Haredi dress code

Open-mindedness to others’ clothing style as well as lifestyle is an explicit difference from fundamentalists’ approach.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
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.
Recently 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.
This 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 IDF.
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 neighborhood.
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 costs.
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.
The Lubavitcher Alter Rebbe, Shneur Zalman of Liadi, went to czarist jail because he refused to sign an endorsement of change in the dress code.
Rabbi Eliyahu 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.”
Macover 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 laws.
The dress code was a tool for easy identification of Jews.
Over the years, Jews embraced the originally imposed humiliating dress codes and actively fought any foreign enforcement to change them.
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 resistance.
Struggles over the administrative impositions were supported by the Maskilim –Western-educated Jews – but only hardened the religious hardcore.
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 congregations.
Interestingly, the first action of these new believers, who were not raised Jewish, was to grow beards and wear black hats and long black coats.
They mingled with young female students who exposed flesh provocatively.
Open-mindedness to others’ clothing style as well as lifestyle is an explicit difference from fundamentalists’ approach.
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 beards.
Uniformity of appearance is not limited to religious groups. Just an example –jeans and T-shirts became statements of lifestyle and group or even generational affiliation.
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 now.
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.
“All 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.
Veba 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.