Sunday, July 20, 2008

Of Synagogue Dress Codes and Dress-Up Judaism

[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.

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  1. I am partial to this story:

    It is told of the Besht that one Yom Kippur a poor Jewish boy, an illiterate shepherd, entered the synagogue where he was praying. The boy was deeply moved by the service, but frustrated that he could not read the prayers. He started to whistle, the one thing he knew he could do beautifully; he wanted to offer his whistling as a gift to God. The congregation was horrified at the desecration of their service. Some people yelled at the boy, and others wanted to throw him out. The Ba'al Shem Tov immediately stopped them. "Until now," he said, "I could feel our prayers being blocked as they tried to reach the heavenly court. This young shepherd's whistling was so pure, however, that it broke through the blockage and brought all of our prayers straight up to God."

  2. Uh, oh. Don't get me started.

    I like to dress up, but coolkeit (great word!) is diversity. Bring them in with bluejeans, please, just bring 'em in.

    And Jack, one of the better stories, no question.

  3. Jack, Therapydoc-
    I like the story, too, but I am bothered by the way it turns into a crutch for people. The first year, it's fine for the shepherd boy to do the whistling thing. But by the next year he had better bone up on his Hebrew.

  4. Jack: I find that story beautiful, not as a description of how to dumb-down the prayers, but as how the Besht handled the boy's inappropriate whistling in shul, preventing the congregation from embarrassing the boy, while (presumably) redirecting the boy's behaviour.

    I assume he didn't then encourage the boy to continue whistling, but rather, now that the 'gates were unblocked', no more whistling was necessary.

    It's a testimony to the Besht's tact, not a prescription for simpler, wordless davening.

    Another advantage of dressing for shul, is that the children (and everyone) knows HOW to do so, and everyone HAS a shabbat outfit.

    We often have non-observant teens at our shabbat table, for various reasons. Many of them, not having spent many an afternoon at a shabbat table, are very uncomfortable making even the most simple dinner conversation with adults, don't know how to deal with a meal of many courses, ask nervously about which spoon to use, etc.

    We don't have shabbat lunch for the purpose of socializing our kids, but it's a happy consequence of it that they and their friends are comfortable in a (somewhat) formal meal.

    Similarly, it's nice that everyone knows how to dress up, how to behave appropriately, has the equipment to do so (i.e. dress shoes that fit - something not so easy to guarantee for a growing teenage boy...)

    Many of the shuls where we've davened require a jacket and tie for the ba'al tefillah, ba'al koreh, etc. When we lived in a college town, there were a few jackets and ties that belonged to the shul, kept to offer those who forgot or didn't have.

  5. Currently I have two sons in High School Yeshivas. The older of the two, pretty early on became very careful about how he dressed. He was wearing black pants and white shirts before he had to.

    But the concern about his appearance matched a concern about his priorities. He is a very serious student now. And I believe that the concern he showed with presentation foretold the concern he eventually demonstrated to his learning.

    I'm not so formal, but I certainly appreciate his attention to appearance, as I believe that it is part of overall seriousness.

  6. Juggling Frogs,
    It's good that people in your neck of the woods all know how, but I can tell you it isn't so here. My secretary once told a non-Jewish visitor (who nicely thought to call and ask in advance!) to wear what she would wear to church... the result was a tank top, believe it or not.

    Soccer Dad,
    My thoughts exactly.

  7. @Rebbetzin's Husband: I hope my comment didn't come off as smug, because that's not what I meant.

    I was just trying to add that, in addition to spiritual motivations, there are some practical advantages to having a regular time where one is supposed to be on one's best behavior.

  8. JF,
    Not to worry; I think you were clear.

  9. Firstly, please tell me that you offically coined the term, "coolkeit"...brilliant.

    Secondly, the post brings up favorite topic of mine which is that 'Kavod Shabbos' is somehwhat subjective. Thanks!

  10. I have a bias here. I have a hard time davening and if I am going to do it then I prefer to do it attired in comfortable clothing.

    I understand why some people prefer and need a dress code but for me it tends to be more of a hindrance than a help.

    This is just my opinion, but I'd rather be in shorts and a tank top davening with Kavanah than wearing a suit and tie.

    All that being said it is not unusual to find me in a suit and tie.

    Perhaps I'll blog about this.

  11. Neil-
    Yup, that's my term. You heard it here first... although I just Googled it, and apparently this is a case of convergent evolution, as others seem to have developed the term simultaneously...

    Thanks for linking, and I look forward to reading the post when you do write on this.

  12. I found the a similar issue with "uberdox". lol

    When I do post about this and part two, you'll get due credit!

  13. I think it's important to remember that degrees of formality and "dressing up" depend on cultural context.

    Wearing a white shirt, slacks (of whatever color), and sandals, is the cultural norm for dressing for shul on Shabbat in many parts of Israel. Someone walking into a shul in Southern Jerusalem with a suit and tie would look somewhat absurd.

    Also, i object to the idea that some people promote, of some kind of universal dress-up dress code for Jewish life. Dressing more formally for shul is one thing, but to tell people that if you're serious about Judaism you need to dress like an accountant(?!) or a rosh yeshiva (as someone did on someone else's blog not that long ago) is obnoxious.

  14. Hi Steg,

    Yes, and the various poskim make this point about certain styles of dress being subject to cultural norms. They do retain certain objective standards, though, such as regarding the definition of ervah.

  15. We should feel comfortable and able express ourselves within the parameters of respectful dress no matter where we are. But attending Synagogue is not a casual outing. Dressing appropriately for services speaks to a commitment worthy of special effort.