Category Archives: Minhagim

The Real Story?

     The controversy du jour deals with the high school girls and their tefillin, and it has prompted the usual litany of responses. Once again, what passes for psak in the Modern Orthodox world is little more than cherry-picking the sources to find the single, even strained, interpretation of a rabbinic opinion in order to permit what it wants to permit or prohibit what it wants to prohibit. The preponderance of poskim or the consensus in the Torah world matters little; fables – like Rashi’s daughters wearing tefillin – carry more weight.

     No honest reading of the sources could ever give rise to a statement such as “Ramaz would be happy to allow any female student who wants to observe the mitzvah of tefillin to do so.” Happy? Tell it to the Rema or to the Aruch Hashulchan. And what about the prohibition of lo titgodedu ­– of not having contradictory practices in the same minyan (e.g., some girls wearing tefillin and others not)? And what of the statement being made to the traditional girls – that their service of G-d must somehow be inferior to that of their peers who are on a “higher” level, or the statement being made to all of them – women’s spirituality can only reach its peak when it mimics the religious practices of men? I would not want my daughters to be exposed to either sentiment.

Frankly, it is unsurprising that many young students in high schools text on Shabbat, observe half-Shabbat, and the like. If the Mesorah can be manipulated to permit girls to do what they want, why can’t it be manipulated to permit what boys want? Clearly, the subtleties are being lost in translation. Would that the schools focused on enhancing the commitment of the boys and their tefillin than broadening it to include others who are not within the purview of the mitzvah.

And, like night follows day, the secular Jewish press – besides praising the courage of the administrators – have trumpeted this story as another sign of the feminization of Orthodoxy – a triumph of women’s rights in an age when those are considered some of society’s most cherished values. They perceive it as another sign that Orthodoxy is modernizing, getting with the times, and catching up with the non-Orthodox movements, to the chagrin of the troglodytes on the right who insist on impeding progress.

But what if that is not the story? It is quite possible that we – and especially the media – might have missed the essence of this unfolding tale.

One question needs to be asked: do the girls here even define themselves as “Orthodox Jews?” Upon information and belief, they do not, and I do not write this to impugn them in the least. The fact is that in these day schools, anywhere from 10-30% of the student population consists of children from non-Orthodox homes. These families are proud members of non-Orthodox temples, and are certainly among the more dedicated. After all, they are sending their children to day schools under nominally Orthodox auspices. Some may even be the children of non-Orthodox rabbis, both males and females. When one girl explained that she has been wearing tefillin since her Bat Mitzvah, she is likely telling the truth. She has been wearing tefillin because that is part of the egalitarianism that is the most dominant value in the non-Orthodox world. If these girls – as it seems – are from non-Orthodox families, then the narrative has nothing at all to do with the so-called modernizing tendencies in Orthodoxy, but something else entirely.

The real story is not that Orthodox girls are wearing or want to wear tefillin, but that non-Orthodox children (or their parents) are essentially dictating to day schools how they want non-Orthodox practices incorporated – in school – in their children’s education. It is as if Conservative Judaism and its customs must be acknowledged much like schools have been known (and properly so) to allow children of the Edot Hamizrach to have their own minyanim and adhere to their own customs. And the schools are willing accomplices. Will they next remove their mechitzot to allow an egalitarian minyan, or is that too great a departure from the Orthodox brand?

There was a time when non–Orthodox Jews were thankful that yeshivot accepted their children, but correctly assumed that the curriculum, standards, practices and ideology taught would conform to Torah. They knew it would differ from what they were being taught at home – but they wanted that.
There was a time when a yeshiva administration had the authority and the courage to insist on those standards. Times have changed. In the competition for the tuition dollar of the non-Orthodox – and the fact is that SAR and Ramaz are competing for the same students – accommodations have to be made. And that is a travesty. Masquerading under the convenient narrative that this is a war for the soul of Modern Orthodoxy is the inconvenient reality: the inmates are running the asylum. The administrators are either unable or unwilling to maintain a complete fidelity to Jewish tradition, for at least some of their constituents are demanding otherwise.

