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The Costume


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Consider the absurdity of the following statement: “I know an Orthodox Jew who works on Shabbat, eats pork regularly, never wears tefillin or prays or learns Torah, is unfaithful to his spouse, walks bare-headed in public, and eats on Yom Kippur.”

One would rightfully ask, what is it that makes that person an Orthodox Jew?

Yet we occasionally read these days of “Orthodox” Jews who molest, steal, rob, murder, assault, spit and curse at women and little children, set fire to businesses they disfavor for one reason or another, eschew self-support, brawl, intimidate and terrorize other Jews, or are otherwise genuinely disagreeable people. So what is it that makes those people “Orthodox,” or, even holier in the public mind, “ultra-Orthodox”?

The costume they wear.

It is a mistake that is made not only by a hostile media but also by the Jewish public, including the religious Jewish public. To our detriment, we define people by their costumes – e.g., long black coats, white shirts, beards and sometimes peyot – and we ourselves create expectations of conduct based on the costume that is being worn, as if the costume necessarily penetrates to the core of the individual and can somehow mold his character and classify his spiritual state – as if the costume really means anything at all.

If the events in Beit Shemesh or elsewhere in Israel rectify that mistake once and for all, some unanticipated good would have emerged from the contentiousness.

This is more than simply stating that any “Orthodox” Jew who sins is by definition not an Orthodox Jew. In truth, that statement is flawed and illogical, because all people sin; the truly “Orthodox” Jew might be one of the few who still actually believe in sin – stumbling before the divine mandate – and still seek to eradicate it by perfecting himself and struggling with his nature.

But the Torah Jew is defined by a core set of beliefs, principles and religious practices. One who subscribes to that core set is Orthodox, notwithstanding any personal failings he has — failings which according to the Torah he must strive to reduce and diminish.

No Jew – rabbi or layman – is allowed to carve for himself exemptions from any mitzvah. That is why deviations like the female rabbi, the dilution of the bans on homosexuality, the relentless search for obscure leniencies in order to rationalize improper conduct, and other such anomalies draw such swift and heated reactions from the mainstream Orthodox world.

The violent and criminal excesses in Israel have drawn similar rebukes but the thought still lingers: why do we even expect decorous and appropriate conduct from people who are perceived as thugs even within their own community, and who have threatened with violence some who would criticize them publicly?

Because of the costume they wear.

Memo to real world: there is no such concept as authentic Jewish dress. The Gemara (Shabbat 113a) states that Rav Yochanan would call his clothing “the things that honor me” (mechabduti) – but the Gemara does not see fit to even describe his clothing in the slightest fashion. Jewish dress is dignified and distinguished, clean and neat. We are especially obligated to wear special and beautiful clothing throughout Shabbat (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 262:2-3).

But beyond the tzitzit and the kippa for men, and modesty for all, there is no such thing as Jewish dress, the prevalence of contrary popular opinion notwithstanding. We are never told what Moshe, Ezra, Rabbi Akiva or the Rambam wore. We are informed that one reason the Jews merited redemption from Egyptian because “they did not change their garb” (i.e., they did not adopt Egyptian styles) – but we are never informed what kind of clothing they did wear. Why? Because it doesn’t matter one whit.

Gauging people’s spiritual potential – or even spiritual level – based on the coat, hat, yarmulke, shoes, socks, shirt, pants or belt they wear not only sounds insane, it is insane, and it should be stopped. No one is more religious because he wears black or less religious because he wears blue or brown.

Would we make great progress in the maturation of the Jewish world if a blue suit occasionally appeared in the haredi or yeshivish wardrobe? Perhaps. But we would certainly undo the inferences that attach to certain types of dress that leave many Orthodox Jews wrongly embarrassed and ashamed of the behavior of “people like us.” They are not like us. We must love them as we would any wayward Jew, and rebuke them as we would any wayward Jew. Even wayward Jews wear costumes.

Then we can promulgate the new fashion styles, the new uniform, of the Torah Jew, where beauty, righteousness and piety are determined by what is inside, not what is on the outside – by deeds and Torah commitment rather than appearances.

May we never again hear someone say that “X looks frum.” No one can “look” frum; one can only “be” frum, which itself is not as admirable as being erliche. That lack of sophistication is atrocious, embarrassing, and corrosive to Jewish life and distorts the Torah beyond recognition.

We know better than that, and we are better than that. In a free society, anyone can dress exactly like others or unlike others if he so chooses. But it says nothing about his values, only about his identification with one group or another. We should stop trusting people simply because they don black coats, black hats, and wear beards – or, for that matter, kippot serugot. All are costumes. None conveys any real truths about the real person.

The true measure of every Jew – and every person – is always within.

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun of Teaneck, New Jersey, and the author, most recently, of “Judges for Our Time: Contemporary Lessons from the Book of Shoftim” (Gefen Publishing House, Jerusalem, 2009). His writings and lectures can be found at www.Rabbipruzansky.com.

About the Author: Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun of Teaneck, New Jersey, and the author most recently of “Judges for Our Time: Contemporary Lessons from the Book of Shoftim” (Gefen Publishing House, Jerusalem, 2009). His writings and lectures can be found at www.Rabbipruzansky.com.


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