Thursday, 10 Feb 2011

Written by Anna Gerrard

Isaac Bashevis Singer once said: “What a strange power there is in clothing.”

Fashion magazines, makeover shows and Trinny and Susannah tell us the same thing – from 80s power-dressing to the classic understatement, the message is clear – you are what you wear!

This week, God instructs Moses to make the priestly clothing for Aaron and his sons “for honour and for adornment” (Exodus 28:2).  Employing only the most skilful craftsmen, Moses is said to have made vestments for the community leaders who will serve God as priests: “a breast piece, an ephod, a robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress, and a sash” (Exodus 28:4).  And the vestments are to be made of only the finest materials, “gold, blue, purple and crimson yarns and fine linen” (Exodus 28:5).

It would seem that God agrees with Trinny and Susannah!  It is very important that the priestly clothing is not only suitable and functional but also aesthetically beautiful, one could even say glamorous.  The rich colours and textures, the dramatic headdress and sash, the elaborate fringes and jewellery would have gone together to create a remarkable fashion statement.

The priests were community leaders with a very specific role to play and, to that end, needed to stand out from the crowd; but is it appropriate that such emphasis was placed on their outward appearance?  Is there something ostentatious about this custom?  Is there an element of immodesty in their costume?

In the Rabbinic Literature, we find a clear school of thought that preaches against the merits of physical beauty.  According to this perspective, beauty puts one at danger of pride and vanity and is inversely proportional to, or even detrimental to, one’s wisdom and righteousness.  We can read three Talmudic stories that demonstrate this position.

In Nedarim (9b), the high priest, Rabbi Shimon Hatzaddik, states that he never ate from the offering of a Nazirite monk except in one special case.  Taking a Nazirite vow involved shaving one’s head and when he saw this particular Nazirite approaching the Temple with beautiful thick locks of hair, he asked him why he had undertaken to destroy his own beauty?  In a parallel to the Greek legend of Narcissus, the Nazirite replies that upon catching his own reflection in the well, he realised that he was in grave danger of wicked desires and at once took the vow.  Rabbi Shimon kisses his head and praises his behaviour in a gesture that teaches us that pride in one’s beauty is a sin and that those who overcome their vanity are considered righteous.

In another extraordinary story (Baba Metzia 84a), Resh Lakish sees Rabbi Yochanan bathing in the Jordan and, struck by his beauty and mistaking him for a woman, leaps into the water.  As Resh Lakish realises his mistake, Rabbi Yochanan remarks: “Your strength should be for the Torah” and Resh Lakish quickly rebuts: “And your beauty should be for women!”  Rabbi Yochanan offers his sister’s hand in marriage if Reish Lakish will give up his wicked ways and come to the Beit Midrash to study Torah and the story ends with Resh Lakish becoming a great scholar.   One fascinating detail offers us an insight into the Rabbinic view of beauty.  After agreeing to study Torah, Resh Lakish tries to leap out of the water to fetch his clothes but he has already become too weak.  It would seem that physical prowess and external beauty are not compatible with a life of learning and righteousness; that one adversely impacts on the other.

We see this message again in Taanit (7a) when the Caesar’s daughter asks Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Hananiah how wisdom such as his can exist in so ugly a vessel?  Rabbi Yehoshua asks her in what does her father keep wine and, when she replies: “in earthenware  jugs”, he suggests that people of such importance and wealth should use vessels of silver and gold.  The daughter tells her father to do just this and the wine inevitably turns sour, teaching both her and the reader that wisdom and goodness are best kept in an outwardly plain vessel.  As the story continues (Taanit 7b), the Caesar’s daughter says she has heard that there are some beautiful sages and Rabbi Yehoshua replies: “This is true but if they were ugly, they would be even wiser.”

The Rabbinic message is quite clear and, rather ironically, fashion designer, Jean Paul Gaultier, summed it up brilliantly when he said: “It is always the badly dressed people who are the most interesting.”

Does this Rabbinic view teach us that taking pride in our appearance and wanting to look good is a sinful behaviour and potentially something that will damage our ability to be a good and learned person?  As Student Rabbis, Rabbis and community leaders who stand up in front of our communities, as the priests once did, and fulfil a religious function, should we endeavour to wear only the plainest, unadorned clothes and downplay any naturally attractive features?  By wearing a designer tallit, are we in danger of vanity?  By carefully choosing our favourite outfit, are we undermining our own intelligence?

The Biblical text seems to suggest otherwise.  The Biblical description of the priestly clothing suggests that it is not just acceptable but even desirable to invest a lot of time and money into one’s outward appearance, especially when one is fulfilling a communal role.  Can this contradictory message be found in Rabbinic thought?

I would argue that it can in the principle of Hiddur Mitzvah, beautification of the commandments, which is derived from the Biblical verse ‘זה אלי ואנוהו ‘, ‘This is my God and I will glorify Him’ (Exodus 15:2).  In Midrash Mechilta, they ask what it means to glorify God and conclude that, in performing the commandments, we should use the most beautiful ritual objects.  The Talmud (Shabbat 133b) gives the example of beautiful Torah scroll, written by a skilled scribe in fine ink with a fine pen and wrapped in beautiful silks.  Elsewhere (Baba Kama 9b), Rabbi Zera teaches that one should be willing to pay one third more for the sake of Hiddur Mitzvah and numerous Jewish folktales applaud poor Jews who splash out on a fancy etrog.

The sacrificial rites and other priestly functions were very much a part of God’s commandments so, according to the principle of Hiddur Mitzvah, they should be carried out in the richest, most aesthetically pleasing fashion.  By extension, prayer leadership and other modern Rabbinic ways of serving the community are, in the broadest sense, mitzvot and should be approached in the same light.  Perhaps we can glorify God by beautifying our service?

Does the principle of Hiddur Mitzvah teach us to splash out on outfits to wear on the Bimah?  Should we be adorning our tallitot with gold, blue, purple and crimson threads and accessorising with tallit clips and matching earrings made form Lapis Lazuli?  Is God offended when we read from the siddur with unbrushed hair or unpolished shoes?  Or is this, as Kohelet would say, all vanity?

There is a clear contradiction here.  On the one hand, the Rabbinic literature teaches us that the wisest and most righteous leaders are the ugliest, those that do not pay any attention to their physical appearance.  On the other hand, we are told to beautify our commandments and presented with ornate descriptions of priestly clothing that is designed to make the religious leaders stand out a mile!

How should we approach our own appearance, fashion and style?  Is our clothing relevant to or even symbolic for our job?  Should we agree upon certain fashion principles and define a kind of Rabbinic uniform?  Or should we shy away from engaging with such external concerns?

There is no easy way of resolving these contradictions.  It is perhaps a challenge that each of us has to address as an individual, weighing up the core values at stake and reaching a personal conclusion.  The question has been with us since Biblical times and the Rabbis clearly struggled to reach a consensus so we are in good company if we choose to grapple with our own feelings on this subject.  The key for me is to engage with these seemingly superficial issues in a deep enough way that I reach a level of confidence that the me I present to the world is congruous with the me that I am inside.

To start us on this path, I will give the last word to Albert Einstein: “If most of us are ashamed of shabby clothes and shoddy furniture, let us be more ashamed of shabby ideas and shoddy philosophies… It would be a sad situation if the wrapper were better than the meat wrapped inside it.”

Anna Gerrard
February 2011

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.