Does a boy in such a school then have the right to say: “I do not feel that my divine service requires me to wear a kippa. My father doesn’t, not even in the house. I am against your religious coercion”? Should a school tolerate that? Or, an even better question: could a boy say that he rejects wearing tefillin until all the girls do? I.e., he is such an advocate of egalitarianism that it would be unconscionable for him, coming from his background, to continue to propagate the school’s antiquated, misogynistic, patriarchal attitudes that discriminate between males and females. I can hear it now: “There is only one G-d. He created all of us, and so there should be one law for all of us!” I wonder how the administrators would respond to that; probably, quite uncharitably, but on what grounds?

As one male SAR student asked me this week: if girls can be obligated when they are really exempt, why can’t he be exempt when he is really obligated? The logic is not impeccable – he is only 16 years old – but begs the question: if the Mesorah is so ephemeral that it can change on a whim, why can’t any rabbi make any change that he wants to make? Why can’t a layman?
Add to this one other point. I personally have met a number of graduates of these schools who are children of non-Orthodox female converts who were never informed by the administrators that the conversions were not acceptable according to halacha. In effect, they went through high school thinking they were Jews like all their classmates only to discover – years later and often on the verge of marriage – that they were not considered Jewish. The tragedy is heart-wrenching, because these young men and women are pure innocents. But there are halachic ramifications as well even while they are in school: Did the son of such a female convert lein in school? Was he motzi the audience with his Chazarat Hashatz? Did he count for the minyan?

Take a more tragic example: what if a young girl, child of a non-Orthodox converted mother, meets and falls in love with a male classmate (perhaps, her chavruta in Gemara class), and that young man is a kohen? What would have been a beautiful relationship is now marred forever and their life plans have to be altered. Perhaps, G-d forbid, the couple might then even turn away from Torah observance entirely because the young woman in question also needs to convert according to halacha, but now cannot marry this young kohen. Is the unequivocal acceptance of non-Orthodox converts and their children the norm in these schools? Is any attempt made to have them – if possible – convert according to halacha? I wonder.

On some level, the policy makes internal sense. For a day school appealing for non-Orthodox students in a very competitive climate, questioning the legitimacy of non-Orthodox conversions would be a turn-off to parents – just like denying these girls their tefillin would displease future applicants as well.

But the bottom line is that the story here might not be at all about “Orthodox” girls wearing tefillin but about non-Orthodox children seeking an accommodation of their religious practices, and about day school principals reluctant to insist on adherence to Torah standards. And that is the opposite of courage.

