You Are What You Wear: Modesty of Dress

One of the highlights of the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Jewish Camping Conference a year ago was the chance for me to get to know Nancy Lublin. I had learned about Nancy several years earlier after reading an article about her mitzvah project that turned into a successful nonprofit company.

I spoke with Nancy, CEO of Do Something for the past ten years, about her recent book Zilch: The Power of Zero in Business, encouraging teen philanthropy, and how Jewish summer camp can instill lifelong entrepreneurial skills in young people. But what I found most interesting in our conversation was how Nancy founded Dress for Success in 1996 with a $5,000 inheritance from her great-grandfather Poppy Max.

Nancy Lublin speaking to Jewish camping professionals (Foundation for Jewish Camp)

Nancy wanted to honor her grandfather’s memory and spirit of philanthropy by using his hard-earned money to help other people blaze new beginnings. With three nuns from Spanish Harlem, Nancy started Dress for Success in New York. She then moved on to found Dress for Success Worldwide, the national support center for all Dress for Success Affiliates. Dress for Success provides interview suits, confidence boosts and career development for women and has served more than 650,000 women around the world. Women are referred to Dress for Success by not-for-profit and government agencies including homeless and domestic violence shelters, immigration services, and job training programs.

What Dress for Success does for thousands of women is a great act of loving kindness, but what I’ve always loved about her start-up philanthropy is the name: “Dress for Success.” How we dress really does lead to our success. Think about what the image we project based on what we wear. Our clothes communicate a lot about our personality and our interests. The dictum that “you are what you wear” is actually true.

This Shabbat, Erev Purim, we read Parashat Tetzaveh. In the Torah portion, Moses is ordered to appoint his older brother Aaron, and Aaron’s sons, to fill the priestly role. And just as last week’s parsha gave the explicit directions for the building of the tabernacle, this week we learn the precise details of the priestly clothing. Modern biblical scholar Nahum Sarna writes that “just as sacred space must be differentiated from profane space, so the occupants of the sacred office must be distinguishable from the laity. Hence, special attire, the insignia of office, is ordained for Aaron, the archetypal High Priest, and for his sons, the priests of lower rank.”

The first part of our parsha is most concerned with the high priest’s unique garb; not only with what Aaron will wear, but also with who will make it. God commands Moses: Next, you shall instruct all who are skillful, whom I have endowed with the gift of skill, to make Aaron’s vestments for consecrating him to serve Me as a priest. It’s not even enough that Aaron will have the most unusual and distinctive garments; God also wants the best designers to fashion his wardrobe — the Ralph Laurens and Donna Karans of the time. And these fashion designers are instructed to use the finest materials to construct this attire — gold, magnificent colorful yarns, and the finest linen around.

Next, God informs Moses of the particular vestments that the priests will wear. The Choshen – the breastplate, the Ephod, a robe, tunic, headdress, and a sash. These garments, as you can imagine, made the priests stand apart from the rest of our ancestors. The Torah goes to great lengths to cross every T and dot every I in describing the priests’ clothing for their distinctive role — colors, lengths, widths, and material were all specified with great care. But this is certainly not the most exciting section of the Torah, so we must ask why all this fashion minutiae? What’s the big deal with the priests’ clothing?

Why is the name of our Moses, the great leader of our people, not mentioned even once in this Torah portion, but instead we know the five materials that went into the production of the yarn to create part of the priest’s garb? The answer I believe is back at the beginning of the parsha when God commands the making of these vestments. What is God’s rationale for these vestments? L’chavod ultif’aret — For dignity and splendor.

L’chavod ultif’aret are two words that are part of the blessings recited after the chanting of the haftarah. The medieval commentator Sforno explains the use of these two words. The vestments, he writes, were for the dignity of God and to lend splendor to the office of the priest so that he would be revered by the people. Elaborating on Sforno’s opinion, the vestments were as much for the dignity of the priests who wore them as they were for God’s dignity. What we wear speaks volumes about us.

The famous computer company IBM had a long-standing dress code in effect at their offices worldwide. Men had to dress in a dark colored suit, could only wear a white dress shirt, and could select a necktie of any conventional color; so long as it was solid – no patterns. For women, it was mostly the same – A dark, solid colored skirt and a white blouse. IBM believed that the way its workforce dressed portrayed the specific image that they wanted associated with their company. Apparently, they held the belief that it’s “the clothing that makes the man.”

