-aretz (those ignorant of halakhah), etc. due to clothing style(s) or color(s) – even when it otherwise conforms to the four basic parameters of the halakhah for clothing (see Part I for a list).

“Hatred” in the halakhic sense, does not necessarily imply a visceral, emotional repulsion. Rather, in it’s most basic [and thoroughly Semitic] sense it implies “rejection” or, as in the case of the halakhah, to deny the rights of a fellow under the social berit of the Torah. A public sinner is denied the privilege to be trusted in religious matters as a Jew; his edut (testimony) is not valid in court, his shehitah is nevelah, his wine is considered nesekh, etc. Halakhically, such a one is supposed to be related to by the rest of the community in good standing as “ke-goy le-khol devarav – [considered] like a non-Jew in all matters” (cf. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Shabbat 30:15, et al). Such types of sinners are denied everything, whereas lesser types of sinners (referred to as “resha`ei yisra’el – the wicked of Israel” – Ibid.) are denied other privileges, such as the ability to have others eat in their homes, having aliyot to the Torah in shul, being trusted in business, etc. By extrapolation then, baseless hatred is denial of such rights and privileges to soundly religious Jews without having a valid halakhic justification for doing so.

This type of thing happens all the time because of clothing (and other non-halakhic reasons). One’s style of kippah (or lack thereof – since it is not a halakhic requirement at all, but a middat hasidut), the color of a shirt, the presence or absence of a hat, the color of the hat, whether the wife covers her hair and with what (e.g. a sheitel, a scarf, a hat, or nothing at all), if she wears pants or only skirts, etc. – it all can determine whether one will be trusted by others with regard to kashrut, whether one’s daughters will be properly married, whether one’s children will be accepted into a school, or whether a business will be patronized by the community.

People who have a yeshivah education, are in regular contact with a rav ha-posek, are shomerei shabbat, shomerei kashrut, and abide by the rules of tzeniut, and observe taharat ha-mishpahah are treated as if they were incompetent outsiders by more Haredi-Hasidic types. And many times, in my own experience, the haredim who place people under suspicion are many times less educated and less adept in the halakhah than the people whom they suspect!

One of the most eye-opening experiences I have ever had was being the beit midrash of a Dati Leumi yeshivah in Israel among tens of young men in tennis shoes, jeans, t-shirts, pullovers, and knitted kippot – all in the midst of serious learning. In other contexts, I saw these young men treated like irreverent and irreligious kids because of their more casual mode of dress. But each one of them whom I met showed themselves to be a budding talmid hakhamim, complete with refined middot tovot.

I remember years ago, while living in a Haredi-Hasidic community, when my daughters returned home on Shabbat from a program held for girls in the afternoon at the shul. The focus of this program was “tznius” and I can tell you that they heard more fables on the subject than truths, but one thing in particular bothered me enough to approach the local rosh kollel about it. My daughters were told that their mother was “not tznius” because she wore long, denim skirts during the week (they also said that she was “not tznius” because she did not wear a sheitel, but that is a discussion for another post). I approached the rosh kollel and asked why, if the skirt adequately covered the body and wasn’t especially tight and/or revealing was it problem just because it was made of denim material. His response was inane. “Has denim been permitted to the b’nei yeshivah?” he replied. In other words, his mentality was one of mob rule. The kind of mob rule that contributes significantly to the problem, as people are routinely told that since the “majority” of the (Haredi-Hasidic) world do or don’t do something, then abiding by what the “mob” does becomes the standard of halakhic practice. Nothing could be further from the truth.

This matzav – one of baseless hatred, rejection, and judgment of others based on clothing choice – is what we want to see changed. And, le-aniyut da`ati, it needs to change if we are going to move forward as a people.

In formulating my proposals for change, I was essentially guided by the Rambam’s idea of changing middoth as expressed in Hilkhot De`ot 2:4 where he advises that someone who is on one extreme of a character trait should press himself toward the opposite extreme of that character trait until he eventually recedes to the middle path. This is much like straightening something that is bent by bending it almost in the entirely opposite direction before it will return to being straight. In other words, I think that in order to begin solving this issue (and many others facing the religious Jewish community today) we need to press toward the opposite extreme, which I believe means actively trying NOT to dress in any particular way at all.

One last thing: These proposals are merely suggestions that occur to me as a concerned religious Jew. They only carry the weight that you, the reader, give them. I am not a posek and I claim no such authority for myself. I am not necessarily instructing anyone to do anything. I submit these as food for thought, a starting point for discussion, and to perhaps express what others may also be thinking. And, if adopted willingly by a significant contingent of religious Jews, a possible path to move beyond the current atmosphere in this regard.

