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From Priests to Maskilim - What does dress matter?

Dr. Frances Malino

Shabbat shalom!

It is an especially joyful Shabbat for me today for along with my Dorshei community I am also surrounded by members of my family.

As I read today’s parasha in preparation for my d’var, I smiled to myself.  My d’var comes a day after my birthday—often a time when memories of our parents come to mind.  And my mother—of this I have no doubt-- would have taken great delight in today’s Torah portion.  A woman of elegant taste, she designed and made most of her own clothing as well as mine.  Alas I did not share her interest in style and fabric, certainly not as an adolescent.   On the contrary, I preferred to play baseball or basketball at the end of the block and could barely stand still when, with her mouth full of straight pins, she fitted me with yet another beautiful outfit.  But here I am today, very much my mother’s daughter, exploring with you the significance of clothing and adornments—or to put it in today’s parlance, exploring the semiotics of dress.

I think you would all agree that we have virtually no knowledge of the fashion sense of the matriarchs or patriarchs.  Yet in Parashat Tetzaveh that we read today, we are treated to exacting details about the priestly garments and the ritual role Aaron and his sons are to perform as anointed priests.  We learn that the sacral vestments Aaron is to wear must include a breast piece—with Urim and Thummim inside, a robe, a gold frontlet inscribed Holy to the Lord, a fringed tunic, a headdress, a sash and linen breeches.  Each of the stones on the breastplate is named and each to be framed with gold in its mountings.  On the robe’s hem pomegranates and gold bells are to be placed “to make a sound when the High Priest enters and exits the sanctuary.”  The priests in their priestly garb were not merely to bring about holiness instrumentally but would personally posses it and
proclaim it in their whole appearance. 

“How glorious the priest was as he came out of the House of the curtain,” the scribe Ben Sira wrote.  “Like the morning star among the clouds, like the full moon at the festal season: like the sun shining on the Temple of the Most High, like the rainbow gleaming in splendid clouds.”  Nahmanides, whose home many of us visited on our recent trip to Spain, calls attention to the fact that the High Priest’s garments—made of gold, blue-purple and red-purple-- corresponded to the garments that monarchs wore when the Torah was given.  They were all symbolic of royalty.  (They are also one might add the direct antecedents of priestly garments worn in the Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches.)  The 20th century Rabbi, Gunter Plaut, reminds us that the Torah scroll itself is similarly embellished, dressed in an embroidered mantle and crowned by pomegranates and bells. 

But there is another side to all this fashion and beauty.  Clothing, Rabbi Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief Rabbi of Mandatory Palestine, tells us is a concession for human weakness.    “The Hebrew word begged (clothing) comes from the root “baggad” meaning to betray.  In the Garden of Eden, there was nothing wrong with being naked.  It was only after Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that they needed to hide behind clothes—a necessary but tragic betrayal of their natural purity.”  The same, Rabbi Kook argues, is true for the priestly garments.  “Each of the eight garments, the Sages taught, comes to atone for a particular transgression: arrogance, slander, improper thoughts etc.  Were it not for these sins, the kohanim would have no need for these special clothes.”

Rabbi Kook’s insights lead us to an important queston:  Why from the beginning of the Book of Exodus until the end of Deuteronomy is this the only Torah portion where the name of Moses does not appear?  For this, too, Rabbi Kook provides an answer.  Moses, he explains, was a “servant of God.”  This was not an honorific title, but a description of his very essence, regardless of what clothes he wore.  Thus Moses himself requested that his name be removed from the portion Tetzaveh, for he could perform the Divine service wearing only a seamless white robe.  (Having just seen the film The Two Popes, I could not help thinking of the sartorial contrast between Pope Francis, who decided to set aside the mozetta –the red and white elbow-length cape worn over the surplice-- and his predecessor Pope Benedict XVII)!

One final point before we shift—as no doubt those of you who know me well are expecting—into the realm of Jewish history.  It concerns the two jewel-encrusted bands on Aaron’s shoulders engraved with the names of the 12 tribes of Israel.  Worn “as stones for remembrance of the Israelite people,” they served to make Aaron aware of his personal responsibility.  When reading this, I thought of the recent conversation I had with some of my Dorshei friends who complimented me on the necklace I was wearing.  I had made it when a teenager living in Jerusalem and to my delight had rediscovered it when preparing for my recent move.  It consisted of a Maria Teresa coin—old but not from the 18th century as was she, and a delicate chain.  When asked about it, I went on to explain who Maria Teresa was and how the Yemenite Jews, who had used these coins for currency in Yemen, had brought them to Israel in the 1950’s.  Wearing my necklace, I explained, reminded me of my first trip to Israel, of the extraordinary journey of the Yemenite Jews, and of my history honor’s thesis in college.  Not so different perhaps from contemporary issues bracelets, worn to raise the awareness of others and to connect--as Rabbi Dorothy Richman suggests— what our eyes see with what fills the heart and hands.

What we wear then, as our parasha for today makes abundantly clear, matters for it becomes a message about who we are.  We can all I am sure recall times when we have felt constrained by the requirements of dress and rebellious of the message demanded of us.  I remember vividly the interview I had for my first teaching position.  It was in 1970 at a State university.  I was told that I must wear a dress or a skirt to work and that I could not wear slacks.  When I explained that all my skirts were mini skirts (thanks to my mother they were of beautiful material) and that I had no money to invest in a new wardrobe, the answer was that I should wear what I owned as long as it was not pants.  And so the first semester of my new job found me teaching—not in my conservative pant suits—but rather in mini skirts, hardly the message intended by the regulation or for that matter by me. 

