Friday, March 2, 2012

Say Yes To The Dress


9 Adar 5772 / March 2-3, 2012

In this week’s portion, Tetzaveh, we learn about the sanctification of Aaron and his sons as priests, as well as the various priestly garments. The High Priest in particular had special vestments, including a headplate, special robe, and a breastplate with magical powers, among others. Without wearing their special garb, any actions taken by the priests were invalid.

There is no question that how we dress in society matters. Our outfits often reflect the way we want others to perceive us, if not the way we perceive ourselves. The clothes we wear have the ability to make us feel sexy, to make us feel fat, and can convey our social class and/or standing. We without question judge others whose fashion choices differ from our own, and often label them as a result (e.g. “hipsters,” “hippies,” “goths,” etc.).

Cultural norms have changed over the years, in many ways making us a much less formal society. Back in the day, you might need a jacket and tie in order to get into elite places. Now, the request is: “please, no sneakers or baseball hats.”

Jewish communal gatherings, be they charity dinners or High Holiday services, often become a competition to see who is wearing the more expensive / brand name designer clothing. This sense of competition has trickled down to our Jewish private schools, which are increasingly requiring students to wear uniforms, in order to protect those whose families are not as wealthy from feeling inferior or being bullied by their wealthier, better-dressed classmates.

Counter to the school-uniform approach, which emphasizes homogeneity as a mechanism for combatting classism within the Jewish community, some Jewish institutions have adopted a “come as you are” mentality. In particular, campus Hillels, which desperately are seeking to get students into the door, will often share that any and all are welcome to attend their events, and they can come in pajamas if they’d like. Chabad is also well known for accepting attendees as they are, and as a result, seeing jeans-wearers at Friday night Chabad services is quite common (as opposed to major synagogues, where jeans wearers would be looked at funny and often would not be welcomed warmly by those in black tie optional attire). By emphasizing that their institutions welcome everyone, regardless of their clothing, the culture of those institutions has changed, and those who attend the various programs do so with a sense of openness to those who may be dressed differently than they are.

There is admittedly tension in determining how we as Jews should dress in various situations (and we’re not even going to touch on modesty this week, which traditionally plays a large role in dictating Jewish attire).

Fortunately, we can look to the ancient priests for guidance. Just as without wearing their special garb any actions taken by the priests were invalid, so too can our own actions be rendered invalid if we are not dressed for the occasion. The way we dress can eliminate our ability to meaningfully engage with and be respected by the community. In particular, given that communal leadership is often comprised of those who have a significant life experience and tend to value more formal interactions, for young adults hoping to gain an audience, dressing the part is an important first step.

When have you felt overdressed?

When have you felt underdressed?

When have you felt unwelcome due to what you were wearing?

This Shabbat, take some time to reflect on how you dress in various situations, and what that dress conveys.

Our organizations need to be welcoming, and should encourage a “come as you are” mentality. So too, individuals accepting invitations to attend organizational events should do so with the understanding that they may need to part with a piece of their individuality in order to truly be welcomed as part of a community.

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