Fundamentally Freund: People of the look

Elevating the superficial and the petty to an exalted status.

michael freund 88 (photo credit: )
michael freund 88
(photo credit: )
Here are a couple of true stories taken straight from the "you can't make this stuff up" file. In a major European capital, a pair of Jewish parents was recently looking for a suitable match for their child. Hearing about a fine young prospect whose family came from a similar religious background, the parents were intrigued. They sought out additional information from friends and acquaintances and the results seemed promising. Promising, that is, until one fateful day when they learned the crushing truth: the other family did not always use white tablecloths at their Sabbath meals. Yes, you read that correctly. In light of this bombshell revelation, the parents immediately decided to drop the potential match. End of story. When I was done shaking my head in disbelief, I was then told another tale which is no less shocking for what it says about the current state of world Jewry. It too concerned a potential match which had been discarded, though not because of anything having to do with place mats or eating utensils. This time, the defining issue was whether or not the prospective groom's velvet yarmulke had a rim around its edges, which is said to indicate that he is more serious about Torah study. A rim. On a yarmulke. That, believe it or not, was a make-or-break subject in pursuing a match. HAVE WE lost our minds? Centuries ago, Machiavelli noted in The Prince how "the great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities, and are often more influenced by things that seem, than by those that are." That astute observation may be accurate, but that does not make it right. By over-emphasizing external symbols, such as the type of yarmulke on a person's head, we have unwittingly downgraded the significance of far more important matters, such as a person's character, values and personality. Worse yet, drawing these types of distinctions create new sub-categories of Jews: the rimmed vs. the un-rimmed, the white vs. the off-white tablecloth crowd. Do we really need more fault-lines of division among the Jewish people? Indeed, neither the Shulhan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), the Mishna Berura (one of its key commentaries), nor various other halachic works that I consulted speak of yarmulke rims or tablecloth colors. The sages were too wise to bother with such things. Rather, this seems to be some kind of insidious social phenomenon that has seeped into Jewish life, transforming our value system by elevating the superficial and the petty to an exalted status. As a result, many Jews have subtly gone from being the People of the Book to the People of the Look, placing more importance on symbols than on substance. In other words, it matters less if you are a mensch, just as long as you look like one. IN THIS sense, it brings to mind one of comedian Billy Crystal's most famous Saturday Night Live sketches, when he parodied a talk-show host named Fernando who was wont to declare: It is better to look good than to feel good. And my darling… You. Look. Marvelous. But the fact is that we don't look so marvelous when we reduce holiness to Hollywood-style superficiality. This trend, of course, is not confined to one sector of Jewry, but extends across the religious and ideological continuum, albeit in different ways. Among religious Zionists, for example, it has become expected in certain circles that one should wear a white shirt - and only a white shirt - on Shabbat, as though this too had been handed down at Sinai. Put on a soft-blue cotton, and you are consigning yourself to a certain category in many people's eyes. This kind of nonsense has got to stop. For in addition to sowing the seeds of division, it also creates a vast platform for hypocrisy, as people will inevitably "dress a part" that does not truly reflect who they are or how they live their lives. Rabbis, teachers and spiritual leaders therefore have a special responsibility to tackle this issue head-on, and to decry the increasing atomization of the Jewish people. We are too small and fragmented as it is, and there is no need to invent new reasons with which to divide us still further. In this regard, we would do well to recall a famous story about the Kotzker Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgenstern. In the middle of the 19th century, when the Russian Czar forbade Jews from wearing shtreimels (fur hats), a dispute broke out among the rabbis as to whether to abide by the decree or risk defying it. In the Kotzker study house, a heated argument broke out over the subject, leading the Rebbe to open the door from his room and ask what the commotion was all about. Told about the dispute, he is said to have forcefully declared: "The only Jewish clothes are the tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries)!!" - before shutting his door, thereby putting an end to the quarrel. Sure, human beings have a psychological need for uniforms of one sort or another. It makes us feel good to be part of a team, of a select group of people who have come together for a common purpose. But for those who are secure enough in their individuality and in their Jewish identity, being Jewish should be enough. No further demarcations should be necessary. Because labels, as they say, might belong on clothing, and even perhaps on tablecloths, but certainly not on people.