Elul is upon us and the time has come for a heightened degree of introspection, which means “too look inside.” The question is, Inside of whom?
Becoming a seriously committed orthodox Jew necessarily requires both internal and external changes. And there is controversy about how important, and how advisable, external changes are. Some question whether they are necessary at all, within the bounds of halacha. Obviously men cannot, say, shave their heads, nor can women (or men) wear immodest clothing; where these propositions are controverted, we are having a different conversation. Even on the “right” side of things, we can and do debate whether group identity is appropriately signified by the use of external signals — e.g., “yeshivishe” garb — when one is a relative newcomer to the subculture of strictly orthodox Jews, or when, as the gemara asks in Berachos, there is a serious question of whether tocho k’boro [“the inside is like the outside”], i.e., whether the book matches the cover.
We know from this, and from many other sources addressing kavod ha-brios (personal dignity) and tzenius (“modest” but translated by Rabbi Yitzchok Berkowitz as a concept more akin to “dignity”), that in Jewish sensibility there is indeed a link between what is inside and what is outside of a person. We do not say “clothes make the man,” which improperly elevates the superficial; but we reject as well the proposition, dominant in our time and place, that slovenliness and even a grossness or outrageousness in appearance are irrelevant to the degree of respect to which a person of normal means and sound mind is entitled.
What irks some people about the levush [dress] of the yeshivishe world is that they perceive it as a sort of uniform, and the choice to don it as a surrendering of individuality. Baalei teshuvah, those who love them, and frequently those old observant friends whom they may have “passed by” as they almost inevitably migrate to the right in their journey wrestle with this issue, among others, and ask: Is my personality, as expressed by my “look,” the price of admission to this community?
And let us take as a proposition that, unlike in some other demanding religions, in Judaism we do not consider the surrendering of personality a desideratum. Perhaps we can debate that point another time; but for here, let us hold it as a given that we do believe in individuality in expressing our avodas Hashem [service of God] and in our relationships bein odom l’chaveiro [between people].
The answer to the question here, however — as we so frequently say — is that the “question isn’t a question.” (This is to be distinguished from the maddening cliche used in the telling over of brilliant divrei torah that the answer is “really very simple” when it’s actually quite ingenious!) In other words, the premise is incorrect: Sincere self-expression, which is to say the expression and articulation of personality, is not a strictly, or even meaningfully, a function of clothing. And yet clothing is not irrelevant to how we place ourselves in a social context.
Using our costume as a way to “speak” for our individuality suffers from several deficiencies. One of them, pointed out to me recently by a very talented orthodox layman, is that it makes our realization of personality dependent on the reactions of others to our external show. Another is that it is eminently falsifiable. In minutes one can “change his personality” based on the shmattes [shmattes] on his back. Yes, the choices one makes do speak to what he wants to “say” with his clothes, but why should we trust those “words”? Another factor is that it is, as we suggested before, even without changing back and forth, it is simply superficial to say that rather than develop a personality one can simply take one off a hanger and put a personality on.
Now we have, arguably, proved too much. How can all this be true, and yet we insist on dignity and decorum in dress? And how do we reconcile these thoughts with the idea that there can be merit, even in a spiritual sense, in dressing in a way that conforms to a fairly narrow band of variety which in itself amounts to a standard “message” being sent to the world at large?
To attempt resolution of these questions, I suggest the following propositions:
1. Clothes do not make the man, but they do represent a choice in how one goes about presenting himself to the world;
2. That choice is indeed interpreted by the world. A person really is saying something about his values in how he makes those choices.
3. Dignity in appearance has an absolute value in Judaism. For women, tzenius in its traditionally understood sense is not only an halachic requirement, it should be a manifestation of a woman’s sensibility as a Jewish woman. For men, where “modesty” is less of an issue because of the differences between the sexes, dignity in its broader sense is also a value the Torah insists upon.
4. We can even agree on some broad outlines of what is dignified for public, much less synagogue, wear. Let us focus on the dress of men. I propose that if the word is to have much meaning, we must say that jeans are not dignified. Short pants are not dignified. T-shirts are not dignified, especially if they bear logos or messages and all the more so if these are not consonant with Jewish values. Shirttails worn outside are not dignified regardless of the cut or color of the shirt. Yarmulkas bearing the images of cartoon characters, sports teams, one-liners, heretical religious statements or fruits are not dignified. I recognize that these are subjective judgments, but I submit them for your consideration.
5. One can take the guidance in item (4) above and apply it more rigorously towards a more dignified appearance that more or less conforms with what is called more formal or businesslike dress, and this is a kiyum [achievement] in realizing more dignity, engendering more respect for the way Jews conduct themselves in communal and worship settings and even out and about.
6. I propose here the psychological truism that for most people, the effect of a more orderly, dignified and attractive appearance enhances their self-image as well as the way people relate to them.
Perhaps you think at this juncture I am going to suggest as item (7) the proposition that since all these factors lead ineluctably to the “Lakewood look” (abstracting from the troubling problem of the nearly universal eschewing of the necktie) I have defined the problem of individuality and “uniforms” away. I am not going to insult the house with such a suggestion, however. Rather, I am going to suggest an entirely different item (7), to wit:
7. A person who commits himself to a life based on Torah and mitzvos should strongly consider the possibility, in a world where external appearances are a source of judgment about a person and, by virtue of that, what paths are opened to a person in the world, by accepting the foregoing points (1)-(6), he may better realize the Jewish values of dignity and tzenius. Concomitantly, that identification with a distinctively Jewish way of dressing, associated with a community premised on that same sort of commitment he is now undertaking, will likely be healthy for his continued growth as a Jew; and that the more dignified the dress, the more he achieves this effect for himself.
And if this last paragraph, which we have worked so long to get to, is where we end up debating, then perhaps it was worth it; because I believe if we are seriously debating the sum and substance of items (1)-(6), we have very little common ground.
And I propose in conclusion that if we could agree to (7) as well, we could get the answer to our question about personality, and about the imperative to look within: By realizing the importance of external devices such as dress to insure that our influences are predominantly Jewish, and acknowledging that it informs the way the way the world reacts to us, and the responsibility we bear as we move through the world, we enhance our Jewishness and acknowledge that some degree of separateness is an aspect of Jewishness. At the same time, by narrowing our use of clothes as proxies for genuine individuality, we become better able to develop our personalities in the Jewish contexts that we have chosen for ourselves, and which are nearly infinite in possibility. And in doing so, we acknowledge that we are, indeed, taking a cultural and even a moral stand about who we are and where we want to be in a world awash with infinite choice for good and for what is not good.