The Kittel as a Garment of Majestic Leadership
This kittel explores leadership. Specifically, the responsiblity of leading, and the leaders’ complex relationships to followers and to themselves. On Rosh Hashana our prayer leaders stand before God and together we crown God as King.
There are three different leadership archetypes in the Tanach: kings, prophets and priests. It is interesting to note that clothing plays an important symbolic role in each of their narratives, and thus clothing seems to be inherently connected with the concept of leadership.
There are many examples of the physical expression of the mantle of leadership in Tanach. The priestly garments are detailed in the books of Shemot and Vayikra.
The priest would have to wear specific clothing depending on his roles within the temple ritual structure. In the book of Kings the prophet Eliyahu is described as wearing a particular belted garment passed onto his student Elisha. Earlier in Kings, a prophet uses a cloak to demonstrate that the nation of Israel will be divided, and gives the pieces to Yarovam ben Navat as part of appointing him king of the northern kingdom. These stories use the garment as a symbolic transferring of power.
Clothing is also connected to status and intimacy. The prophet Yermiyahu is instructed to portray God’s relationship with the people with a loincloth, an item of clothing worn next to the skin. David demonstrates that he could have harmed Shaul but chose not to by cutting a part of his cloak. But by damaging part of the king’s clothing he is also threatening and disrespecting Shaul’s leadership.
These connections between clothing and leadership come together in the character of Esther. Esther prepares herself to confront Ahashverus to arrange a meeting, which is potentially fatal for her, but she becomes a leader and acts on behalf of the people. The text describes her dressing herself in royalty , “tilfash Esther malchut”– Esther 5:1. The text does not describe her as wearing “bigdei malchut,” which would have been the phrase for royal clothing. The Talmud, in Megillah 14b, interprets this unusual phrase as her as being clothed with prophecy. This moment of dressing is when she becomes a prophet.
The role of the king, prophet or priest all play two roles. They represent the people to God and God to the people. Going from one role to the other, they seem to belong to neither side but are caught in the middle. Individual personalities influence what type of a leader they will be, but they are not in this position as themselves, but rather as a representative of something else. There is tension between suppressing and enhancing their individuality as they rise to the occasion.www.
The Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto creates garments that allows space between the garment and the body, allowing the wearer to inhabit the garment and not be restricted. They also function as forming a private space around the person when in public.
This kittel takes its form from ceremonial robes. It wraps around the body with a long scarf/cloak like panel that can be wrapped around body or neckline. The waist is shaped by a belt with black stripes – evoking the stripes of a tallit, the garment worn in prayer.
Before the leader can answer the question ‘da’a lifnei mi atah omed’– ‘know before who you stand’ be it before the people, or before God, the leader just needs to stand. In a place that belongs to him or her alone.