This week's parashah / Torah reading, Tetzaveh, finds us in the midst of an enterprise begun last week in which God instructs Moses about the Mishkan/Tabernacle to be constructed as a focal point of the ritual relationship between God and Israel. This week, Aaron and his sons are appointed as kohanim/priests in charge of the ritual sacrificial system and as part of this discussion, God describes the vestments that Aaron and his sons are to wear as they perform their priestly duties.
From time to time, I have the privilege of participating in interfaith functions with my clergy colleagues from all over the faith map. Often, the instructions we receive include a note to wear vestments. This leaves me, my fellow rabbis and our friends the imams, in our rather bland professional clothing as our Christian clergy friends show up looking glorious in their colorful, dramatic vestments. At times like this, I admit to "vestment envy."
Rabbis are considered teachers rather than a priestly class invested with esoteric powers endowed with ordination (like the power to grant absolution, for example). The rich vestments worn by Aaron and his male progeny were not worn by Moses, since Moses' role was not a ritual one.
With the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the kohanim/priests lost the unique stage upon which they fulfilled their roles in offering daily sacrifices on behalf of the people and facilitating the personal thanks, purification, festival and atonement sacrifices individuals might bring. Since the destruction of the Second Temple there has not been a unique Jewish clerical uniform or vestment.
During the rabbinic period, a type of turban-like headress, called a "sudar", was associated with sages and scholars. Perhaps something like the headress on this classic rendering of Maimonides reproduced on an Israeli stamp...
In largely Christian medieval Europe, Jews lived in tight-knit communities. Medieval manuscript illuminations, like the one above, from a 14th century manuscript from Zurich, depicts a unique-shaped hat (on the right) that was associated with Jews.
For the most part, Jews have blended in and have adopted the dress and style of the surrounding culture.
Jewish tradition does not talk about a medieval Jew's hat or an 18th century Polish nobleman's fur hat . . . but it does set guidelines for us regarding how Jews should dress.
The guiding verse regarding the way a Jewish person should walk through the world comes from the prophet, Micah (6:8):
הִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם, מַה-טּוֹב; וּמָה-ה׳ דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ, כִּי אִם-עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד, וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת, עִם-אֱלֹהֶיךָ
It hath been told you, Adam, what is good, and what Adonay requires of you: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.
Walking with humility with God, in Jewish terms, has come to mean dressing modestly . . . avoiding dressing seductively; making sure to dress appropriately for the occasion, not dressing extravagantly or flashily. Although, in certain circles, the discussion of modest dress seems to focus most on women, the truth is that this standard of moving through the world with appropriate humility applies to both men and women.
The glorious vestments described in this week's Torah reading were only meant for the kohanim/priests as they fulfilled their unique roles in sustaining the sacrificial cult of the desert Tabernacle and the Temple in Jerusalem. None of us, rabbi, scholar, Jew-in-the-pew should aspire to so much "bling." Our challenge is to walk with humility with God in our world, expressed through our dress and our attitude.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.