The Uses of Violence

Much of the Jewish world unleashed a torrent of invective denouncing the recent violence at the Kotel. A few weeks ago on Rosh Chodesh Sivan, the self-ordained “Women of the Wall,” as is their wont, arrived to breach the traditional customs of that holy site and were greeted by thousands of young women who had already taken their place in the Kotel plaza. The NY Times reported – grossly inaccurately – that the women were met by thousands of “protesters” who violently tried to prevent their prayers, all of which required police intercession. In truth, as numerous eye witnesses testified and video accounts verify, the “thousands” were praying silently even as roughly two dozen male hooligans engaged in the “violence:” chanting, the pouring of water and the throwing of some plastic chairs.
The males were dressed in the black garb of Haredim, and therefore this event became a “Haredi” attack on the women. A few points need to be made. Clearly, Jews have a low threshold for what is considered “violence.” In a world in which Muslims just in the last month set off bombs in Boston that killed and maimed innocent people, in which two Muslims accosted and beheaded a British soldier on the streets of London, and in which Muslims across the world – Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria and elsewhere – are brutally killing other Muslims and Christians, it seems overwrought, to say the least, to use the word “violence” for them and for what is the present equivalent of a schoolyard spat.
Additionally, one prominent Modern Orthodox rabbi in NYC took the opportunity on Shavuot day to decry the events at the Kotel, speak of achdut (unity) as the heart of Kabalat HaTorah, and then lambaste the “Haredim” for the violence at the Kotel. Suffice it to say, he would never blame “Muslims” for the violence of Muslims but speak of radicals, extremists, Islamists and other euphemisms. It is strange how “unity” for some is a one-way cul de sac. All Haredim apparently are responsible for the work of a handful in a way that he would never, ever, suggest that all Muslims are responsible for the violence of their “handful,” or two handfuls.
The reaction at the Kotel to the provocation of the women was beautiful and spirited. Thousands of women and young girls who lack any grievance against the Torah and actually love the Torah came to the Kotel early to pray. They dwarfed in size the number of provocateurs which barely registered 100 souls. The plaza held thousands more Jews praying that morning; 99.9% of the people were engaged in no violent acts at all, even of the mild variety committed. It should have been a non-story. The Kotel functions with a Rabbi who makes spiritual decisions; no one has any more right to impose their forms of worship on the Kotel as they do in Teaneck. More deference should be paid to those multitudes who come daily and conform to the norms of the place than those who come monthly and deviate from those norms. The Women were frustrated. Period.
Let me be clear that I also denounce the violence, as I do the provocations. Here are the problems with said violence: it is against the Torah, it is immoral, it is wrong, it desecrates the holy place, and it is counterproductive. And so that became the story –not the outpouring of genuine prayer on the part of the overwhelming number of Jews who love the Mesorah and find no fault with it but the catcalls of those few ruffians.
But here’s another problem with violence: it works, especially in the Middle East.
Arab terror in Israel for the last 45 years, going back to the era when they began hijacking planes, has succeeded in gaining them near statehood in the land of Israel and international support and acclaim for their cause (much of that, of course, because opposition to them carries with it the implicit threat of violence). Every new act of violence brings calls for more Israeli concessions. Arab terror internationally has provoked a wave of sympathy for their causes, and they are successfully infiltrating European capitals and exercising dominion there. The Left regularly blames America and the West for provoking the violence, and that violence has forced Americans, for example, to invent new words – Islamists – to describe the perpetrators rather than run afoul of the perpetrators and their supporters and trigger new violence. One can’t even say that Muslims have a problem with violence – even after the savagery in London and 50 years of evidence – for fear that aggrieved Muslims will retaliate with violence, which sort of proves the point. Every new attack or bombing fuels the strain in American politics that either blames America first and/or wants to withdraw from the world entirely.
Bashar Assad remains in power because he is violent; Hosni Mubarak – no saint – fell from power because he did not attack his own people in a sustained and deadly way. These lessons are lost on no one in the Middle East.