And this belief was just as true in the 1990s, as companies like IBM shifted from strict, conservative dress codes to less-formal attire. Casual dress in the workplace became the new trend and “Dress down Fridays” becoming a popular section in most clothing stores. Companies like IBM believe that the way one dresses helps contribute to the way one works, behaves, and acts toward others. It also contributes to the way others view the wearer. When we get dressed in the morning, don’t we think about what type of image we want to portray for that day? Don’t we pick out our clothes for the day based on more than just the weather? What does this t-shirt say about me? Should I wear a traditional tie for that meeting today? What will they think if I wear my expensive shoes to the job interview? Think for a moment about what images the following expressions convey: “Black Tie Required,” “Business Attire,” “Dressy Casual,” “No shirt, no shoes, no service.”

Indeed, the appropriate clothing is for self-dignity as well as for personal splendor, comfort, and warmth. Throughout the generations, the modesty level of our clothing has been an ongoing conversation, although the standards of modesty have no doubt changed. In Judaism, these issues of modesty fall into the category of tzniut, modesty. Tzniut is the point at which our physical appearance and our behavior intersect.

No one could argue that the terms we speak of today in debating what is modest would be foreign to those even a few generations ago. Bare-midriffs, extra-tight t-shirts, and underwear peeking out from under low-cut jeans weren’t forbidden in schools a generation ago because no child would ever think of wearing that to school. But today, all schools have a dress code of some sort. But what does it say about us as a community? Have we forgotten what is appropriate to wear?

The lesson of the clothing of the priests from this week’s Torah portion is that what we wear is actually an extension of us, whether we want that to be true or not. It is an extension of our family. It is an extension of our community. What we wear is representative of who we are, and indeed, where we come from. It speaks volumes about what we stand for and our own level of self-dignity. Styles do change. And society’s attitudes toward standards of proper attire do too. But let us not discount the importance of tzniut or the conversations that we must continue to have about what is considered modest. Let us dress for success. Let us dress for style. And most important, let us dress l’chavod ultif’aret – for dignity and splendor.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Patrilineal "Dissent": Solving the Jewish Status Problem

My mother isn’t/wasn’t Jewish, my father is. I was raised Reform, had a Bat mitzvah, [was Jewishly educated, celebrated holidays, identify as Jewish, participated in the Jewish community, did not participate in or celebrate any other faith or religion,] etc. If I have children with a man recognized as fully Jewish, how would they be seen in the eyes of Israel and the American Jewish community (particularly the Conservative movement)? How stable are Israel’s laws around this — could they change in 10 years? What about Halachah (Jewish law)? I would really appreciate an answer, even if it’s not what I want to hear. Thank you!

This is the question I was presented with from the website Jewish Values Online. Over the past few years I have answered dozens of values-based questions from this website. I haven’t dodged a single question, and I’ve attempted to respond to each questioner in a timely fashion. Admittedly, I have procrastinated writing a response to this question for several months.

Why? Because I am a Conservative rabbi and this is perhaps the most challenging question that a Conservative rabbi can be asked in the beginning of the 21st century. My Reform and Orthodox colleagues were able to respond to this question in a much more timely fashion. The Reform rabbi is able to cite his movement’s historic 1983 resolution establishing that “if the child is raised exclusively as a Jew and one parent is Jewish, then the child is recognized as a Jew in Reform communities regardless of the gender of the Jewish parent.” The Orthodox rabbi frames his answer with words like “difficult” and “painful” but ultimately cites Halacha (Jewish law) as unable to recognize the children (or grandchildren) of a Jewish man and non-Jewish woman as Jews without benefit of conversion.

Like many Conservative rabbis this issue hits home with me. I have a first cousin who, by definition, is not considered Jewish according to Halacha. That means that according to the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, of which I’m a member, I am not permitted to officiate at her wedding should she marry an individual deemed Jewish according to Halacha. That marriage would be considered an intermarriage without a formal conversion, and the children of that marriage would not be considered Jewish from a Halachic definition. This cousin has been raised Jewish, attended Hebrew School, became a bat mitzvah in a Reform congregation and considers herself Jewish. To complicate matters, her younger brother underwent a formal conversion in the mikveh after having a bris on the eighth day and is therefore regarded as Jewish according to Halacha. I’m not sure that there could be a more confusing example of the mess that has been created with Jewish identity in the modern American Jewish world.

