“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).

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

  1. Shavu’a tov!

    Reb Yehuda, thank you for bringing up this topic as it relates to men. My husband is also put off by haredi garb, although we have many haredi friends among our mixed Jewish-religious Jerusalem neighborhood crowd.

    I am new to your blog, but I am interested enough in your writing to have placed it on my blog roll. I am glad you are telling us more about the reapplication of “meqori” (source-oriented and original, right?) Judaism into our lives! I hope to see your posts more often.

    Kol tuv.

    Like

    • Shalom,

      Thank you for kind comments. I hope to see my posts more often as well! 🙂

      Yes, meqori means both “source-based” and/or “original,” but usually the former. When there is a discussion in the beth midrash over a particular issue, it will often be asked “What is the meqor for that?” In other words, “What is the source [in the texts] for such an idea/practice?” The implication is that one cannot simply make something up, but must have a justification for it textually.

      And I too have friends who identify as Haredi and follow the dress code, but they are unique in that they honestly couldn’t care less what I or other Jews dress like and do not relate to people on that shallow level. They dress the way they do because they are most comfortable doing so – and that is all. But these precious few are unfortunately in the minority, and this is why my family and I live in a diverse and open MO community.

      Once again, thanks for reaching out.

      Kol tuv.

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  2. I used to dress Haredi because, well, that’s what everyone around me was doing and I never gave it much thought. But then, visiting out of town friends, I forgot my tie and so I did that Shabbos without my tie. It was wonderful not having my neck uncomfortably cinched-up like that while trying to daven. The only problems I encountered were that everyone started thinking I was Chabad. I have no problem with Chabad but I think I lot of people who made the remark did so that probably didn’t help my standing in the community, not that I had much of it in the first place. Then I was in Jerusalem during the summer and it was just too darn hot to wear a hat and jacket. It was so liberating, so comfortable. For the first time, I could be completely, physically comfortable while davening. One less distraction to worry about. The only problem shedding that layer caused was that my wife didn’t like it that dressing comfortably put me outside the “mainstream” but when she accepted that fact that I never swam there in the first place, she gave up complaining. Now, I can completely focus on the words I am saying, understand them, and mean them. My davening is improved by it. My spirituality is enhanced. The only time I don the uniform is at simchas and other formal affairs where the uniform is required for other than “religious” reasons.

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    • Shalom,

      Thanks for weighing in.

      I used to dress the part as well. In fact, I used to be “hasidic” for a stint due to external rabbinic pressures. But, yes, my progression of taking off “the garb” was a little by little process as well – and my wife couldn’t have been more excited to see me do so! Once I became “Sefardi” again, I retreated to my un-tucked colored shirts and khakis and it was so much more comfortable. And I know what you mean about being bothered while davening. It was not the heat so much as I felt like I was at a costume party; I wasn’t myself and I knew it. I had absolutely nothing at stake in the haredi clothes I wore other than trying to avoid the ire of some fairly shallow and controlling community rabbis. And the funny thing is that everyone in my family felt it – my wife, my children, even some of my friends felt uncomfortable around me and just wanted “me” back, and the kids were getting a message of skewed shallow values because of it. It was a disaster.

      And I also have a brimmed hat for certain occasions – whether it’s weddings or specific speaking engagements – but it has been collecting dust in a box on the shelf of my closet for years so who knows when it will make an appearance again!

      Shavua` tov.

      Like

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