Thursday, July 28, 2011

Differences in Clothing and Apparel

"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."
- Albert Einstein

Archaeologists in Israel recently made a fascinating discovery. During an excavation near the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, they found an ancient gold bell with a small loop at its top. The item dates back to the end of the Second Temple era, and is thought to have been sewn to the garment of a man of high authority. While archaeologists aren't certain who the bell originally belonged to, they aren't ruling out that it could have been part of the vestments of the Kohen Gadol (as described in Exodus 28:33). From ancient to modern times, and for both spiritual and practical purposes, different Jews have worn different types of clothing.

Today, there is more variety in how we dress than perhaps ever before. Take, for example, something as simple as head coverings for men. Some wear black hats or knitted kippot, while others don a kippah only during prayers or prefer baseball caps. The bottom line is that good character can be found among all sorts of people wearing all sorts of clothing, just as bad character can be found among all sorts of people wearing all sorts of clothing. Even when it comes to one of the most visible acts of Jewish ritual, Tefillin, character is independent of wearing the physical item. Although putting on Tefillin has the potential to awaken a Jew to God, it does not magically make a man good.

Differences in women's clothing and apparel can be even more stark. Some wear the latest fashions, while others prefer to stay away from outfits that elicit too much attention. Dating back to ancient Israel, women's garments were about everything from modesty to style. For example, Tu B'Av (the 15th of Av) was a time when young women could go out into the fields and look for potential mates (contrary to the usual custom). Girls who happened to be poorer would be loaned beautiful dresses so that they wouldn't be embarrassed by going out in unattractive clothing (Taanit 26b). It's important to remember that the reasoning behind what people wear ranges from mood to principle to what they can afford. Therefore, it's worthwhile to give others the benefit of the doubt when we think that what they're wearing is inappropriate or just plain odd.

Some people tend to have a visceral reaction to those who dress a certain way. While it's certainly understandable to try to place others into a particular stereotype (after all, it's virtually impossible to know each person's uniqueness after a quick encounter), we must strive to judge others solely by their overall behavior. What's most important isn't what we wear - it's how we act. Nevertheless, the more apparent we make it to the world that we are identifiably Jewish, the more of a responsibility we have to act appropriately so as not to create a Chilul Hashem (desecration of God's name).

One of the classic cases of clothing being misleading can be found in the story of Joseph. When his brothers finally met up with him in Egypt, they couldn't recognize the person they had once sold. Joseph looked much different than anyone could have imagined, and not just because he grew older and had facial hair, but also due to the fact that he was wearing the royal garments of viceroy. A lesson we can take from an episode like this is to try our best to look beyond the surface and treat others like family, no matter how they dress. You never know who might be behind that suit and tie or jeans and t-shirt.

Our individual styles can either lead to unnecessary strife or demonstrate how pointless it is to argue over vain differences. If everyone dressed and thought alike, life would be very dull. One of the most beautiful sights you'll ever see is when Jews of all walks of life - and all dressed differently - peacefully pray together at the Western Wall. When we're able to treat each other well despite our most visible of differences, we step closer to the day when the Kohen Gadol returns to engage in his Temple service, donned in his unique vestments, golden bells and all.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Dealing with Tragedy

Unfortunately, Jews are no strangers to tragedy. Last week's horrific murder in New York was another terrible episode, especially due to the fact that the monster who admitted to the crime is Jewish himself. However, that fact is largely irrelevant. There are always going to be bad apples among a group; it is how others respond to those bad apples that defines the group. Through no fault of his own, little Leiby Kletzky asked the wrong guy for directions and landed up in the hands of evil. There is no logical explanation as to why that happened. It's almost reminiscent of the beginning of the Second Intifada when Vadim Nurzhitz and Yossi Avrahami took a wrong turn and also landed up in the hands of evil.

When tragedies like this occur, it's common for people to express their religious convictions by blaming all sorts of things as the root cause, from gossip to gay marriage to the Internet. Sometimes people want answers for unanswerable questions so badly that they're willing to believe almost anything. The bottom line is only God knows. While this may not be an emotionally satisfying response, it's the best we can do given our limited intellect. We must not succumb to playing the blame game. Blame should only be directed at the person who actually committed the crime and/or anyone who explicitly assisted them.