Indeed, the threat of violence is even better than violence itself. Jews are kept from praying on the Temple Mount because of “Arab sensitivities,” i.e., the threat of Arab riots if they do. MK Moshe Feiglin himself was barred from the Temple Mount because of the threat of Arab riots, despite his parliamentary immunity. The Bedouin in Israel’s Negev are running rampant, seizing land and harassing Jews with little official response except meek acquiescence because there is an explicit threat of violence (and already, numerous real life examples of thuggery) if they are restrained in any way. Illegal Arab construction in the Galil is left unchecked because the threat of violence intimidates government officials and the police. In the face of Muslim extremism, pusillanimity is the norm of Western governments. Threats work. It is easier to allow lawlessness than to use force to protect the law and the rights of victims; it is even easier then to enforce the law only against Jews whose notion of “violence” (!) is pouring water, throwing paint, and usually just sitting down. Remember Gush Katif – the fears, the hype and the reality.
A little passion in defense of religious rights is good, although it can often go awry. Jews have such an aversion to violence that we allow desecrations to take place rather than respond vigorously, which is probably just as well. Just a few hundred yards from the Kotel – in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – riot police are always on duty, lest one of the Christian groups vying for control there move oner of their chairs three inches and provoke a holy war. Muslims defend their religious principles…well, we know what they do, and most often to each other. If a Jew steps onto the Temple Mount carrying a prayer book, Muslims claim he is trying to undermine Al-Aksa and call for protests and riots. Would a Haredi threat of violence be more effective than violence itself? Would the police then tell the women, as they do to Jews on the Temple Mount, we cannot allow your activities because of the “threat to public order” they will cause? Of course not, because a Jewish threat of violence is never credible, and the wave of condemnations for the sporadic violence that does occur is so universal that it undermines whatever cause the lout is espousing.
Jews use words rather than acts to express anger. That is why events such as this engender paroxysms of platitudes from Jewish officialdom, a cascade of clichés that can drown out both clear thinking and right-minded action. For all the blather about settler violence, there is actually very little violence relative to the threats and the provocations of the Arabs – constant stone-throwing, shootings, the seizure of crops and the burning of property, and the occasional mass terrorist attack. Any Jewish response is suspect; Jews are often arrested for self-defense and the burden of proof is on them to prove their innocence. Why? Because the Arab threat of violence trumps Jewish rights. But using words has limited effect in the climate in which they operate.
Over a decade ago, during the height of the civil war for the land of Israel then raging, with the horrific terror that was persistent and lethal, I was asked to sign a proclamation of local clergy and politicians denouncing “hatred and violence” in all its forms. It was – still is – a fairly typical liberal response to crisis: pass a resolution or a law (and if a law exists, pass a duplicate law – see Obama response to the persecution of Fox News’ James Rosen). I refused to sign, saying that “hatred of evil is good, not bad, and violence in self-defense is a virtue, not a vice.” To equate all forms of hatred and violence is wrong and immoral, and such a resolution was therefore meaningless claptrap. I still remember the dozens of scowls directed my way. The proclamation was never promulgated, and that particular bubble was burst. This squeamishness about violence is irrational, and frankly, does not emanate from Jewish values.
Nevertheless, it is also true that Jewish “violence,” such as it is and especially the Kotel affair, is not carried out by the dedicated, spirited, zealous and pious Jew who is offended by the cheapening of the Torah – but by young people who are just drawn to violence. It is a way to expend their aggressive energy in a way they think is kosher but is not. And had they not acted out, they would not have provided the pretext to the media to miss the real story – the profound expression of love of God and faith by thousands of pious women who love the Torah, not feminism.
To call the Rosh Chodesh event a “horrific riot,” as that senior Modern Orthodox rabbi did, inflames passions and serves an agenda, but hardly accords with reality. We should save the hyperbole – especially the word “horrific” – for savage beheadings and suicide bombings and not for the throwing of plastic chairs. Violence at the Kotel in this context is sinful and detrimental, strengthens the women’s cause, and provides a forum for polemicists and sermonizers to distract people from the real issues. Indeed, violence has many uses, for perpetrators and responders.
But we should recall as well that, lamentable as it is at times, violence will be with us until the day when all men will “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.”
Let us hope that day comes soon, because within a very short time, few people will actually still be using plowshares and pruning hooks.

