The Clothes Make the (Wo)man

Shelah Lekha By :  Michal Raucher Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies, Rutgers University; JTS Fellow Posted On Jun 13, 2014 / 5774 | Torah Commentary

During graduation season, I try to learn everything there is to know about academic dress. In many commencement ceremonies, faculty members wear gowns and hoods that, though ostensibly very similar, importantly distinguish one from the other. A blue and black gown could indicate a graduate of Columbia University or Case Western Reserve University (you have to be able to distinguish “Columbia blue” from other blues to see the difference). A hood with red trim could symbolize a degree in Forestry, Journalism, or Theology, also depending on the shade of red. Then there are those robes that stand out so significantly that they are instantly identifiable, such as McGill University’s bright red and gold robe, which ties delicately in the front.

I might have a better handle on these details if I actually saw people in their gowns on a more regular basis. In fact, in the 12th and 13th centuries, when academic regalia was first instituted in European universities, students and faculty wore their gowns, hoods, and later caps, every day. The gowns and hoods probably kept scholars warm in the unheated buildings. I often think about what it would be like to wear these gowns every day. Would it intimidate students if professors wore their accreditation “on their sleeves”? Might it equalize students, who would all be wearing the same uniform? If everyone in the classroom wore academic dress, could it introduce a level of formality that is lost when students enter an 8:00 a.m. class in their pajamas? Do these gowns make us more similar or highlight our differences?

When I wore my doctoral gown for the first time, admiring the three velvet stripes on the sleeves and the colors of my hood, I thought I would want to wear it all the time. It is a public display of all the hard work I have done, the things I have learned, where I have come from, and what my future might hold. As it turns out, however, the gown gets very hot, and the hood never seems to stay in place. Furthermore, instead of feeling empowered by flaunting my hard work, I feel dwarfed in the oversized garment, and like a bit of an imposter with all its accoutrements.

The day I picked out my tallit, I experienced a similar feeling. I was 12 years old, and my mother and I were at a Jewish art festival. A tallit-maker set up her stand, and my mom told me how much she wanted me to have a unique tallit that I really loved. Most of the tallitot I had ever seen were white with black or blue stripes. Some were big, some small, but most were generic and marketed toward men. Then there was a smaller market (and still is) of explicitly women’s tallitot—they drape like a shawl over one’s shoulders, in delicate fabrics like lace and silk. Instead, I wanted a “man’s tallit” that I could wear as a young woman. I insisted, therefore, that I get a big tallit so that I could fold it over my shoulders. It was the early 1990s, so I picked something out that was pink and turquoise, not colors I would have chosen today. I decided to forego the cookie-cutter options for the ‘atara (lit., the crown), the stretch of fabric at the neckpiece of the tallit. Against a backdrop of the Jerusalem skyline, my ‘atara includes my favorite quote: “Veshavti beveit Adonai le’orekh yamim” (And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life). On the corners that hold the tzitzit, we embroidered the names of my female ancestors. So when I put that tallit on for the first time the day I became a bat mitzvah, I was wrapped in my female lineage. The weight of the message sometimes still overwhelms me, just like my doctoral gown: yes, you earned this, but you have a great responsibility to carry on what others have started. For a few years, every time I wore that tallit, I remembered those responsibilities. When I started wearing my tallit again after the recent teshuvah (PDF) from the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards on women’s obligation to wear tzitzit, I felt the weight of that responsibility again.

At the very end of this week’s parashah, Shelah Lekha, B’nai Yisrael are commanded to make tzitzit (fringes) on the corners of their garments. This passage (Num. 15: 37–41) will sound familiar to you as the third paragraph of the Shema’. Commentators explain that the fringes were meant as a visual aid to the Israelites. “It shall be until you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and keep them” (v. 39). This passage follows the notorious pericope of stoning a man who was caught desecrating the Sabbath, and as a result, Nahmanides, for one, cites this story as the reason people need tzitzit. Remembering all the commandments, specifically those related to Shabbat, necessitates a garment that serves as a reminder. Although not referencing the stoning specifically, Ibn Ezra also latches onto the idea that the tzitzit should be a reminder to follow commandments. He maintains that this garment should not just be worn during prayer but all day, every day. He writes, “In my opinion, however, it is more important to wear the fringes during the rest of the day than it is during prayer. One must observe God’s commandments all day, and during prayer is the least likely time for a transgression.” Nahmanides and Ibn Ezra understand that this garment is supposed to change the way you act. It is supposed to help you embody a better character.

Like other Jewish rituals that have been personalized and amended to reflect the diverse population of followers (from brit bat ceremonies to adult b’nai mitzvah ceremonies), the creative designing of tallitot makes an important statement about how we as Jews appropriate mitzvot. The mitzvah of tzitzit as outlined in our parashah is intended to create a uniform code of action, to remind people to keep a very particular list of commandments. My tallit, in addition to serving that more traditional purpose, also reminds me of the importance of being a woman who wears a tallit. It reminds me that I come from a strong lineage of Jewish women that I have an equally strong obligation to respect.

Can our clothing actually make us better people? Better Jews? Foucault, Bourdieu, and other scholars argue that one’s body is the locus for his or her self-formation. In other words, a person experiences the world with his or her body, and develops an identity that is related to it. This means that changes in one’s body will result in a changing sense of self and a new relationship with others. Similarly, wearing a significantly different outfit can effect these kinds of changes. Putting on your best suit and polished shoes may make you feel more prepared for an important meeting. And your favorite sweatpants might instantly relax you after a stressful day. So maybe it’s not so hard to believe that some clothing can remind us to act in a certain way, or to embody a persona slightly different from normal. Additionally, clothing distinguishes us from one another. It highlights individuality so that, even in the face of uniformity, we acknowledge our differences.

Wearing my tallit today, I find I am transformed during davening. I belong there, and I have the garment to prove it; furthermore, the garment itself changes my attitude. I am generally more present, but I am specifically more focused on what is going on in the sanctuary. Sometimes it provides much-needed warmth in an overly air conditioned sanctuary, but mostly it serves as a reminder—of where I came from, where I’m going, and how I must act while on that journey.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Torah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.