News photo depicting a few of the 44 total arrested for money laundering, bribery, and the sale of human organs in New Jersey on 7/23/09. It’s always cringe-worthy to frum Jews when one of their own is depicted in full levush being cuffed and arrested. At least leave the frock coat and hat at home!
Most Jews who became orthodox later in life have had to adapt to a different mode of dress than they were formally accustomed to. Men have to get used to wearing tzitzit under their shirts and a kippa which announces to the world that they are a Jew. Depending upon which hashkafah they adopt, they will also be encouraged to wear a variety of other garments identifying them as part of that group.
Women also have to change their mode of dress to conform to modesty laws. Giving up pants, short sleeves, short skirts, low necklines, and adopting a head covering upon marriage are the most obvious changes a woman must make.
Of course, adapting to these new costumes isn’t always easy. The basic advice given to a baal teshuvah is that they should dress according to their religious goals. Even if they are not actually the religious person on the inside that they appear to be on the outside, their inner self will eventually adapt to the persona that their outer self is projecting to the world.
It is no small burden to dress in a manner that makes you an automatic poster child for orthodox Judaism. In some instances, it can be a sign of recognition to other members of the community that you belong to the “same club.”
For instance, the other week I was picking up my son from the airport, and a frum woman, who had just landed from Israel and was without a working cell phone, came up to me with a sigh of relief that she had found another Jew to whom she could safely turn to for assistance. After borrowing my phone to connect with her ride, she continued to thank me profusely and express her gratitude at finding another religious Jew at the airport to help her.
However, everyone has bad days where they wake up on the wrong side of the bed. What if that day at the airport had been one of those days for me? What if I had very little cell phone battery left, and needed to preserve every precious bit of charge for my son to reach me when he arrived?
What if I had snapped at the woman about why she would assume I would let her use my phone just because I was wearing someone else’s hair? Or what if another traveler arriving at the airport had seen my generosity in lending the Jewish woman my phone, assume that I would extend the same generosity toward them, only to have me give them a “Be gone, peasant!” glare, turn my back, and flounce away?
Would I be an asset to my religious faith or a liability?
There is a concept that if a person is filled with an overwhelming desire to do a sin, they should go to another place where they aren’t recognized to avoid doing even more damage by their bad behavior:
“The Talmud (Kiddushin 40a & Chagigah 16a) states:
- Ilai the Elder said: If a person sees he is overcome with illicit desire, he should go to a place where he is not recognized, don black clothes and do what his heart desires rather than desecrate God’s name in public.”
Of course, this concept applies to someone who normally behaves in an appropriate manner, who is a believer and feels guilty about their urge to sin, but who is helpless to resist their temptation in this singular instance.
How about when we aren’t talking about a singular instance of behavior that is inconsistent with orthodox practices? What about people who aren’t at the point where they accept or believe in all of the tenets of orthodoxy such as baalei teshuvahas or those who once practiced the faith with a sincere heart but now do so with an empty one devoid of belief? Isn’t there the potential for a lot of harm to be done to the name of the Jewish people if such folks are dressing in the orthodox levush?
Let’s not even discuss extreme or illegal behavior (such as that depicted in the above photo). What if someone wearing a kippah or a headscarf can’t resist the temptation to eat at a non-kosher restaurant, or go to a club and engage in mixed dancing, or have one too many at a bar? What if these urges aren’t rare anomalies, but constant habits that won’t be quenched by giving in only one time? The activities described above are things that many people do every day, but when a religious person does it, it ends up going viral on Youtube.
So, is it really better for people who aren’t yet religious, or are no longer religious to don religious clothing?
I started thinking about this because of a scene I saw on a reality show called, Return to Amish, about a group of Amish people who have gone off the derech to varying degrees. Some of them dress in English clothing and others still wear Amish clothing. In the relevant episode, the group is helping to open an Amish themed bed and breakfast. It’s been decided that they should all wear Amish clothing while at work in order to give customers the full Amish experience.
One of the women, Kate, explains why she objects to wearing Amish clothing now that she is no longer part of the Amish church (forward video to 4:21- 6:10).
Kate explains that Amish clothing is about more than just the clothes – the clothing represents what is on the inside. It’s not just about a head covering, but about a religion and a tradition. Kate feels that if she is not practicing the Amish religion than it is wrong for her to wear the clothing and represent herself as if she is. She feels that she wouldn’t be respecting the Amish people if she were to wear an Amish dress now that she is no longer part of the community.
Her explanation really rang sincere, and it strikes me that no longer wearing the religious garb of a community you no longer feel a part of takes a lot of courage. It is a very public and obvious proclamation that you are choosing a different path, resulting in immediate social repercussions.
While some might think it is selfish, in a sense, for those like Kate (any Jew or non-Jew that leaves a tight knit religious group), the choice might actually be somewhat selfless. They know that they are no longer going to behave according to the standards of their former faith, and as such, don’t want to embarrass their former community by dressing as if they still represent that group.
Of course, this opens up a Pandora’s Box for those of us who never feel worthy enough or pious enough to represent ourselves to the world as religious in the first place. It also poses problems for those of us who have faith, but who don’t necessarily ascribe to the particular hashkafah of the community we live in.
Dressing in a way that doesn’t conform to who we are on the inside can make us feel like a phony. Knowing that by changing our mode of dress, other community members will attribute the change to a loss of faith, makes many people continue the charade long after they’ve abandoned their internal affiliation with that particular group. There are no easy answers, but the Jewish response seems to be to persevere with the costume, and the belief will arrive at a later date.