Before making any recommendations as to how to resolve this issue or how I will respond to the question above, it is important to understand that the Reform Movement’s 1983 resolution allowing patrilineal descent didn’t create this mess, but it did complicate it further. In the almost 30 years since that decision, there has been much crossover between the Conservative and Reform movements in America. Thus, when the Reform movement issued its resolution (which was in the works for more than 35 years), it might have thought the implications would be wholly positive and would really only impact Reform Jews (the resolution specifies “in Reform communities”). However, that resolution has had negative impacts on both the Conservative and Modern Orthodox movements. The question of “Who’s a Jew” has less implications for the Orthodox Jews in America as it is unusual for them to marry outside of their sect. It is when a Modern Orthodox or Conservative young person wants to marry an individual who has been considered Jewish through the Reform movement’s notion of patrilineal descent that we are posed with the problem. Jewish young people in these more liberal denominations interact throughout adolescence and the college years in youth groups, summer camps, Israel trips and college Hillels. Additionally, following college Jewish communal organizations like Federation and B’nai Brith do not distinguish between patrilineal Jews and matrilineal Jews at young adult singles’ events.

We are now facing head on the inter-denominational challenges that have arisen from the Reform movement’s resolution as the children of that era are now of marriage age and having their own children. In response to the question above from the Jewish Values Online website, I would respond as follows:

There is no question that you have been raised in a family that has embraced Judaism, Jewish culture and Jewish values. You have grown up identifying as a Jewish person and because of your father’s Jewish heritage, you have a claim to the birthright of the Jewish people. The Reform denomination of Judaism, in which you have affiliated, acknowledges you as a full-fledged member of the Jewish people for all purposes. Should you marry a man who is Jewish through matrilineal descent, it would be advisable that you undergo a formal conversion so there would be no Halachic issues concerning your children’s Jewish identity.

Matters surrounding Israel’s legal system as it pertains to Jewish identity should not be an issue for you unless you plan to immigrate to Israel and become a citizen. Should that be the case, I would advise you to inquire about those issues at that time and not worry about them now. Like all civil laws, they have the ability to change over time based on Israel’s government at the time and the authority and opinion of the Chief Rabbinate.

As you acknowledged, this might not be the answer you want to hear, but at this time it is the reality. A conversion for someone in your situation (raised Jewishly, who identifies as Jewish) is intended to make your Judaism more legitimate from a Halachic perspective. It should not be understood as undermining your religious identity throughout your life. It is a conversion in a different category than an individual becoming Jewish from another religion altogether. Consider it a technicality.

My ultimate goal is to remove such problems in the future so these painful questions don’t arise in the future. It is first important to acknowledge that this is a matter full of nuance and the American Jewish community is made up of very different communities who will never agree on most issues. That being said, this issue must be resolved for Jews from the more liberal movements of modern Judaism (Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Modern Orthodox) whose followers are marrying each other and raising families together.

Over the years, there have been several recommendations to fix this matter. Some have suggested mass conversions for all Jewish children before bar or bat mitzvah. Others have recommended that all brides and grooms go to the mikveh as a form of conversion before the wedding to assure Halachic Jewish status.

My proposal is to set a time limit on the status quo. Until the year 2020, matrilineal descent is the only accepted form of passing Jewish status genetically. Jewish individuals who are raised Jewish in a home with a Jewish father and identify as Jewish are to be considered Jewish from a cultural perspective, but must undergo a formal conversion for recognition as Jewish from a Halachic understanding.

After the year 2020, it will be understood that because of modern genetic testing (DNA tests) it is now possible to ascertain patrilineality with complete certainty. Therefore, a Jewish individual with at least one Jewish parent will be considered Jewish from a Halachic perspective for all matters. While the Orthodox will not agree to this, it will not have the same negative implications as the fissure between the Reform and Conservative movements that has existed for the past three decades.

The leaders of the American Jewish community should begin collaborating on such a partnership agreement. Only if we are on the same page on the matter of Jewish status will we be able to seek harmony among the disparate denominations of liberal Judaism. We cannot allow the ultra-Orthodox to dictate the definition of a Jewish individual, but we also cannot allow ourselves to be fractured by our own differing definitions of Jewish status. There has been far too much controversy and pain for this situation to continue unresolved.

Cross-Posted to the Huffington Post

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller