Home » David Werdiger, Recent Posts, Religion and Jewish Thought

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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  • jewinthefat says:

    It is relevant to remember that the idea of “orthodox Jewish” dress is very much an ashkenazi-centric one, which grew not out of Halacha, but life in Eastern Europe, where it was practical to wear heavy coats and fur hats. Because so much of Jewish culture is an exercise in tradition, the look stuck.

    But to refer to this style of dress as uniquely Jewish is not only delegitimising other Jewish groups – Sepharadim, Mizrahim and Bnei Yisrael etc. – but also goes against the Mishnah, which warns against observing the ‘fence’ around the Torah as important or more important than the Torah itself.

  • ariel says:

    jewinthefat makes an interesting point in bringing the Mishnah.

    Someone commented to me the other day that “Judaism is the best religion for obsessive compulsives”. So many of us get caught up in the minutiae of all sorts of relatively recent minhagim such as the ashkenazi “ultra-orthodox” dress and making sure that they never davven without a hat. But then we forget about actual halacha and mitzvot.

    (Incidentally, it is interesting to note that “ultra-orthodox” Sefardim in Israel have adopted the ashkenazic dress of black suit and hat in the last couple of generations for very bizarre reasons. One of which is because when they went to learn in the well-established Hungarian and Lithuanian yeshivot in Israel, they were forced to adopt this dress as a uniform and it stuck.)

    Some say that the dress is an effective chitzoniut – externality – which reminds us of who we are and that we should behave in a certain way. But so often we forget about the pnimiut – our own internal connection with Yiddishkeit.

  • This isn’t just about hats and long coats … as far as I know, tzitzit and kippa are very broadly accepted Jewish “uniform”.

  • r says:

    ah yes, essentialism. whereby some trait, clothing, behaviour, smell, characteristic, or other factor defines the thing in itself.

    in this case, some elements of clothing, fashion and dress are taken as “an essential part of jewish identity” which logically entails that those who do not adopt the identified element (as per jewinthefat’s astute comments) are not “properly” jewish. like the ’self-hating secular jew’ story that david brings to make a point (and i wonder what the implications of the self-hating secularist being identified as a woman entails.)

    regardless, while this isn’t the place to debate whether or not jewishness does / does not have an essence – i think the more interesting question is who is excluded by these narratives of what defines ‘jews’ or ‘jewishness.’

    certainly, if we talk about kippot and black hats we potentially exclude women, secularists, arab jews, marranos (though, of course, some women wear kippot, some arab jews wear black hats) – indeed everyone not conforming to a particularist vision of what jewishness means. because, at heart, the statement “Jews are X” or “Jews do X” or “Jews believe X” or “Judaism teaches X”, automatically excludes those who don’t do / are / believe / practice X.

    and, clearly, its secular jews being excluded in this post – because the ‘neatly encapsulate[d] … difference’ is their choice to dress differently to what david constructs as one of the “essential” parts of jewish identity. and interestingly, this is what transpired through the AJN when those attacking Antony Lowenstein attempted to exclude him from speaking (in the media) as a jew defined Antony as “jewish-born” somehow suggesting that he had lapsed, or forgone his identity position, by not being active in the jewish communities in the manner that the authors of the articles saw fit.

    and just to make sure that this blog also obeys godwin’s law, might i also point out that essentialist definitions of judaism lead to nasty places (though, i’m not in anyway implying that david is advocating / supporting anything of this nature.)

    as an aside, i also wanted to comment on the assertion that “non-Jews respect us for maintaining our cultural practices” as a proposition that makes me feel deeply uncomfortable. the assertion hinges the notion of ‘respect’ (by which i understand ‘acceptance’) on a definition of difference. that is, that the only way in which a jew can be respected is by being perceived as “different.” and this seems to echo deeply with satre’s argument about jews being defined by the anti-semite.

  • Chaim says:

    “one who believes they happened is a fool, and one who doesn’t believe they happened is a heretic.” – I think the quote is; those that believe “every” story is a fool and those that deny the possibility is a heretic.

    I think David made the point clear about the mitzvahs are what separate us from non Jews – tzitzis, kippah, etc but regarding the dress eg coats, hats – this often brings out embarrassment and wanting to NOT stand out which is seen in secular Jews, not that every Jew is required to wear them.

