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Clothes Maketh the Jew

August 11, 2009 – 1:45 pm13 Comments

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Enric Marti

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Enric Marti

By David Werdiger

In organizational culture, stories have a very strong influence in building or maintaining the culture, particularly as they use informal settings to convey a message. This is particularly so for religions, where symbolism features most highly as a device that frames the organization.

Judaism is rich with stories that carry moral lessons. These range from biblical stories to the huge volume of aggadeta – portions of the Talmud that do not pertain to Jewish law. Slightly closer to contemporary times, we have stories featuring Chassidic Rebbes starting with the famous Baal Shem Tov, whose miraculous tales have fascinated many. Those stories are often quite unbelievable, which leads to the famous adage regarding their interpretation: “one who believes they happened is a fool, and one who doesn’t believe they happened is a heretic.”

Whether people believe the truth of every detail in any particular story is less important than its use to gain an insight or learn something.

So the story is told of the Jewish woman who meets a man on a train. The man wears a black hat and black suit. A “secular” Jew, she berates the man and says: “You orthodox Jews embarrass us all. Your clothes and beard cause anti-Jewish hatred.”

“I am not Jewish,” says the man. “I am Amish and we wear black clothes and beards. It is our tradition.”

“Of course,” says the Jewish secularist. “You have every right to wear such clothes and you are to be commended for carrying on your cultural tradition.”

This story neatly encapsulates the difference between Orthodoxy and secular Jews particularly as it relates to dressing or “looking” too Jewish, and on a broader level, on the issue of integration with society at large in a modern world.

The biblical command to wear tzitzit is so they should be a constant visible reminder of God and the mitzvot. While the custom of wearing a kippa developed much later, the reason is also to serve a reminder of God’s presence. The characteristic beard and peyot (sidelocks) arise from the biblical injunction that our appearance should not mimic that of non-Jewish priests. This gave rise to an entire section of law pertaining to ways we must not take on “non-Jewish customs”. The spirit of all of these laws and customs is that Jews should be different and distinctive.

The strange thing is that while some modern or “secular” Jews shun the traditional Jewish garb and prefer to integrate seamlessly, non-Jews (in open, western society) don’t seem to feel that way at all. My personal experience is that for the most part, non-Jews respect us for maintaining our cultural practices. I exclude from this the behaviour of uncouth drive-bys who are looking for anyone different to shout obscenities at – they do not represent society at large.

Indeed, in our story, the Jewish secularist is quite happy when it’s someone else (the Amish) who maintains their traditions. But that is not acceptable when it comes to her own people!

What is the reason for this apparent inversion?

The Midrash states that there were three merits for which the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt: they retained their names, their language, and their custom of dress. These three things remained as barriers to complete assimilation with the Egyptian culture.

Our Patriarch Abraham was called Ivri, meaning “from the other side”. While literally, this meant that he came from the other side of the river Euphrates, it is symbolic of the way he stood up to society of the day and spread the new message of monotheism. As the first Jew, Abraham was prototypical of the Jewish way of standing out in society, whether by beliefs, by achievement, or by distinctive dress.

Rejection of Jewish dress isn’t just dismissal of another “quaint” custom; it’s a rejection of something that is an essential part of Jewish identity.

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