Tetzaveh/Shabbat Zachor – The well-dressed Jew
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Tetzaveh/Shabbat Zachor – The well-dressed Jew

The young Jew laying tefillin on a plane from New York to Louisville had no idea that fulfilling a ritual mitzvah was going to shorten the flight because of a skittish flight attendant who believed he was strapping on a bomb while mumbling foreign words that sounded menacing. In many Jewish circles, the young man was a model Jewish male dressing himself for his morning prayers. He knew his duty, but his naiveté created an unexpected and unintended context for his behavior.

Clothes may not make the man, but in this week’s Torah portion, men make the clothes that make statements about the men who will wear the clothes. The ordination dress for the new priests is ornate and each detail is a symbol of their responsibilities. Oozing as metalanguage, the clothing accentuates the metaphors for a theology, the peoplehood of Israel, and the priesthood. When wearing their special garments, the priests are reminded that they represent Israel before God (stones on the shoulder and breastplate), act as oracles of God to Israel (urim u’tumim), and do so humbly, chastely, and reverentially..

As Jews, we are divided about how and when we should be in “Jewish garb.” We Jews sometimes judge each other’s piety and often our expectations of each other based on how we dress. A Jew who wears a kippah and arbah kanfot (four-cornered garment) distinguishes himself as a Jew in the public square. That Jew has reasons for wearing those clothing; but a person who sees him (or maybe her) walking down the street may conclude that he is traditional, religious, pious, or just simply Jewish. But there is another perception based on the clothing that may or may not be true: the person’s righteousness.

Across the religious and secular Jewish spectrum, Jews are disappointed when a uniformed Jew comes to the public attention for alleged wrongdoing. The problem for many is that dress as a cultural effect has to be something more than style or tribal. Does that mean a “dressed” Jew should be held to a higher legal or moral standard than one who is not? Certainly, in his mind the “dressed” Jew sees himself as observant, but is he also cognizant of the intrinsic message meant by his symbolic dress? Does the Jew who attires himself in only western dress get a pass? Images of Bernie Madoff are still too fresh to dispute that.

We know that a Jew who does not wear clothing that identifies him as a Jew is not subject to scrutiny of his ethics or morality. No one expects any more than for him to continue his walk down the street. Should the destination be the synagogue on a Shabbat morning after he just parked his car a few blocks away (there were no closer parking spaces), would we be in a better position to measure his conscience by his observance of time reserved for Jewish ritual?

For so many Jews, including in the liberal religious communities, the Jewish legacy is as much or more about the ethical as the ethnic and religious. We know that cultural identity is not necessarily about consistencies between ritual and righteous behaviors, but more are asking for a greater consistency between how we portray ourselves ritually, whether through worship or dress, and how we act in our many kinds of relationships.

Come tomorrow night and Sunday morning, we will forget all of this in favor of Purim, a borderline Dionysian celebration of “ad lo yadah” – when one cannot distinguish between the names of Mordecai and Haman. We will endeavor to do what our tradition asks – to blot out the name of Amalek. As proxy, Haman’s name will do. But it won’t be done in finery, dress reserved for sacred moments. Instead, we will dress in all sorts of attire, some better prepared than others, for the Purim drama unfurled in the Scroll of Esther.

I recall a controversy (truly not for the sake of Heaven) about whether it was appropriate to dress in Disney character costumes rather than the purists’ interpretation of dressing only as the Purim story characters. It was in a synagogue community whose members rarely engaged in reflection on more serious matters of marking Jewish observances, but this was their controversy to solve. The loyal opposition demanded authenticity in character dress for Purim, yet they were rarely fastidious about their dress for Jewish worship. They were trying to make a point: to present an accurate pageant – although there was no Purim play or shpiel to act out. There was no mitzvah involved, so there was no question of kashrut. (Believe me, they weren’t concerned about shatnez.) This was an opportunity to make a statement about meaning in their Jewish lives. They wanted some kind of authenticity in their Jewish observance. Of all holidays, they happened to pick Purim to make their stand. They did not want Purim ruined by costumes whose themes would take them away from the real meaning of the holiday. We may consider their deliberation too sober for the occasion as we know it, but it was interesting. The children and others wore their Disney costumes.

Whether we wear our Jewish persona in ritual dress or assume it without haberdashery, the mirror is a good place to start our days, but not so much to see how good we look. For the Jew, looking in the mirror should be as if those eyes are looking into one’s soul, that which we cover up with our clothes.

Shabbat Shalom, Chag Purim Sameach!

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