    As for the dress code seen, a quote from Aron Moss:

    In Jewish tradition, what makes an individual is not the clothing, but the character. When you are a part of a community of people that all dress the same, there is only one way to stand out: you have to be original, not your clothing. The people around you notice you for your character, the way you treat people, your manner of speech. You can’t hide behind a superficial individuality based on hairstyle and fashion — you have to be a real individual.

  • eli says:

    David, I was wondering when your article was going to get to the point of the title. How the quaint story of the Amish mix up segues from the ‘stories which carry moral lessons” or aggadic stories is a stretch at best.
    Far from a moral lesson it is a backhand slap by orthodoxy to claim its singular authenticity and censure everything else.
    Within the yoke of its own particular Judaic interpretations, the underlying sentiment of some within the ultra-orthodox is “if you’re not with us you must be against us”
    The Laws pertaining to “non-Jewish customs” has little to do with being distinctive and different but more to do with eliminating possible interaction with non Jews for fear of assimilation.
    In spite of those “merits” that we typically refer to as the reasons why Jews were redeemed from Egypt, they left being on the 49th level of impurity, inches away from not being unable to be redeemed at all.
    Being different and distinctive is not about the physical but the spiritual .It’s about how we behave.Not about an outward appearance but an inner sanctity.
    Nowhere in the Torah are there descriptions of what clothing Abraham wore, nor what he looked like. His achievements came from a sense of duty and belief to a higher ethos.
    “Jewish dress” as you put it, is not essential to Jewish identity. It is only a flag that defines our allegiance to a particular group.
    That both secular and observant Jews make an issue of its importance only bemoans the fact that we have a long way to go in achieving G-D’s request that we be a light to the nations.

  • ariel says:

    Chaim’s quote of Aron Moss is poignant.
    The question is essentially where do you stand out and relative to whom?
    The quote could be equally applicable to us who spend the majority of our time interacting with non-Jews at work etc. In that case, we should avoids standing out in our fashion sense by wearing the same style of clothing that is prevalent around us. (eg, i wear a kippa and tzitzit, but my clothing conforms with what my employee requires). This way, I (almost) look like everyone else in the office and can only stand out by acting differently.
    On the contrary, if I were to wear these same clothes in Meah Shearim, for example, I would stand out and elicit stares (as I have experienced).
    I think the message is that if we are to follow this trend of not standing out by dress, but rather by character and personality, then we would have to adopt the fashion of wherever we live. Whether this is good or bad is another story…

  • rachsd says:

    This article by Mayim Bialik (Blossom) is about wearing modest clothing (as defined by halakha) on American television. It might be of interest to some in this thread:


  • eli,

    I thought of the title after I wrote the article – it’s just a cute cliche – don’t judge an article by its title!

    The point is that traditional Jewish clothing is a reflection the essential Jewish quality of “being different”, which is also a barrier to assimilation.

    The three merits were the last threads that kept us from descending to the 50th gate of impurity in Egypt and thus being irredeemable.

  • frosh says:

    Interesting article from Tabletmag, RachSD.

    Mayim Bialik seems (from that article) like a very well-balanced person, despite having a TV upbringing.

    A line from the article really caught my attention.
    “When the show aired, I saw that my qualifications and explanations did not survive the cutting room.”

    Perhaps this was due to the issues discussed in this Galus article, http://galusaustralis.com/2009/06/jews_in_pop-culture/

  • eli says:

    Apologies David, No need to explain ( re title), sometimes my fingers are faster than my thoughts :)

  • Chaim says:

    Ariel – also by wearing a kippah and tzitzis in a non Jewish workplace (should) force us to really think about our actions and behaviour even more and to be above the grade.

    If we do something wrong, they will say “look at that Jew”, “see how ALL Jews behave” and being an honest, hardworking, pleasant employee brings a great Kiddush Hashem and support for all Jews and Israel.

  • There’s a story about a fellow who approaches his Rav and asks, “Rabbi. Is there a scriptural source for wearing a yarmulke?”

    His Rabbi says, “Of course! The Torah says, And Abraham Went. Can you imagine that Abraham went… without a yarmulke??”

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