The Three-Ply Cord

King Solomon stated in his wisdom “Two are better than one, for they get a greater return for their effort.” But three are even better, “for the three-ply cord is not easily severed” (Kohelet 4:9,12). The Midrash (Kohelet Raba 4) interprets this as applicable to family continuity: “R. Zi’era said that a family of scholars will produce scholars, and a family of Bnai Torah will produce Bnai Torah, and wealth will beget wealth, ‘for the three-ply cord is not easily severed.’” One sage asked: didn’t a well known family lose their wealth? To which R. Zi’era responded: “Did I say ‘the three-ply cord is never severed?’ I said “for the three-ply cord is not easily severed.”  But why should a three-ply cord – tough and durable – ever be severed?

A new unpublished study recently brought to my attention has challenging implications for the Torah world – to wit, that 50% of the graduates of Modern Orthodox high schools are no longer Shabbat or Kashrut observant within two years of their graduation. Another study from last year reported the not-quite-shocking news that 25% of those graduates who attend secular colleges assimilate during college and completely abandon Torah and mitzvot.

Those are frightening statistics that should cause us all to shudder. Perhaps the numbers are less dire than they seem on the surface. For sure, a not-insignificant percentage of students enter those high schools already lacking in Shabbat observance – their families are not observant – and they leave the same way. Other teens already fall off the derech while in high school – a more exacting study would measure their observance level at graduation and then two years later. But, undoubtedly, many slide off the path of Torah as soon as they gain a modicum of autonomy. Just as certain, there are some who return to Torah years later as well.

What are we missing? What are we lacking? What are we failing to provide them after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars per child on their Jewish education? What is going wrong? And how can it be rectified?

It needs to be stated that parents who look to blame the schools, the shuls, the youth groups, the Rabbis, the teachers, and/or the greater community are looking in the wrong place. They should start by looking in the mirror. That should be obvious, because parents have the primary obligation of educating their children – “you shall teach [these words] to your children to speak of them…” (Devarim 11:19). Even if parents delegate this task, they still remain primarily responsible. And of course, the general disclaimer always pertains in these matters: there are perfect parents whose kids go off the derech and horrendous parents (absolute scoundrels) whose children are righteous and scholarly. Even such illustrious people as Yitzchak and Rivka produced one of each – a tzadik and a scoundrel. There is no panacea, and we can only talk about the majority. There will always be exceptions.

To me, it all goes back to basics – not just what the parents say, but what parents say and do. The “chut hameshulash” – the “three-ply cord” of our world is Torah study, prayer and Shabbat – and in no particular order. Children who see their parents prioritize shul – not once or twice a week, but every day – see shul as a value. Children who see their parents attend shul once a week and primarily socialize and converse while there see shul as a place to meet their friends. When older, they can just bypass the middleman and just go straight to their friends.

Similarly, children who see parents learning Torah during their leisure time perceive learning as a value. Children whose Shabbat is different than the other days of the week – the Shabbat table is different, the conversation is laden with talk of Torah, ideas, values, and zemirot instead of idle chitchat, sports, and gossip – experience a different Shabbat. It’s just a different day. When Shabbat is not observed as a different day, it stops being a different day.

I have noticed that there are teens who simply do not daven – they will converse the whole time – and invariably they are the children of fathers who themselves don’t stop talking in shul. Children who roam the halls of the synagogue Shabbat morning are invariably the offspring of parents who roam the halls. Like father, like son.

And something else: too many teenagers have absolutely no concept of “Bigdei Shabbat” – the obligation to wear special clothing on Shabbat. I am not even referring to wearing ties and jackets, although that is clearly perceived as dignified dress in America. Many teens come to shul dressed in weekday clothing but even on the lower end of what might be called “school casual.” How do parents not impress on their children from their earliest youth with the idea of “Shabbat clothing?” That is part of what makes Shabbat different. Every child – girl or boy – should have clothing specially designated for Shabbat, ideally a jacket and tie for boys and a nice dress for girls. At age five, I put on a suit and tie for Shabbat, and never looked back. How are children allowed to leave the house on Shabbat as if it is a Sunday – whether it is to attend shul in the morning or meet their friends in the afternoon?

Are we then surprised when Shabbat for them becomes “not Shabbat”? Their whole experience of Shabbat is being told what they can’t do, incarcerated for two hours in the morning in a place where they don’t want to be, to then eat a meal that might be devoid of spiritual substance, the day salvaged only when they meet their friends who have had similar experiences. But if Shabbat is not a different day, then apparently the moment the child gains his independence, or a moment or two after that, his Shabbat becomes Saturday, which, combined with Sunday and Friday night, makes for a long, fun and enjoyable weekend. The fifteen year old who walks around the streets Shabbat afternoon in shorts and sneakers will likely not be observing Shabbat when he is twenty. But no one will make the connection then – so make it now.