PROPOSALS

[1] No more Polish/Lithuanian clothing styles or hats. This means abandoning the Haredi-Hasidic modes of dress completely. We are a Middle-Eastern people with an Ancient Near-Eastern religion – we should not be sporting the clothing of Polish nobles or Englishmen while claiming that such styles are “traditional” or authentic. I know that this will seem unnecessary to some, but in my mind if we do not actively seek to rid ourselves completely of these things, then they will remain, as will the problem itself.

[2] Kippot only in shul and at religious functions. This one may or may not be a good suggestion, I don’t know. But it seems to me that a kippah is nothing more than a comfort for our religious sensibilities based on externals. When we place them on everyone that comes into a shul – even non-Jews – and put them on secular Jews who work in kosher restaurants, etc. they become functionally meaningless. I know people who wear kippot who are nasty, ignorant, cheats, and I know people who wear a kippah only while davening who are learned, kind, honest, and religious Jews in every way. Perhaps taking them off for the majority of the time would force us to base our opinion of people on substance rather than by which style of beanie they choose to use in covering their bald spot. I must admit that I would have a tough time relinquishing mine, but I do honestly think that a critical mass of religious people taking them off could positively affect the status quo.

[3] No special clothes or hats for Shabbat, Yom TovHolo Shela-Mo`ed, or davening. Now, I know what you’re thinking, that this proposal contradicts the halakhah, but I don’t think that it actually does. I am not saying that one should not wear clean clothes in a proper way to honor Shabbat/YT. Hoever, all that is actually required by halakhah is some minor change in clothing from the weekday, such as a different color shirt or even just tucking in your shirt if you are not accustomed to doing that. A jacket and hat are simply not required for davening in our times since we go out in public without them all the time without it being viewed as disrespectful or disheveled. Special kaftans, kapotes, jackets, hats, gartels, etc. are all unnecessary me-ikkar ha-din. Again, showing respect for the Shabbat could be like showing up for a job interview, or a family gathering, or a place of employment. It does not have to be shown by dressing in Haredi-Hasidic garb, which are nothing more than a borrowed style from a bygone aristocracy. In fact, the Ben Ish Hai makes it clear that wearing comfortable old/worn clothing on Shabbat is preferable to wearing new/fancy clothing that is uncomfortable. Since Shabbat and holidays are when Jews most regularly congregate, perhaps wearing dress-casual clothing would break down barriers between Jews? A common custom in Yemen was to launder your regular clothing, but to wear a special tallit gadol in honor of Shabbat. Maybe we can all learn from this simple custom?

[4] Education. Education. Education. Beyond changing our externals, we need to change our internals. Education is the way to do this. We need to educate our children to be sensitive to these issues and teach them to all but ignore clothing styles and choices and instead evaluate a person’s character. We who understand the damage that is being done need to be vocal with those around us and work for change with the Jews in our communities and shuls. Most of all, we need to educate ourselves and others in what the halakhah actually demands as regards clothing and pay no mind to any other construct.

Well, there you have it. I hope that this has been interesting and informative. May HaShem grant us all the insight we need to draw ourselves and our fellow Jews closer to the Torah as lovers of peace and pursuers of peace.

“Let’s Talk About It!” – The Baseless Hatred of Clothing – Part II

[Note: The below is for information purposes only, as is everything on this site. The decision to act upon any of it or not is the personal decision of the reader and any details regarding the observance of any halakhah – especially those laws which are intricate, complicated, and/or severe – should be discussed with a competent rav.]

Let me begin with a personal story.

Several years ago I was in the home of some family friends for a birthday celebration. In the course of visiting, I found myself seated next to a young man in his mid-twenties who was dressed like a “chasid” – his beard was long and unkempt, he wore a black brimmed hat, and a long black overcoat that covered slacks, a vest, and a white shirt. I myself was wearing my usual weekend attire: blue jeans, a plaid flannel shirt, tennis shoes, and a knitted kippah. As we sat there eating cake, I introduced myself to this young man and found out that he and his wife had visited the community over Shabbat because they were very seriously considering a move.

