Clothing is on my mind. Not because I’m a superficial person, but because fabric art has been featured in the last five weekly Torah readings. Uniquely dyed wools – sky-blue, royal purple, and earthworm red – house God’s presence in the mishkan (sanctuary). Fine designers bring to life the High Priest’s sophisticated “layered look,” complete with jeweled accessories. All priests must wear linen underwear, lest they die.
Clothing worn during holy service must be chosen consciously: that is the principle. Why? Torah itself does not explain, but interpreters do. Spiritual facilitators should physically feel God’s being. Priests need physical protection from God’s powerful presence. Leaders should be adorned with articles made in the community. Priests don a persona not their own as they step into a role. Attractive visuals enhance religious ritual.
When I, a female congregational rabbi, dress for holy service, I keep these ideas in mind.
Spiritual facilitators should physically feel God’s being. Hat, yes. Donning a hat is part of my daily spiritual practice. I synchronize my action with the traditional morning blessing, ”oter Yisrael b’’ifarah”: Thank you God; you crown your people with splendor. My hat reminds me that I intend to remain a “God-person,” i.e., spiritually aware, all day. And that “splendor,” i.e. health and inspiration, are special gifts. If I receive them today, I will put them to good use.
Priests need physical protection from God’s powerful presence. Modesty, yes. No cleavage. No short skirts. No bare shoulders. As a clergy person, I accompany people through sensitive transitions, tinged with God’s luminous or terrible presence. My companionship can evoke powerful memories, emotions, reflections. Sometimes it feels as though God arises and envelops our interaction; those times, though beautiful, are exhausting. Juggling complicated associations with romance or sex would be even more exhausting. So I try, in behavior and dress, not to evoke them.
Leaders should be adorned by articles made by members of the community. Talit, yes. I wear a beautiful one made by a woman artist who attends our synagogue. Following a popular traditional design, my talit has stripes and a special collar with Hebrew words. But the stripes are embroidered flowers and the collar is decorated with coloured beads. The inspirational Hebrew words connect priestly service with women’s work: v’chibes begadav hacohen (“the priest shall launder his clothing,” Numbers 19:7).
Priests don a persona not their own as they step into a religious role. Yes, and no. I cannot fully adopt an alien persona. So, tefillin, no. I do not regularly wear tefillin on weekday mornings, though I know from experience how powerful the practice can be. Honestly, it’s a bit of a personal protest for me. Some people insist that in order to be a rabbi, a woman must fulfill a man’s traditional time-bound mitzvot, including laying tefillin. This makes no sense to me; it suggests that, to be authentic, I have to behave like a man. Why can’t I just be scrupulous about fulfilling the traditional women’s mitzvot?
Attractive visuals enhance religious ritual. “How you dress is a reflection of your personal brand,” said Troy Alexander in The New York Times. Yes, personal style. Mine is feminine, west coast, eclectic, artsy, purple, comfortable, weather-adjusted, and carefully selected for my size and shape. Each day, I consciously assemble disparate elements into a coordinated outfit. Life is ambiguous and filled with unexpected surprises. Dressing myself with creative order helps ground me as I start the day. Reliable yet flexible structure is a gift I bring to religious ritual.
Beginning female clergy worry when congregants judge their clothing. Over the years, however, I have adopted a different approach. Congregants can talk about my clothing all they want; I do not take it to heart. They also talk about my sermons, my classes, my children, and how many cats I’m rescuing this week. They talk because they are interested in the synagogue and its people. I trust them not to cross the line into lashon hara (destructive gossip); if a genuine issue arises, I expect them to speak directly with me. We might even end up talking Torah!
Modest dressing — what does it mean for a woman? Many religious communities have strict rules about what a woman should wear and how much of her body can show. Look at examples in the Muslim, Orthodox Jewish, Mormon, and strict Christian denominations.
This is an issue I have often struggled with. On one hand, I am a liberal Jewish feminist woman who firmly believes that a woman should have the freedom to dress as she pleases. If that means wearing short skirts, and exposing cleavage, then OK. However, my principles get tested quite often. Last Shabbat I watched a young teenage girl walk in to synagogue to attend a friend’s bat mitzvah wearing 5 inch heels and a skirt that was so short you could almost see her underwear when she walked. This outfit was not OK. I was horrified that this girl’s mother let her leave the house that way. I wanted to lecture her on the holiness of her body and ask her to change.
And… I was amused by my own reaction to her outfit. Rationally I know that she was copying a look she sees on TV and magazines. She had internalized some message that this look is attractive, and she wanted to be attractive. Yet, she was also sexualizing herself in a way that was not appropriate for her age, and the occasion she was attending.
Where is the balance between dressing to feel attractive and dressing to convey a sense of respect for your body? Who determines this balance? Is it totally subjective or not?
How we dress conveys messages to the people around us. My seven year old daughter has already picked this up. She has divided the girls in her first grade class in to “girly girls” who wear a lot of pink, “tomboys” who dress more like boys, and “cool girls” who wear black. She wants to define herself as a cool girl, and black instead of pink has become her color of choice.
Clinton and Stacy, the style gurus on TLC’s program What Not to Wear work with women on each episode to find a style of dress that sends the particular message the wearer wants to send. In some cases they encourage a woman to wear more reveling clothes. In other cases, they encourage a woman to cover up, and show her sexiness without letting it all hang out. In all cases they choose clothes which are generally more sophisticated that the woman was wearing before, and the end result is a woman who looks put together and in control of her life. I find it fascinating that Clinton and Stacy always seem to find this elusive balance between dressing a woman to be attractive and respecting her body. Somehow they have discovered some objective rules for a balanced way to dress, yet these rules are applied subjectively with each different woman they encounter.
I am an avid fan of the show because I want to be able to ferret out these rules to use on myself and to teach my daughter about how to dress. I want both of us to send the message that we are strong confident women who are comfortable with our bodies.
Issues of modesty, body image, and self confidence have all gotten rolled together. This is a difficult ball to unwind. Finding the balance may just mean applying some objective rules subjectively. A skirt should cover most of a woman’s thighs, how much is “appropriate” depends on the particular woman, her body type, and the event she is attending. A top could dip lower for social occasions, but not for work. And exactly how low depends on the size of a woman’s chest.
In the end, the women are free to dress how they like side of me is horrified that I would apply any rules at all to women’s dress. However, the practical women must wear power clothes to look their best, and it is not about their bodies, side of me acknowledges that some rules are necessary to achieve a self confident, powerful, put together image in today’s world.
I will continue to struggle to find the right balance between these views.