“For the three-ply cord is not easily severed.” The three-ply cord of Torah, tefila and Shabbat is not easily undone. The survey is not as surprising as is the persistent reluctance to draw the obvious conclusions and instead cast a wide net looking for the suspects. George Orwell famously wrote that “to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” The good news is that we need not look very far for solutions. If the parent wants the child to learn Torah, then the parent should learn Torah. If the parent wants the child to daven, then the parent should daven. If the parent wants the child to enjoy Shabbat as a holy, special day, then the parent should make Shabbat into a holy, special day.

Perhaps there is an even more important idea. The Midrash (ibid) also states: “two are better than one – that is, a man and his wife who are better than each alone, but the ‘third cord’ (that fortifies the first two) is G-d who provides them with children.”

Parents have to convey to their children beginning in infancy a sense of G-d’s immanence, a sense of the godly in life, and a Jewish identity that is rooted in the Torah that Moshe commanded us. Children should be inculcated beginning in infancy that what they do matters before G-d, and that mitzvot are not just performances but points of connection to the Creator. When parents enlist G-d in their parenting – not as the Source of all guilt and dire punishment, but as the Source of “the heritage of the congregation of Yaakov,” then “the three-ply cord is not easily severed.”  Anything can happen. There are no guarantees in life, and each person is endowed with free choice. But “the three-ply cord is not easily severed.”

We must reduce our expectations to the simple – what we want for our children, our greatest priority – is the summation of our lives: not that they should necessarily attend Columbia, Harvard or Yale, or become doctors, lawyers, rabbis, or businessmen, but rather “the sum of the matter, when all has been considered, is to fear G-d and keep His commandments…” (Kohelet 12:13). When we speak with pride not of “my son the doctor” or “my daughter the lawyer” but find our true pride in “my son the G-d-fearing Jew” and “my daughter the Shomeret Mitzvot,” then we and they will be prepared for the great era ahead, when G-d’s name will be made great and exalted before the nations.

 

The Costume

    Consider the absurdity of the following statement: “I know an Orthodox Jew who works on Shabbat, eats pork regularly, never wears tefillin or prays or learns Torah, is unfaithful to his/her spouse, walks bare-headed in public, or eats on Yom Kippur.” One would rightfully ask, what is it that makes that person an Orthodox Jew?

Yet, we occasionally read these days of “Orthodox” Jews who molest, steal, rob, murder, assault, spit and curse at women and little children, set fire to businesses they disfavor for one reason or another, eschew self-support, brawl, intimidate and terrorize other Jews, or are otherwise genuinely disagreeable people. So what is it that makes those people “Orthodox,” or, even holier in the public mind, “ultra-Orthodox”?

The costume they wear.

It is a mistake that is made not only by a hostile media but also by the Jewish public, including the religious Jewish public. To our detriment, we define people by their costumes – e.g., long black coats, white shirts, beards and sometimes peyot – and we ourselves create expectations of conduct based on the costume that is being worn, as if the costume necessarily penetrates to the core of the individual and can somehow mold his character and classify his spiritual state – as if the costume really means anything at all.

If the events in Bet Shemesh or elsewhere in Israel rectify that mistake once and for all, some unanticipated good would have emerged from the contentiousness.

This is more than simply stating that any “Orthodox” Jew who sins is by definition not an “Orthodox Jew.” In truth, that statement is flawed and illogical, because all people sin; the truly “Orthodox” Jew might be one of the few who still actually believe in sin – stumbling before the divine mandate – and still seek to eradicate it by perfecting himself and struggling with his nature.

But the Torah Jew is defined by a core set of beliefs, principles and religious practices. One who subscribes to that core set is Orthodox notwithstanding any personal failings he has, failings which according to the Torah he must strive to reduce and diminish. No Jew – Rabbi or layman – is allowed to carve for himself exemptions from any mitzva. That is why deviations like the female rabbi, the dilution of the bans on homosexuality, the purported officiation by an “Orthodox” rabbi at a same-sex wedding, the relentless search for obscure leniencies in order to rationalize improper conduct, and other such anomalies drew such swift and heated reactions from the mainstream Orthodox world. The violent and criminal excesses in Israel have drawn similar rebukes but the thought still lingers: why do we even expect decorous and appropriate conduct from people who are perceived as thugs even within their own community, and who have literally threatened with violence some who would criticize them publicly? Because of the costume they wear.

