Clothes Maketh the Man?

Leviticus 21:1-24:23

By Jeffrey Fiskin

Published May 12, 2006, issue of May 12, 2006.
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In a great metropolis, two gentlemen meet outside a large store that specializes in photographic and video equipment. They are both dressed soberly, one in the familiar navy-blue business suit, the other in a black caftan and a round cap with a thick fur brim and old-fashioned shoes, as well.

Yehuda: Naftali! How are you?

Naftali: Yehuda! Fine. Long time no see. What are you supposed to be?

Yehuda: A God-fearing man, what else?

Naftali: No, I mean the outfit. You look like second banana in a bad-costume melodrama set in 18th-century Poland.

Yehuda: You would make sport of the custom of my religious observance?

Naftali: Naw, just your clothes. Seriously, what’s that about?

Yehuda: It indicates mourning for the destruction of the Second Temple…

Naftali: Hey, my suit could indicate that. Dark, somber.

Yehuda: … And a reminder of a simpler, better time.

Naftali: Then why not a fig leaf?

Yehuda: … And finally to honor the Baal Shem Tov.

Naftali: That’s what I said: 18th-century Poland.

Naftali sighs.

Yehuda: What? You don’t like him?

Naftali: No. Great stories. Lovely and wise man.

Yehuda: Then…?

Naftali: Aren’t you even a little bit concerned that dressing like this confuses the outward show of holiness with its inward manifestation? As it is written, in the haftorah to Emor, this week’s portion: “And when they go forth into the outer court, even into the outer court to the people, they shall put off their garments wherein they minister…and they shall put on other garments, that they sanctify not the people with their garments….” (Ezekiel 44:19)

Yehuda: He was talking about an ideal temple. Either the Second, which had yet to be constructed, or the Third, for which we are still waiting.

Naftali: There is no early of late in Torah.

Yehuda: But there is reality and then there is Aggadah.

Naftali: Hidden truths are still true.

Yehuda: And that hidden truth is?

Naftali: As the Netziv of Volozhin has written, “… If they do attempt to look holy and special and separate from the people even outside and beyond their work in the Temple, ‘that is not honoring the word of God but is arrogance and conceit.’”

Yehuda: The Netziv never liked the Hasids.

Naftali: As it is written in this week’s portion: “They shall be holy unto their God….” (Leviticus 21:6) And as Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz reminds us, it doesn’t say “they will be holy to you,” as in, “you the people.”

Yehuda: You seem not to have much faith in people being able to distinguish holiness inside from holiness outside.

Naftali: Did you ever notice that every time clothes are mentioned in the Book of Genesis, there is some kind of falsehood, sin or disguise? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks did. Adam and Eve and fig leaves; Jacob in Esau’s coat to deceive Isaac; Joseph’s coat sows envy among his brothers, the same coat that is later dipped in goat’s blood to deceive Jacob — surely a reminder that what goes around, comes around — Tamar’s deception…. Deception and clothes have a long dishonorable history. As a recent bar mitzvah, Seth Brody, pointed out, the Hebrew word for garment is beged, which also means betrayal.

Yehuda: Why do I feel that even with all that, the proverbial boom has not yet been lowered?

Naftali: Is it possible that the very separation of which I suspect you are so proud — the statement of your Jewishness for all the world to see — might be more than a mere aspect of custom? Might it suggest values inborn, not merely responsibilities to be fulfilled?

Yehuda: I would, of course, agree that holiness is always and only an expression of worship and that, even among the exemplary, holiness is fleeting and must be constantly renewed. But surely custom will not confuse so serious an issue.

Naftali: My concern is the relentlessly revised separation between the secular and the religious and its manifestation in law, not in custom. Custom is fine, except where it masquerades as law or as the basis for law. Can it be chance that where Ezekiel speaks of putting priestly garments aside, Emor concludes by reminding us, “You shall have one manner of law, as well for the stranger, as for the home-born….” (Lev. 24:22)

Yehuda: And yet, sometimes a shtreimel is just a shtreimel.

Jeffrey Fiskin lives in Hollywood, Calif., with his wife and children.






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