Being curious, I asked him what was so unsatisfactory about where they lived that they were looking for a change. The young man began to tell me all about the Jews of his city and how they were supposedly uninterested in “spiritual growth.” When I pressed him to explain what he meant, he told me that none of the ba`alei batim were “learners” and that they had the audacity to bring in Shabbat early so that they could finish their meal early and get to sleep after a long workweek. And in the morning, he told me, they refused to sing any long melodies during Mussaf, opting instead to finish the davening in a timely fashion so that they could make it home for an early lunch and then another nap in the afternoon before Minhah, seudah shalishit, and finally Aravit. When I told him that in communities where normal working-class people are exhausted at the end of the week, it is perfectly normal – and well within the halakhah – for people to observe the Shabbat in this way, he refused to hear it. He shook his head incredulously.

“They just don’t want to grow in their Yiddishkeit,” he told me.

“And what does ‘spiritual growth’ consist of in your opinion?” I asked.

The young man looked at me with a bit of shock, as if the answer to my question was as clear as day.

Hiddur ha-mitzvos,” he said, “not just doing mitzvos, but doing them in a more mehuddar way.” He continued, “A person shouldn’t just make kiddush, but a person should try and make kiddush with a fancy kois, a beautiful challah cover, or a new bekishe perhaps. This shows that a person actually cares about the mitzvos and makes them grow spiritually.”

It was clear to me that this young man had his values confused and his priorities out of order.  He made no mention of developing middot tovot, of showing greater respect and compassion for others, or of being honest in business.

“There’s where you’re wrong,” I told him, “All the gold-embroidered velvet and silver-plated Judaica in the world can never make you a better father, more kind to your wife, more compassionate toward others, or be more humble. Such things won’t help you to learn halakhah with a pure heart, truly value other Jews, or be more honest in your business dealings. What you are describing is not spiritual growth, but spiritual death.” At that, he got up and went to sit in another part of the room, and understandably so – what I said was not at all comfortable for him.

This perspective – that spirituality and religious devotion find their greatest expression in the external and material – is not unique to this young man. It is a widespread phenomenon in the orthodox world that has a traceable history (see Part I for an explanation).

Although there is certainly a concept of hiddur ha-mitzvot (“beautification of the commandments”) which says that there is merit in making sure that heftzei kedushah are as beautiful as possible (e.g. etrog, sukkah, arba`ah minim, sifrei torah, etc.), this concept only applies to those mitzvot where their halakhot dictate that they be kempt and maintained in a state of beauty (see b.Shabbat 133b and Rashi there). According to Hazal, this principle does not apply to every mitzvah (Rashi) or even to every part of a mitzvah – and it certainly does not apply to customary objects such as hallah covers that have no real halakhic import. In fact, there is a second opinion in the Gemara that this “beautification” refers to the person and not to heftzei shel mitzvah at all (ibid.) – that a person should make himself “beautiful” by imitating HaShem in His ways of righteousness and kindness.

But I digress.

There are those who would say that if wearing a certain hat or style of jacket makes someone feel close to God, then what is the problem? I would counter that if a color or style of clothing makes you feel “closer to God” then that is precisely the problem. The problem of baseless hatred due to clothing will never cease if we validate the idea that our color or style of “kosher” clothing will help make us better people or more devoted Jews. The Torah makes us better Jews. Conforming to halakhah makes us better Jews. Wearing black suits, white shirts, and expensive hats does not.

In Part III I’ll give my propositions for change (for what it’s worth).

“Let’s Talk About It!” – The Baseless Hatred of Clothing – Part I

[Note: The below is for information purposes only, as is everything on this site. The decision to act upon any of it or not is the personal decision of the reader and any details regarding the observance of any halakhah – especially those laws which are intricate, complicated, and/or severe – should be discussed with a competent rav.]

The Stereotypes of “Orthodox” Dress

Let’s face it, the image of a stereotypical “orthodox” Jew in the minds of people today is a Haredi-Hasidic one – a black hat, long sidelocks, an untrimmed beard, and dressed in black Polish-style clothing. This image is so entrenched that many often do not believe religious non-Haredi Jews when they say that they are “orthodox” (myself included). Wearing a trimmed beard (or shaving it completely), sporting a leather or knitted kippah – even the wearing of khaki slacks and sweatshirts – all of this very often evokes an assumption of irreligiosity by both Jews and non-Jews on the part of the person wearing them.