Nobody can know for certain why God allows a particular event to happen. It is all conjecture. Especially due to the fact that we no longer have prophets who can relay direct messages from God, every explanation given for why something occurs is simply a guess. As tempting as it is to provide some sort of divine reasoning, who are we to claim to know why God does something? Turning to God is an important element in dealing with tragedy, but it is also important to refrain from false explanations that can eventually reach the mourners and inflict additional emotional damage. In fact, one of the morals of Iyov (the Book of Job) is precisely about the inscrutability of God's ways.

We learn from Iyov to simply be there for mourners and keep quiet unless prompted to speak. As it states, "They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spoke a word to him, for they saw how very great was his suffering" (Job 2:13). Only after Job began to speak did his three friends also begin to talk - and that's when further problems ensued. Despite Job blaming God for his fate, the Talmud tells us that a person is not held responsible for what they say while in pain (Bava Batra 16b). But Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar all felt obligated to act as God's defender, and started to give presumptuous explanations as to why tragedies befell Job. God found all the condemnations of Job's friends to be inexcusable (Job 42:7). In fact, God said that He would only forgive them if they first received forgiveness from Job himself.

While divine explanations are beyond our grasp, there can still be practical lessons to come out of terrible events. In this case, if a child looks disoriented or lost, see to it that they contact their parents or the police. It's better to err on the side of caution than to assume a child is safe. If you're ever in such a position and having trouble taking action, think of Leiby. And although the details in this particular case are unclear, if it ever becomes known that a person within your community is violent or sexually abusive, you must speak up before an innocent person gets hurt. As it says in Tehillim (Psalms 97:10), "Ohavei Hashem Sinu Ra" - those who love God must hate evil. Standing on the sidelines when evil rears its ugly head is not an option. It must be confronted.

One of the positives that tends to come out of episodes like these are the displays of Jewish unity. But, hopefully, demonstrations of goodwill are not limited to such situations. We should be striving for good interpersonal relationships regardless of items in the news. It should never have to take some horrific event to unite us.

Monday, July 11, 2011

E Pluribus Unum

"E Pluribus Unum" is one of the official mottos of the United States. It's a Latin phrase meaning "From Many, One." While it originally suggested that from the many colonies there should emerge a single nation, it has also come to suggest that from the many races, ethnicities and cultures of individual Americans there should emerge a single people. Although this idea of a melting pot is uniquely American, I believe that it ties in quite nicely with Jewish values as well.

Just as the American motto alludes to the fact that it doesn't matter how famous your family was or what your current socioeconomic status is - we are all Americans - the Jewish approach is similar in that it doesn't matter what your family's customs were or what your current denomination is - we are all Jews. And just as it doesn't matter whether you are black or white or liberal or conservative - you are an American - so too, it doesn't matter whether you are Ashkenazi or Sephardic or religious or secular - you are part of the Jewish people.

Unfortunately, intolerance among Jews can be found in all directions. Shortly after Kristallnacht, a Reform synagogue in Rhode Island conducted a special service to which they invited recent Jewish refugees from Europe. Many of those refugees came to the service wearing hats or kippot, which at the time was against Reform practices. A prominent member of the congregation demanded that everyone remove their head coverings. Although the rabbi of the congregation was extremely upset by the man's behavior, he felt too intimidated to do anything.

Similarly, there are some Orthodox Jews who too easily brand their less observant coreligionists as "heretics" or "non-believers." Yet, prominent sages such as Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and the Chazon Ish have ruled that we live in a time of God's concealment and therefore cannot apply the religious laws concerning heresy to modern-day Jews who question their faith. Furthermore, it is wrong to harm those who deny even Judaism's most basic beliefs. Not only should we not hurt such people, we should help them if the situation ever presents itself.

It takes a considerable amount of humility and tolerance to refrain from forcing our beliefs upon others, but that's exactly what we should strive for. To do so, objective ethical standards must be upheld, while the more subjective areas of life can be left to the individual. It's ironic that people tend to focus so much on the subjective when it is really the objective that matters most. For example, some regard those with whom they disagree politically or religiously as bad people, instead of simply judging their overall behavior to determine what kind of person they are. This needs to change if we are to produce a better world.

One of the unique aspects of Judaism is learning about all the different roads people take that lead them to God and a life of goodness. While this is certainly a fascinating phenomenon, it can also be a great impediment to how we treat one another. Therefore, our goal in life should not be to turn all our fellow Jews into ideological and/or religious replicas of ourselves. Rather, it should be to guide - not force - others into a life of serving God and His children in a way that best matches their individual personality. Then, we will truly represent a motto as great as "E Pluribus Unum."