Dress in Judaism: Good or Evil?
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
Does clothing make one more religious, closer to God, or play any role in Torah life? Or, can it actually be damaging to the perfection of our people? To answer this question, we must refer to Torah sources, not popular Jewish behavior.
“This entire thing (the Torah) which I command you, it shall you guard to keep it, do not add on it, and do not detract from it (Deut. 13:1).”
God knows human nature. He knows Jews will attempt to overstep His boundaries by fabricating new “religious” mannerisms, appearances, and practices. Therefore, God restricted the alteration of His Torah laws. We must be vigilant not to add or detract from God’s 613 commands, or the rabbis’ laws. And nowhere do we find laws governing styles of clothing. Torah prohibitions regarding our garb are limited to cross dressing, immodest dress, and dressing in idolatrous ritual garb, or the clothing of their priests or ministers. But if a priest wears a polo shirt when golfing, this is not prohibited. Other than these three categories and the priestly garments, there are no laws concerning dress. To invent such practice is a violation of altering the Torah.
Samuel’s flaw was in valuing Eliav’s appearance. Based on his externals, Samuel felt Eliav was fit for the throne. But God rebuked Samuel:
“Do not look at his appearance or his height, for I have despised him. For man sees with his eyes, but God sees into the heart (I Samuel 16:6,7).”
It can be no clearer: God does not wish man to evaluate another based on appearances. Additionally, if even a prophet like Samuel can make this error, do not be surprised that lesser Jews today share this flaw. Additionally, the reason God did not inform Samuel of His selection of David before arriving at Jesse's home, was in fact to allow Samuel's misconstrued value to exhibit itself, so it might be addressed.
Tzafania 1:8 explains the wicked Jews whom God punished in that era. The verse states their sin was in wearing “strange garments.” Radak explains that those Jews intended to appear “more righteous than their fellow Jews.” Radak calls them evil. What was their sin? First, in dressing to express greater religiosity than others, man expresses arrogance, while the prophet Michah says we are to “walk humbly with God (6:8) .” In fact, dress has nothing to do with human perfection. Dressing to appear more religious elevates inconsequential matters. Such a person is completely ignorant of perfection and sin: these are internal matters of the soul and the psyche. Prioritizing dress also misleads others from the true Torah value of deeds and character, such as performing mitzvos, being honesty and humble, and performing kindness. A pedophile is not exonerated if he wears what is called “right wing” garb. Nor is a charitable man's charity disqualified by wearing a jogging suit. It is disturbing that it is needed to utter such obvious words, but our unfortunate skewed Jewish culture demands a rebuke.
At the end of his Guide, Maimonides describes the perfect man, and nowhere does he say this incorporates one’s clothing. He cites kindness to others as the mark of the righteous Jew. Throughout Tanach, we never find God praising a man or woman for selection of clothes. How absurd. God praised people for their acts of love, kindness, generosity, and educating others.
Today, certain Jewish groups find the need to display their identity in dress. This critique does not apply to all who present themselves in the following ways; some merely do so to be accepted in their communities, which is no sin. But, if by wearing a beard, black and white outfits, black hats or specific yarmulke fabrics, an individual intends to be more religious, then he/she is in error. And the masses are insecure, needing to classify others into fabricated Jewish stereotypes. Of course, both the individual and the masses are wrong: the wearer has become no more religious by wearing one yarmulke over the other. The masses have made themselves comfy through a baseless illusion that this person follows certain values, simply due to his yarmulke. Both parties are fooling themselves. Man is defined by his heart, and these Jewish groups would rather define a person by a costume. In truth, defining a person has no place in Jewish life, for we are commanded to love all others like ourselves, regardless of their clothing preferences.
If a school discriminates enrollment, or if one Jew treats another differently based on dress, they violate sinnas chinam, baseless hatred; they continue to create division within Jews, and they advance the erroneous opinion that closeness to God has anything to do with externals. How on earth can one person discern the merits and faults of another based on clothing? Preposterous. Torah teachers should teach Torah. They should expose this myth that dress plays any role is Jewish life, and instead, teach how irrelevant it is. Teachers themselves should demonstrate this in their own dress.
How much harm has this cultural discrimination caused in Jewish life? How many possible fine marriages have never been realized because Jews prioritize clothing style, instead of following God’s words to Samuel above? And what will you, the reader, do today to start correcting this far-reaching corruption? Will you support these misdirected values, or in anyway possible, will you teach and act so others may learn to dismiss irrelevant externals, and instead, foster greater ahavas Yisrael, love of other Jews?
In the end, clothing only impresses man; an attempt to gain petty peer approval. And approval for what, how one dresses? Is that how superficial Jews have become? However, we are commanded to impress God alone. Let us then adhere meticulously to His words and love our brothers and sisters regardless of this ridiculous and sinful value of dress. “Do not look at his appearance or his height, for I have despised him. For man sees with his eyes, but God sees into the heart (I Samuel 16:6,7).”