Among religious Jews today the matter of dress is – in my opinion – perhaps the greatest factor of division among us. There are shuls where one is not allowed to be shaliah tzibbur unless he is wearing a black hat and a suit jacket. Beside a general mistrust of anyone not hasidic with regard to religious matters, there are Hasidic Jews who won’t eat meat slaughtered by shokhtim whose wives don’t wear a sheitel or wear a sheitel but do not have a shaven head underneath. Black suits and white button-up shirts are the standard and those who wear colored shirts, socks, or pants are viewed as being somehow less serious in their devotion to God. And let’s not forget the veritable insanity surrounding the various styles of kippot. Haredi-Hasidic children are often disallowed from playing with other orthodox children because they are not “frum” in their mode of dress, and children of Dati Leumi families are disallowed from attending certain schools in Israel due to the lack of black-and-white clothing in their parents’ wardrobe. In today’s orthodox world, the clothes not only make the man (or woman), but define his (or her) devotion to God, the Torah, and Judaism in general.

But is this how it’s supposed to be? And where did all of these ideas related to clothing come from? Is it permitted to treat people differently or make negative assumptions about them because of their style of dress according to halakhah? What does the halakhah say about clothing styles/colors, etc.? The correct answers to these questions are invaluable today as Jews work toward unity

Distinctive Clothing in the Prophets

As for the first question, no, this is not the way it is supposed to be. In fact, the prophet Tzefanyah (“Zephaniah”) brings apparent criticism against those who use clothing in this way:

[1:8] And it shall come to pass… that I will take note [to punish] the princes and the sons of the king and all those who wear strange/foreign clothing (מלבוש נכרי).

The Radak, in commenting on this passage, cites several views.

Although he brings one view that [simplistically] understands nokhri as being the equivalent of akum (עכו”ם – an acronym for ovdei kokhavim u-mazalot, a late term invented by Christian censors as a replacement for goy), he brings another two views, the latter one being presented in two different forms. These other interpretations understand the word nokhriy here, in the context of Sefer Tzefanyah, as not denoting “foreign” (i.e. non-Jewish) clothing necessarily, but rather “strange” clothes – being either stolen or for purposes of arrogance (see there).

He begins by quoting the view of his late father (אבי ומורי ז”ל):

…and all those who wear strange clothing – [That is] when they saw that any person over whom they had power was wearing beautiful clothing, they would rob it from him and wear it themselves.”

He then quotes the commentary of Ibn Ezra:

…strange clothing – different from all the people as an expression of arrogance that no one else should dress as they do.” (1st form = distinct clothing that no one else is allowed to wear)

Further down he states “And there are those who explain [thusly]”:

…strange clothing – [That is] people who present themselves as ascetics (parushim) and pietists (hasidim) who wear strange clothing that is unlike the rest of the people in order that [the people] will recognize them by their clothing as being ascetics (parushim) – And [those who do this] their ways are evil.” (2nd form = distinct clothing that marks their false piety)

Le-aniyut da`ati, the current situation within the Haredi-Hasidic fulfills both forms of the latter explanation: [A] “rebbes” and rabbinic types wear strange and fancy garb out of arrogance that others are not considered “worthy” to wear, and [B] the Haredi-Hasidic world dresses in strange and outdated European styles of clothing in order to mark themselves as somehow being on a higher level (madregah) of spirituality than all other Jews. They very publicly want to be seen as pietists, something which the prophet condemns as destructive.

All this being said, I think it is safe to say that strange or special garments for supposed reasons of piety is simply not a part of Torah values.

The Genesis of Wardrobe Politics

So where did this whole idea of a supposed standard Jewish uniform come from? Poland and Lithuania. Beginning in the 16th century, regional rabbinic leaders began instituting “decrees” about what Jews were allowed to wear and what they were not. Everything from particular colors, styles, types of material, hairstyles, the number of rings that could be worn on the fingers, where and when any embroidery could appear on any given article of clothing, etc. were scrutinized by the leaders and then legislated to the European Jewish masses. This trend grew and became more pervasive in the 17th century through the orders of the Council of the Four Lands and the Lithuanian Council. More and more para-halakhic rules were added and soon a culture of religiosity through clothing style was born.

These costume regulations and the resulting clothing “culture” were thereafter picked up almost wholesale by the Hasidic movement in the 18th century, through which they received their “canonization” into spiritual law. The Hasidic innovation was that they assigned mystical/kabbalistic significance to each garment worn by religious European Jews in their time. Not only this, but each “rebbe” made his own personal innovations, legislating to his followers further particulars regarding clothing – leading to the plethora of jacket styles, lengths, colors, and the assortment of fur and fox tail headgear we see today. Along the way, those who refused to conform to these regulations were ostracized, accused of apostasy, and put into herem.

