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.

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