Since the most recent election campaign, the debate on whether haredim should
adhere to the same rules, rights and responsibilities as all citizens of Israel
has been in the forefront of public attention and legislation.
the discourse took a violent turn when a haredi man dressed in IDF uniform was
attacked by haredi zealots in Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim neighborhood.
aggressive act is very symbolic.
At least three concepts that are core
principles to haredim were violated by this man’s passing through what they
perceive as their territory.
First, he shed his traditional outfit and
replaced it with the “disgusting-shameful” military uniform. In a society that
places so much weight on dress codes and appearances, this guy epitomized the
threat of forced or – even worse – voluntary enrollment in the
Second, this was a young haredi man who had transformed his identity
and way of life. Such a departure from tradition is not only a threat but a
blatant statement that the winds of change are blowing in the
Third, the first two indiscretions are unacceptable to
society and, as such, cannot be tolerated.
In search of reasons and
explanations for dress code wars, I read an illuminating book on the history of
Jewish dress in Europe, written by an Orthodox, knowledgeable and critical Bnei
Brak author – A. Macover.
A determining thread concerning “Jewish dress
code” is the insistence on clothing as identity, distinguishing the Jew from
gentiles, as well as adherence to “age-old tradition” at all
Differentiation from gentiles’ attire has been dealt with
extensively by Maimonides.
Resistance to a change of dress code was
shared by both hassidim and their Jewish Lithuanian adversaries.
Lubavitcher Alter Rebbe, Shneur Zalman of Liadi, went to czarist jail because he
refused to sign an endorsement of change in the dress code.
ben Shlomo Zalman Kremer, the Vilna Gaon, taught that for Jews forced to dress
as gentiles, it would “better to be killed and not comply.”
traces the establishment of distinguishing Jewish outfits to the 13th century,
in the context of distinguishing society’s classes, religious affiliations and
trade guilds according to their clothes.
The initial distinguishing dress
code was imposed on European Jews by the Catholic Church, aimed at stripping
them of human rights, humiliating them and imposing discriminatory
The dress code was a tool for easy identification of
Over the years, Jews embraced the originally imposed humiliating
dress codes and actively fought any foreign enforcement to change
During the 19th century, when Russians moved away from old outfits
to Western European fashions, imposing modernization on populations was a common
practice of regimes.
Efforts to assimilate and modernize Jews were
three-pronged: eliminating unique “Jewish outfits,” introducing local language
and general knowledge studies in religious learning institutes at all levels,
and instituting financial incentives for compliance as well penalties for
Struggles over the administrative impositions were supported
by the Maskilim –Western-educated Jews – but only hardened the religious
Will the outcome of the current “impositions” be similar? Two
approaches may point to a possible difference: The rabbi of Volozhin opined that
according to Jewish law, a dictate of the czar, and any country’s ruler, is
sanctified like, with all distinctions, a representation of the Almighty, with a
single requirement: Any order should be equal to all citizens and not
discriminatory targeting religious Jews.
Will our legislators take the
Volozhiner’s advice? Another telling approach is demonstrated by Chabad Hassidic
movement that underwent a substantial change since its founding leader. Chabad
rabbis in the US as well as in Israel are role models of accepting and embracing
any and all Jews by virtue of their being Jewish, no matter what their level of
observance or their fashion style. Especially the senior Chabad rabbi for
Buffalo and upstate New York, Rabbi Nossom Gurary, practiced genuine warm
acceptance of all Jewish shades of belief and practice. He was a magnet to new
immigrants from the Soviet Union who were snubbed by the local Reform
Interestingly, the first action of these new believers,
who were not raised Jewish, was to grow beards and wear black hats and long
They mingled with young female students who exposed flesh
Open-mindedness to others’ clothing style as well as
lifestyle is an explicit difference from fundamentalists’
Cherishing old-time tradition just by virtue of supposedly
being “old-time” is a common denominator of rigid fundamentalist sects. The
comparison and similarities between clothing style of haredi Jews and the Amish
in the US is striking. Both sanctify old European clothes and lifestyles and
glorify the ancient ways.
Muslim fundamentalists follow similar patterns.
Maintenance of, or return to, strict religious beliefs and lifestyle is
manifested first by wearing traditional outfits and growing
Uniformity of appearance is not limited to religious groups. Just
an example –jeans and T-shirts became statements of lifestyle and group or even
So what may authorities do? An interesting
example of a positive response is the story about the son of the founding rabbi
of Chabad who was caught in the street not dressed according to government
regulations (his yarmulke showed from underneath his hat). A policeman asked
him, in Russian, if he had paid the relevant tax. The young rabbi’s mastery of
Russian was far from adequate and he answered, “I am a rebel,” which in Russian
sounds similar to “I pay taxes.”
The policeman sensed the humorous aspect
of the situation, smiled and let the Jew go.
Lessons from that
interaction are abundant. The conflict would be avoided if the rabbi knew the
language of the land. By acting benevolently, the untrained law-enforcement man
did not escalate the encounter.
Can both, if not all, sides in Israel at
least start by improving communication? Respect and tolerance of the other seem
too tall an order at the current state of affairs, at best, it will take ages to
develop. Nonetheless, education – on both sides – should commence
Meanwhile, the law should be equal for all citizens of the land and
it should be equally enforced – with no pomposity or combative populist
speeches. For instance: “All 18-year-olds should enlist in the army, period.” No
ifs, buts or lengthy lists of exceptions and special groups.
children should be taught a core curriculum, period.” No political, religious or
financial exceptions and conditions.
“Civil rights, freedom of speech,
freedom of worship, freedom of lifestyle, etc. are core values.” No exceptions
targeting special groups for special laws.
Let the judicial system
determine violations and penalties that should be the same for all.
lezion goel! May a redeemer (whatever his/her identity is and whatever shape
he/she assumes) come to our land!
The writer is chairman of the WPA Section on
Interdisciplinary Collaboration, chairman of PEMRN and professor and director of
BioBehavioral Research in SUNY-AB. He is currently a Fulbright scholar for MENA
regional studies. The opinions expressed here are his own, and do not reflect
and are not endorsed by the Fulbright Program or any other US agency.