[Haveil Havalim is here. The new Kosher Cooking Carnival is here.]
I recently heard about a synagogue that was clamping down on its dress code, requiring formal attire for people who would receive Shabbat and Yom Tov honors.
I have to admit that my gut instinct is always to question raising the institutional bar for participation, and particularly on an issue of dress.
My generation believes in dressing down, and I grew up very much a part of that. I went through my freshman year in college wearing black jeans pretty much every day. In the beginning of my rabbinic years I refused to dress up, and only acceded to the white-shirt-and-slacks dress code because it made matching my clothing simpler. I don’t like fancy.
At the same time, there’s a lot to be said for Dress Up Judaism; presentation matters.
Presentation matters in the way we approach other people – in our demeanor when giving tzedakah, in our approach to honoring our parents, in the pleasant smile we offer other people.
And, yes, presentation matters in addressing Gd. Ashrei is a perfect example of our emphasis on presentation: The gemara asks why Ashrei is such an important psalm (thrice-daily recitation is supposed to guarantee life in the next world; no word on the quality of life, though), and it answers that (1) Ashrei’s content is important, since this perek of tehillim contains the affirmation that Gd provides for the needs of all, and (2) Ashrei’s presentation incorporates [almost] all of the letters of the alphabet in its acrostic.
People get complicated analyzing the role of the acrostic – “it’s about using all of the letters at our disposal,” “it’s an expression of our lack of eloquence,” etc – and there is value in those explanations, of course. But the simple and straightforward point is that an alphabetical acrostic is pleasing to the reader; it’s poetically beautiful.
The Torah values poetry. As Rabbi Elman pointed out in a course I took under him at YU, Tosafot (Bava Metzia 60b) says that the Torah will sometimes use synonymous words in the same sentence, rather than repeat the same word twice, because this is נאה יותר, it sounds more pleasant. Presentation matters.
Presentation shows that we invested are in the product/situation. In truth, that’s one of the reasons we dress down, as kids – to demonstrate a lack of investment, a coolkeit. Someone who shows up overdressed is clearly an obsessed geek. In other words: Dressing up shows you care.
And, dressing up is one way to practice the Sefer haChinuch’s favorite adage: אחרי הפעולות נמשכים הלבבות, one’s heart is drawn after one’s actions. Dressing upscale can be a prologue to Acting upscale.
One of the best expressions of this point I ever saw was in an article by Maureen Adler-Marks, “Boomer Re-Jewvenation,” which used to be here but is no longer. [Note: I have now found it courtesy of the Internet Archive, here.] She wrote, regarding her Reform temple:
The other day at Torah study, we discussed the controversy of Jewish jeans: Is it all right to wear denims and running shoes to services?
"Whatever," shrugged the well-dressed rabbi, dapper in Armani. But with the growing influence of the ashram, and the recent adoption of meditation-style worship, it's only a matter of time until our clothing goes with the flow.
Frankly, I'll miss dress-up Judaism and, like the recent readoption of the yarmulke, predict it will one day stage a comeback. Business attire at services, especially heels, is miserably restrictive, but that's the point, a beginning at self-containment. You've got to start somewhere, you know, and teshuvah, the spiritual chiropractic generally known as "repentance," is hard work. Many of my best intentions fail me. If I can't easily change my habits, drives, ambitions and motivations, at least I can alter my hemline. We change slowly, from the outside in.
We’re not about to change our dress code here; I’m still stuck on the role of the institution and the individual in this attempt to raise the bar… But I would congratulate those who change their own dress code, themselves.
Continued in Part II.