“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.

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