I do not dress like the average Orthodox man in my Brooklyn neighborhood. It’s not that I’m trying to make a statement by often going hatless and wearing blue and brown suits, it’s just that in becoming religious I have changed so much – there are certain things I don’t want to give up, especially since my religion doesn’t truly ask me to do so.
So my fashion sense from years ago lives on and, more importantly, my inclination to try, at least occasionally, to go out of my way to do good deeds – such as visiting people I don’t know in the hospital to offer some words of cheer.
To be sure, I like to dress modestly and in good taste. But there’s a concern I have going back to my childhood, that too much emphasis is placed on the way one dresses – what’s on the outside – and not enough on what’s on the inside.
The first time this topic touched my life was as a 12 year old in a conversation with my friend’s mother when I definitely didn’t prescribe to the saying, “Children should be seen and not heard.” Boy, was I heard in those days, with an opinion to counter any statement that I thought was at odds with the truth.
One summer day, my friend and I went back to his house after playing ball wearing t-shirts and shorts, and somehow ended up in a discussion about the topic of clothes. My friend’s mother at that time commented, “When people are dressed up nicely, they are good people.”
I could not let that statement go unremarked upon. So, hopefully, with a tone of voice that was respectful (I was speaking to someone around 35 years older than I was), I said, “You mean, people who rob banks, if they’re wearing a nice suit, they’re a good person.”
To my surprise, she replied “yes.” In retrospect, she was probably just trying to get my goat, but at the time it added fuel to the fire of my beliefs regarding the importance of the clothes we wear in the total hierarchy of life.
Fast-forward around 35 years. Slowly but surely (and sweetly) I had become religiously observant. When my wife and I got married, I did wear a hat at the chupah because I thought it was important. But for the most part, since then, whatever hat I wear is not of the kind that most religious men in the neighborhood have on their heads.
The most important thing to me is that I get along with people and they get along with me. I am told that I am a friendly enough kind of person that the clothes I wear don’t seem to create a negative impact on the positive interactions I have with my peers.
This feeling of togetherness probably blindsided me to what some other people were thinking about my wardrobe, or at least one other person who I’ll call Reuven. I met Reuven at a shul that is rigorously Orthodox that I attended on Shabbos in order to learn with a friend between Mincha and Maariv. Over the months that I was there I would exchange “Good Shabbos” greetings with Reuven whenever we crossed paths, which was fairly often as it was a small shul.
We never had a conversation of any great importance until one fateful Shabbos afternoon, right before Yom Kippur. As we left the shul after the Shabbos Teshuva drasha, given by the rabbi, people were milling outside and talking. My friend was engaged with someone else and it was then that Reuven approached me – and this time he went beyond “Good Shabbos.”
Reuven said, smiling, “Since this is the head of the year, this would be a good time for you to get something for your head…a hat.” I was surprised and dismayed by what he said. Did he really think that if I wasn’t wearing a hat up until now, that his one statement would get me to change to the way he wanted? Those are the key words – what HE WANTED. He never stopped to consider what I wanted…what was important to me.
More importantly, what right does he have to tell me what I should or should not be wearing? Perhaps if he knew me better and had engaged me in a conversation, it could have come out more naturally. But as it was, all it did was leave a bad taste in my mouth. Rather than respond with a caustic remark, though, another thought entered my mind and I said it. I doubt I would have said it under different circumstances. I don’t push my way of life on to other people. (I figure if I’m doing something of merit, and other people see it, if they like it, perhaps they will emulate it. It more than likely would backfire if I told them they should do it.)
So after he made his comment about it being the head of the year and how it would be a good time for me to get a new hat, I responded a second later by saying, “I’ll tell you what. I’ll get a new hat, if you come with me when I visit the sick in the hospital.”
He looked at me like I was from another planet. “What does one have to do with the other?” he asked, and then he walked away.
If he didn’t know what I was referring to, it would have taken me too long to explain it to him, so I didn’t try.
In the years since, my life experiences have “explained” this issue to me. I’ve seen that over time I grew more comfortable with the idea of wearing a nice hat and I more often wear it to shul – and even on occasion wear it during the davening. I do it not because anyone told me to do it, rather I told myself it’s what I wanted to do.
Also, in the years since I’ve heard about bad things happening because people who are dressed like a very religious person are anything but religious in their actions. More than 99% of Orthodox people who are dressed in a distinctive religious fashion are good people. Unfortunately, there are some who are not and it’s important not to take for granted that just because someone dresses a certain way, they are a good person.
After all, you don’t want to invite well-dressed bank robbers to your Shabbos table.
Still and always, the most important quality that a person possesses is what’s inside.
Good middos trump distinctively religious clothing any day.
However, what I have also come to see is that if a person has good middos AND dresses in a way that lets the world know they are Jewish, that’s the most powerful combination of all.
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