[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).