Sunday, August 28, 2011

Chitzonius - Do Clothes Make the Man?

We know that our Hashkafos are different. Charedim and Modern Orthodox Jews have different ways of approaching the Torah. In a nutshell the former rejects modernity except where absolutely necessary and the latter embraces it where it does not conflict with Halacha.

There are many other differences but I think that in terms of lifestyle this is what defines us. I have no quarrel with the Charedi Hashkafos. Just because I have a different outlook I certainly find their views acceptable. But the reverse is not true. They do not accept us. And I believe that they go to great lengths to keep us separate and apart.

One of the ways they achieve this is through their insistence on a certain look. The de rigueur dress code for Charedim these days is what is called the ‘black hat’ look. This look is comprised of wearing dark dress slacks and a white shirt at all times and a black hat and suit type jacket for prayer. This look is so entrenched that many Charedi elementary schools require their 8th graders to wear the look. These young students are led to believe that it has always been like this.

But it wasn’t always like this. As recently as the early sixties when I was in Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland, none of the high school students looked like that. They looked like any other young teenagers of that era – plaid shirts, flannel shirts, colored shirts, pull-over type shirts... were the order of the day. Blue Jeans were not allowed but wash pants were. Hats and jackets were required for prayer – but they did not require the black felt fedoras and suit type jackets that are universally required today. Jackets were a mix of suit type jackets and casual type jackets (e.g. ‘members only’ style jackets or even leather jackets) and hats could be a cap – even a baseball cap. In my day there were few students who wore their tzitzis out. And the only students who had peyos were the few Chasidim that were in the Yeshiva. None of the rest of us did.

If one goes back further in time one will see amazing pictures of what the Yeshiva world looked like. And as can clearly be seen by these photos there were no peyos on these rabbinic leaders. They looked – well – normal.

The question is why? What happened? Why the change? Why the uniform? What motivated the current fashion trend? Why was it OK for the famed Lakewood Rosh HaYeshiva, Rav Shneur Kotler (pictured above) to look like he did when he attended the Chevron Yeshiva in Israel? Or to look like Rav Aharon Leib Shteineman did as a young man? Charedi publications rarely if ever publish pictures like this. They need to protect the current image - as though this is how it has always been.

I can only speculate but here is my theory. There are two reasons. One is the influence of Chasidim on the Yeshiva world. Whereas in the Europe of the past the two communities were separate and distinct – for the most part living in different areas – today there is integration. And with integration comes influence.

The dress of Chasidim always looked different and distinctive. They clearly wanted to completely separate themselves from the rest of the world so they did everything they could to isolate themselves from it – including dressing radically different. They wanted a distinctively ‘Jewish look’. Although I doubt there is anything intrinsically Jewish about their clothing - much of it borrowed from the style of clothing worn by the Polish nobility of old - they succeeded in looking nothing like the rest of the world does now.

The Yeshiva world looked at that and adopted the idea of a distinctive look, But in its desire to maintain a separate look from Chasidm they have instead chosen a look that is at its base modern (suit and tie) but yet different enough to separate themselves from the rest of Orthodoxy.

It used to be enough to just wear a Kipa in public. But now a Kipa is not enough of a difference for them. Modern Orthodox Jews wear a Kipa. Even some Conservative Jews and Reform rabbis now wear a one. Charedim do not want to be perceived in any of those categories.

With the move to the right going on along the entire spectrum of Judaism – Orthodoxy is certainly no less immune to such moves. As the look of the modern Orthodox students started to look more like the Charedi students – Charedim needed to do more to separate themselves and have gradually changed their appearance into the ‘black hat’ look.

How important is that look now? I’m fairly certain that a student would be expelled from a Charedi Yeshiva high school if he insisted on wearing a non white shirt on occasion. I have spoken to young Charedi women looking for Shiduchim who say they would never date a guy who wore even a striped shirt.

In one instance a young student in a major Yeshiva was harassed by a Rosh Yeshiva – trying to get him to wear the typical Charedi velvet Kipa. He wore a suede Kipa that was just as large as the velvet ones. But that nonetheless violated their dress code. They did not expel him for that, but that they considered it so important tells a story. They do not want their students to look like a student at Yeshiva University.

Insisting on being different does a great disservice to the idea of Klal – of people-hood. It is divisive. Achdus is now off the radar for the right. The only Achdus they see is Charedi Achdus.

This may breed a sense of loyalty and belonging to the ‘club’ of Charedim. But at what price? What does this attitude say about even the most Ehrlich student at YU?

If anyone thinks I am exaggerating, I am reminded that not long ago a blue shirted student was photo-shopped out of a picture taken of a right wing Yeshiva Beis HaMedrash, lest anyone doubt its Charedi credentials.

One might say who cares about how anyone dresses? Clothes do not make the man. I believe that’s true. But I don’t think that the right wing Yeshivos think that. At least not anymore. Chitzonius is now a high priority. It is almost as though it is more important to look Charedi than to be Charedi. They are way too focused on appearances. Why? I think it’s because they don’t want to have anything to do with modernity. That is a shame and it was clearly not the intent of their predecessors as can be seen from those photos. Times have changed and in my opinion we are worse off for it.