Not surprisingly, dress plays a significant role in Jewish history.  The message, however, is not always positive.  On the contrary, the dignity of dress often gives way to the mark of dress, imposed on Jews as a message to themselves and those around them that they are inferior and deserving of stigmatization.  Let me share a few examples.

As early as the Umayyad Caliphate in the 8th century, special dress was required of Jews and other non-Muslims.  A genizah document from 1121 describes in detail the decrees issued in Baghdad:   “Two yellow badges are to be displayed, one on the headgear and one on the neck.  Furthermore, each Jew must hang round his neck a piece of lead with the word Dhimmi on it.  He also has to wear a belt round his waist.  The women have to wear one red and one black shoe and have a small bell on their necks or shoes.” Clothing would provide a visible mark of otherness ensuring there was no mistaking a Jew for a Muslim.

In Christian Europe, of course, it was otherwise.  Here both Jews and Muslims were to wear distinguishable dress.  The Fourth Lateran council headed by Pope Innocent III explained why this was necessary.  “It happens at times that through error Christians have relations with the women of Jews or Saracens, and Jews and Saracens with Christian women.  Therefore, that they may not, under pretext of error of this sort, excuse themselves in the future for the excesses of such prohibited intercourse, we decree that such Jews and Saracens of both sexes in every Christian province at all times shall be marked off in the eyes of the public from other peoples through the character of their dress.”

Less than a half century later Edward of England enacted the Statue of Jewry which included the following requirements:  “Each Jew, after he is seven years old, shall wear a distinguishing mark on his outer garment, that is to say, in the form of two Tables joined of yellow felt of the length of six inches and of the breadth of three inches.”  In 1555, Pope Paul IV decreed that all Jews should wear yellow hats.

Let me share with you yet one final case that illuminates not only the pervasiveness of marking the Jew but also how shifting fashions made necessary new symbols of classification.  It begins with a well-known art historian asking herself why in a fifteenth-century painting by Giovanni Bellini the Virgin Mary was depicted with pierced ears but without any earrings? Only after exploring the clothing and ornaments required of Jewish women living in Italy did Dianne Owen Hughes find the answer. 

What she discovered was a fifteenth -century law, originating in Bologna but subsequently common throughout Italy, which required Jewish women  “ to wear rings hanging from both ears which should be and remain uncovered and visible to all.” These earrings, a Franciscan preacher explained, were “jewels that Jewish women wear in place of circumcision, so that they can be distinguished from other women.”  The regulation was strictly enforced and Jewish women were prosecuted when they attempted to hide their earrings or go out without them.   In Ferrara, for example, a woman named Allegra was arrested for leaving her earrings at home as she attempted to conceal her Jewish identity.

Fifteenth century viewers would have had little difficulty understanding why Mary had pierced ears and no earrings.  She had been born a Jew—thus the holes. She was no longer—thus the absence of earrings.   A half century later, however, this message would have been lost.  For what was fashionable had changed and Christian women now wished to adorn their ears.  Soon earrings, albeit more delicate than the gaudy ones previously required of Jewish women, became the mark of a Christian woman.  Now, needless to say, the paintings of the Virgin Mary no longer featured pierced ears without earrings.   (Dr. Seuss’s  The Sneetches—those whose bellies had stars and those with none upon thars-- might come to mind at this point!). As for Jewish women living in Italy, the distinguishing sign became red overskirts also required of prostitutes for they, too, had to be distinguished from “honest” women. 

Just as racial distinctions speak volumes today, so, too, did distinctions of dress and ornament in the ancient, medieval and early modern period.  As the 18th century found many embracing the enlightenment, however, with its emphasis on a universal moral order and the rejection of time honored religious sanctions and separations, the mark of dress also came into disrepute.  Or rather, dress that challenged the old distinctions became fashionable.  Jews as well, of course, embraced the enlightenment.  Called the Haskalah in Hebrew, those who saw themselves as its advocates were known as Maskilim.  The Haskalah took a range of different forms—Western and East European, moderate and radical.   Not surprisingly, dress, among the most important tokens of identity, played a central role in the confrontation between the maskilim and their more traditional coreligionists. 

A noted moderate maskil, Mordechai Aaron Gunzburg, found himself caught between the two groups.  In one of his letters, he describes how he had to exchange his German clothes for Polish-Jewish garb every time he crossed into Lithuania and do the reverse when he returned to Courland in Germany.  Consequently he had to keep two complete sets of clothes in his trunk, in order, he wrote, “to survive among the members of different sects.”

Lest we underestimate what dress meant to Gunzburg and his generation, let me quote from an article he wrote in 1889:  “Clothes alone constitute the wall that divides Jew and Christian and makes them think the other a different species of man….It is not on this basis that a human society will arise.  But if the garments are alike, so, too, will the hearts be equal.”

We have seen in the few examples I have shared with you that from as early as Biblical times dress has mattered.  Indeed it has mattered a great deal.   But what about for us?  Does dress continue to inform our identity and that of those around us?  As different as our responses might be, I think we can all agree, that dress, as is so beautifully described in our parasha, can both remind us of the sanctity of the wearer and contribute to it.   It can also, however, in contrast to centuries past—and as it does so brilliantly in our own congregation-- honor the autonomy of the wearer.

Thu, March 23 2023 1 Nisan 5783