Many of the brutes of Bet Shemesh have been widely identified as part of the sect known as Toldos Aharon (Reb Arele’s Chasidim).* The thumbnail sketch by which they are known always includes the declaration that they “deny the legitimacy of the State of Israel,” which in today’s world should be – and largely is – identical to being a member of the Flat Earth Society. They are “devoted to the study of Torah,” reputedly. Really ? What is the nature of their Torah study ? Are they Brisker thinkers, analytical and questioning, or are they more akin to another Chasidic sect, whose rebbe famously discouraged learning Torah b’iyun (in depth) because he claimed such distances the student from Divine service ? (That rebbi preferred a superficial and speedy reading of the words of the Gemara as the ideal form of Talmud Torah. And it shows.)

But what most identifies Toldos Aharon is…their costume. This, from Wikipedia: “In Jerusalem, married men wear white and grey “Zebra” coats during the week and golden bekishes/Caftan (coats) on Shabbos. Toldos Aharon and Toldos Avrohom Yitzchok are the only groups where boys aged 13 and older (bar mitzvah) wear the golden coat and a shtreimel, as married men do; however, married men can be differentiated by their white socks, while the unmarried boys wear black socks. In other Hasidic groups, only married men wear a shtreimel. All boys and men wear a traditional Jerusalemite white yarmulke. Unmarried boys wear a regular black coat with attached belt on weekdays, unlike the married men, who wear the “Zebra” style coat.

Does any of this sartorial splendor have the slightest connection to Torah, to Orthodoxy, to living a complete Jewish life, to true divine service ? Memo to real world: there is no such concept as authentic Jewish dress. The Gemara (Shabbat 113a) states that Rav Yochanan would call his clothing “the things that honor me” (mechabduti) – but the Gemara does not see fit to even describe his clothing in the slightest fashion. Jewish dress is dignified and distinguished, clean and neat.  We are especially obligated to wear special and beautiful clothing throughout Shabbat (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 262:2-3). But beyond the tzitzit and the kippa for men, and modesty for all, there is no such thing as Jewish dress, the prevalence of contrary popular opinion notwithstanding. We are never told what Moshe, Ezra, Rabbi Akiva or the Rambam wore, and we are informed that one reason the Jews merited redemption from Egyptian because “they did not change their garb” (i.e., they did not adopt Egyptian styles) – but we are never informed what kind of clothing they did wear. Why ? Because it doesn’t matter one whit.

A sect that obsesses so much on clothing that it distinguishes the married and the unmarried by the type of socks they wear, and insists that everyone wear the same two coats, is not practicing a form of Judaism, in that respect, that is either traditional or brings honor and glory to the Creator. It is a practice that is not designed to induce others to gush about what a “wise and understanding people” we are. They are rather fabricating artificial distinctions between Jews – likely in order to foster cohesion within their small group, ward off outsiders, and better exercise mind control over their adherents. It is no wonder that such a group is not responsive to any known Rabbinic authority – not even the Edah HaChareidis – nor is it any surprise that the sect’s deviations from Judaism can be so repugnant to all Jews and all civilized people.  Surely there is more to prepare for in marriage than simply the acquisition of different color socks.

One can search in vain the Torah, the Talmud, the Rambam, the Shulchan Aruch and the classic works of our modern era for any guidelines similar to what appears above. If these hooligans wore modern garb, we would not hesitate for a moment to denounce them, to agonize over how it is they left the derech, over the failings of their parenting and education, and probably over the high cost of tuition and the toll joblessness is taking on the Jewish family. That the reaction of many to this criminal behavior is less shrill is attributable to but one cause: the costume. For some odd reason, we expect more.

