Wednesday, December 7, 2011

More on "Dress-Up Judaism"

Time is very short this week, so here's an article I've written for the coming week's Toronto Torah. It's on a theme we've discussed before, such as here: Dress-Up Judaism.

Why dress up for davening?

A young man proposed to his inamorata while unshaven and wearing dirty jeans and a T-shirt, and he was stunned when she rejected his offer. He asked her, "Didn't you say you would take me as I am?"
She replied sadly, "Yes, but I didn't think that you would."

We intuit that G-d will "take us as we are", that prayer should require a proper heart rather than proper garb. The Creator who formed us knows our most intimate thoughts, and from a timeless perch outside of our reality He has already witnessed our weakest moments as well as the fulfillment of our greatest potential, so what would be the purpose of artifice? How could dressing up disguise our failings?

The case of the rejected suitor demonstrates the value of dressing up: Donning special clothing, like the uniform the kohen wore for his service in the Beit haMikdash, is an act of respect. Dressing up shows that we value our meeting with G-d.

Our parshah (Bereishit 33:18) mentions that Yaakov arrived in Shechem shalem – intact, whole, complete. According to Rav Meir Simchah haKohen of Dvinsk, the Torah emphasizes Yaakov's complete state in order to explain a nuance in his conduct.

During Yaakov's travels, he brought a korban nearly every time he arrived in a new location; see Bereishit 28:18, 31:54, 35:1, 35:14, 35:19 and 46:1. However, Yaakov did not bring a korban when he arrived in Succot, despite having just survived his midnight battle with a malach and his meeting with Esav. Why was this trip different?

Rav Meir Simchah explains that Yaakov had not healed fully from his fight when he arrived in Succot. Our patriarch considered himself blemished due to his physical wounds, and unworthy to bring a korban for his Creator. It was only when he arrived in Shechem - the stop after Succot - that he was shalem, and ready to bring a korban.

Certainly, we should never feel that G-d is unapproachable; we are taught that HaShem's mercy is universal, regardless of our material or spiritual wounds and deficiencies. Nonetheless, our goal should be to emulate Yaakov and approach G-d in a state of shleimut, wholeness. G-d may take us as we are, but we should aim to become greater.


  1. Iran almost has one atom bomb. They don't want a nuclear arsenal just yet. One is enough for what they want to use it for.So though I appreciate that many people like yourself have not been contributing to this problem by radical leftist agenda as we see in so many reform rabbis. And i appreciate the importance of dressing rightly for the occasion. But something this seems to me to be the last thing that anyone in the Jewish world needs to hear right now. I mean I have never seen or heard of any people so obsessed by clothing as Orthodox Jews. I can't help but wonder if this perhaps helps detract them from things that i would like to think matter more so in the ultimate scheme of things.

  2. @Adam:
    I disagree. Not that I don't hear your point, but -
    I can't do anything about Iran. I can do something about my relationship with G-d. And hey, He can do something about Iran.

  3. It is one thing to dress appropriately when approaching the Ribono shel Olam. It is another to choose a specific uniform and decide that anyone not wearing it is on a lower level when it comes to approaching Him.

  4. I agree with Garnel.

    I think that it is appropriate to dress respectfully when davening, however in many Yeshivot, they don't say "Dress respectfully" rather they itamize a dress code (which depending on the institution may be long pants, sox, hat, jacket, or other specific items).

    I've seen people dressed respectfully in a button shirt putting on a rumpled rain jacket and baseball hat before davening, they looked far more respecatble before donning the required items.

  5. As far as I can tell, usually a woman will not turn down a proposal from a man whom she thinks she will marry because he blew the proposal.

  6. @MichaelS: Dress codes are required at Yeshivot because "dress respectfully" is too open to interpretation. Teenagers will always push the envelope.

    On the other hand, I agree that strict adherence to the letter of the law can have the opposite effect. At our shul someone davenning before the amud must wear a jacket. Just in case, the gabboim have a jacket available for someone who doesn't come with one. But a large oversize jacket on a small person look silly (Except in our case, the shliach tzibur always wears a tallis (even at Maariv so that helps to cover it up somewhat.)

    An aside, I remember when growing up at a Conservative shul in the 60s the ushers would not let anyone into the sanctuary on Shabbat without a jacket. As more and more Israelis came to town, who had to be turned away, they started to loosen that requirement! Goes to show how cultural norms also influence what "dressing respectfully" means (wonder whether these days they allow open-toed "sandalim" :-) )

  7. Not a bad piece, by the way. I didn't intend to convey that by my criticism of the analogy.

    Like most things in life, there is more than one side to it and you can play up and boost a particular side as needed, the same way one can argue for spontaneous prayer from the heart or formulaic prayers of tradition which broadly speaking unite many communities the world over.

  8. I did propose to my wife of 30 years in a t-shirt and casual pants. In a room full of packing crates. No, it wasn't the most romantic setting, but if I didn't do it then, I wasn't going to get a chance to propose in person for quite a while. If ever, My (now) wife, being a person worth marrying, could see beyond the surface setting.

    If we dress up for davening, it is surely to help us get in the correct frame of mind rather than because it is of inherent value. And we need to keep both the positive value of dressing up and the fact that it is a means rather than an end in perspective.

  9. I find it difficult to daven with kavanah while wearing tie.

  10. Adam-
    גם מזה אל תנח ידיך


    Garnel, Michael Sedley-
    Agreed, but isn't some social convention necessary to define 'respectful'?

    Usually true, but I can imagine such a scenario. It may open her eyes to a larger issue.

    S II-

    Michael Mirsky-
    Do we post those rules anywhere?

    Mike S-
    All depends on why the attire is selected - is it lack of care, or the exigencies of the moment?

    Gets in the way of the Batsuit, I know.

  11. I disagree with everyone who disagreed with me. Iran is and should have been the highest priority. I don't have a public voice and I know nothing about Islam so I don't write about it but this has to be the top priority of anyone and everyone who cares about the Jewish people and Western Civilization to the slightest degree. I feel like I am standing over a cliff looking on the entire collapse of Western Civilization and still people are writing about how to dress.

  12. I am not a fan of the obsession with costume but I love the mobile version of the blog. And I like the policy change: While I prefer spelling out Hashem's Name in full, I prefer the dash to only the first and last letters.

  13. To TRH: I believe the rules of dress in our shul (for davenning before the amud) are in the Gabbai's handbook as well as the green laminated card that is on the amud.

    I have seen many times when someone is asked to daven or called for an aliya he either has to borrow someones jacket or use the communal one.

  14. Indeed, Michael.

    See here, top o' the page:

  15. Adam-
    Does "top priority" really mean that nothing else rates mention?