In the 19th century, Russia began attempting to use governmental power to force Jews to abandon their “distinctive” dress, but to now avail. Jews in those lands resisted these advances and their resolve with regard to clothing and styles of dress became even more steely than ever before. Yet all of this would likely never have been an issue had the Jewish populace been allowed to simply do as they always had: dress in the general style of the cultural context in which they lived – something neither forbidden nor frowned upon by either the Torah or the halakhah.

This resistance continued through the rise of the heretical Reform movement and the haskalah, each time becoming more inflexible in an effort to display their devotion to their traditions. And now, due to this historical process which began in Poland and Lithuania, we have the defunct concept of religious Jewish dress still today – a defunct concept that is responsible for everything from cases of shunning, to disqualification of edim, to acts of violence every year.

The Mishnah – Pay No Attention to the Man in Front of the Curtain

The Mishnah hints at the idea that Jews do not pay attention to clothing color or footwear in Masekhet Megillah [4:8], where it states:

TEXT

האומר איני עובר לפני התיבה בצבועים אף בלבנים לא יעבור בסנדל איני עובר אף יחף לא יעבור

TRANSLATION

“The one who says, ‘I don’t pass before the teyvah [the ark where the Torah is kept – i.e. to be shaliah tzibbur] while wearing colored garments’ – even while wearing white we do not allow him [to act as shaliah tzibbur]. And if he says, ‘I do not pass [before the teyvah] while wearing sandals’ – we do not allow him to [act as shaliah tzibbur] even while barefoot [since anyone who espouses such ideas is a sectarian/heretic – see the Gemara in b.Megillah 24b].”

In other words, the Mishnah maintains that since there are no halakhot that dictate that a person must wear a certain type of shoe or color [or presumably style] of clothing in order to lead public prayers in the shul, one who espouses such contrivances is acting in the way of minut (sectarianism/heresy). By making baseless distinctions regarding clothing, such a person is disqualified from acting on behalf of the community since he is suspected of being a sectarian and perhaps by letting such ideas stand his sectarianism will spread and lead to divisions among the Jewish people, has va-halilah.

Even though the strict context of this mishnah is likely in regard to specific heretical sects extant during the time of its writing, it still indicates that silly and para-halakhic/extra-halakhic ideas about clothing are not only unwarranted and discouraged, but can be very damaging to the unity of Kelal Yisra’el. In the words of Hazal: “Af al pi she-ein ra’ayah le-davar zeikher le-davar – Although there is not formal proof [here in m.Megillah 4:8] of the matter, there is still an indication of it.”

Jewish Garb – Four Basic Principles

So what does the halakhah require with regard to clothing styles and colors? Not much. Lets first be clear that nowhere have there ever been intricate and/or detailed regulations about the color, style, material, embroidery, etc. of clothing in the halakhah.  From the standpoint of Torah and halakhah, all clothing choices made my religious Jews must conform to the following basic principles:

[1] Sha`atnez (mixtures of wool and linen) are prohibited – (Vayikra 19:19; Devarim 22:1 – see also Rambam, MT, Hilkhot Kilayim 10:1)

[2] Beged Ishah (cross-dressing) is prohibited, whether males dressing like females or vice-versa – (Devarim 22:5 – see also Rambam, MT, Hilkhot Avodah Zarah 12:10-13)

[3] Tzeniut (modesty) is required – (related to Vayikra 19:1ff and others – see also Rambam, MT, Hilkhot De`ot 5:10). Although related to passages in the Torah and Nakh, the Jewish concept of modesty is generally fixed according to time and place, based on the modest members of the non-Jewish society at large in conjunction with principles of personal decorum handed down to us by Hazal.

[4] Avodah Zarah (idolatry) is prohibited – (Vayikra 18:3, 20:23; Devarim 12:30 – see also Rambam, MT, Hilkhot Avodah Zarah 11:1-2). The prohibition as regards idolatry related to mode of dress is ONLY in regard to a garment that is specific to non-Jews in expressing either idolatrous religious notions or impropriety/immodesty. Otherwise, as Rav Yosef Karo z”l in the Kesef Mishneh (commenting there) states: “…but when the clothing is not specific to them in any of these ways, a Jew is not required to dress differently than idolaters at all or in any way (כלל ועיקר).”

This means that as long as the above directives of the Torah are not violated, a religious Jew is allowed to wear what he or she so desires. Denim, plaid, blue jeans, t-shirts, tennis shoes, polo shirts, etc. – all is permitted under the halakhah and any negative treatment of good Jews due to their choice of clothing style is absolutely unfounded.

More on this in PART II