We assume the costume mandates fidelity to halacha and engenders considerate and refined conduct. It doesn’t. It is unrelated. It is irrelevant to spirituality. It says nothing – nothing – about a person’s religiosity. I have dealt several times with conversion candidates who insisted on wearing Chasidic dress – who had beards, peyot, long black coats, white shirts, would never wear a tie, and wouldn’t even hold from the eruv – but they were still non-Jews. In the shuls where they davened while studying for conversion, members wondered why these frum-looking men never accepted kibbudim (honors). They didn’t, for one reason: they were not yet Jews. They just thought they were wearing the costume of Jews.

All the lamenting and hand-wringing is partially warranted, and partially misplaced. Partially warranted because we have for too long tolerated discourteous, larcenous and vicious conduct among people who self-identify because of their “dress” as religious Jews – the consistent rudeness, the unseemly “bargaining” that occurs when a bill is due, and, as one extreme example, the recent arson at Manny’s. (Manny’s is a popular religious book store in Me’ah She’arim that carried a great variety of sefarim –  including mine – that was targeted by similar violent groups for carrying “disapproved books.” The store was set on fire a few months ago, and the owners largely caved to the pressure.) None of that is “Orthodox” behavior in the slightest. And it is partially misplaced because we play the game by their rules when we gauge people’s spiritual potential – or even spiritual level – based of the coat, hat, yarmulke, shoes, socks, shirt, pants or belt that they wear. It not only sounds insane, but it is insane, and it should be stopped. No one is more religious because he wears black or less religious because he wears blue or brown.

We would never consider people who habitually violate Shabbat, Kashrut, etc. as Orthodox. We should never consider people who are routinely brutal and abusive, or have disdain – even hatred – for all other Jews outside their small sect – as Orthodox either. They embrace certain Mitzvot and dismiss others, as well as ignore fundamental Jewish values. Certainly – traditional disclaimer – these goons are but a miniscule, atypical, unrepresentative, extremist, outlier group unrelated to the greater Charedi community that is only now awakening to the dangers within.

Nonetheless, even the greater community would benefit if they too began to de-emphasize the “costume” as at all meaningful or indicative of anything substantive. The Sages state (see Tosafot, Shabbat 49a) that the custom to wear tefilin the entire day lapsed because of the “deceivers.” (One who wore tefillin all day was reputed to be trustworthy, until the thieves learned that trick and used their “tefillin” to swindle others.) Those who reduce Judaism to externals necessarily exaggerate the importance of the costume, and naturally provoke those common misperceptions that cause the Ultra-Distorters to be deemed “Ultra-Orthodox.”

Would we make great progress in the maturation of the Jewish world if a blue suit occasionally appeared in the Charedi or Yeshivish wardrobe ? Perhaps. But we would certainly undo the inferences that attach to certain types of dress that leave many Orthodox Jews wrongly embarrassed and ashamed of the behavior of “people like us.” They are not like us. We must love them as we would any wayward Jew, and rebuke them as we would any wayward Jew. Even wayward Jews wear costumes.

Then we can promulgate the new fashion styles – the new uniform – of the Torah Jew, where beauty, righteousness and piety are determined by what is inside – not what is on the outside – by deeds and Torah commitment and not by appearances.

May we never again hear someone say that “X looks frum.” No one can “look” frum; one can only “be” frum, which itself is not as admirable as being erliche. That lack of sophistication is atrocious, embarrassing, and corrosive to Jewish life and distorts the Torah beyond recognition. We know better than that, and we are better than that. In a free society, anyone can dress exactly like others or unlike others if he so chooses. But it says nothing about their values, only about their identification with one group or another. We should stop trusting people simply because they don black coats, black hats, and wear beards – or, for that matter, kippot serugot. All are costumes. None convey any real truths about the real person.

The true measure of every Jew – and every person – is always within.

RSP- For another perspective on this issue, please read the following at: http://www.cross-currents.com/archives/2011/12/29/welcoming-the-charedi-spring/#ixzz1iP31ZbUB

*I have seen one report attributing the violence to Toldos Aharon adherents, and another that Toldos Aharon is uninvolved. If they are indeed uninvolved, then I retract the reference to them and apologize. – RSP