Wednesday, January 11, 2006


“Clothes make the man,” the saying goes. While a person’s character and soul are assuredly not determined by sartorial law, what we wear and how we present ourselves often does go a long way toward defining us.

As we read of the Jewish people’s sojourn in Mitzrayim in this week’s parsha, we remember what sustained us. Lo shinu. Jews did not change their names. They did not change their language. And they did not change their clothing.

Of course, throughout history, there has been a slow evolution of our garb. But our tradition of clothing ourselves in the attire our teachers and forebears wore - at least as far as we can remember - has been an important factor in maintaining our distinct identity, and serving as a powerful link to the past.

The size of our lapels may change, even the style of our eyeglasses, but there are certain defining articles that link us to an ideology. That ideology includes a commitment to a generation that dedicated their lives to the concept of yeshiva education and the adherence to the directives of Gedolei Yisroel.

One of these signature articles of clothing - if not the most distinguishable one - has been the fedora-style hat. The black hat.

It is what marks a Ben Torah, and distinguishes him from all other segments of Jewish society. From the time President Kennedy shucked his fedora at his 1960 inauguration ceremony and replaced it with the new look of freedom, the black hat assumed a heightened significance in society at large.

It is the declaration that we still cling to the old generation; we still embrace the old values that we were taught and are not embarrassed to be called “old-fashioned black hatters.”

Indeed, we are proud to be known that way. Wherever we go, we wear our hats. They identify us as members of the Torah community. Others may vilify and deride us. But our hats remain a badge of pride and many of us don’t remove them even when we go places where the hat (and we, ourselves) are not especially welcome.

While wearing those hats, the Torah community continues to grow by leaps and bounds. That seems to bother those who seek to curb our growth and influence. The black hat is targeted by people looking to ridicule us, somewhat akin to the crooked nose denoting Jews in the literature of Der Shturmer.

A man pleads guilty in a high profile case and wears a black hat to court, and a Jewish tabloid, known for its hostility to the Torah community, discusses the all-important question: What kind of black hat did he wear?

The editors put that question to Orthodoxy “expert” Queens College Professor Samuel Heilman. He informed the paper that the hat would “be more typical for so-called yeshivishe Jews. It would be the kind of hat you might see in Lakewood, [N.J.].”

And thus, Lakewood and all black hatters are tarred with the same brush as the man who pled guilty last week to a variety of crimes.

Professor Heilman was quite busy last week expounding on Orthodoxy’s ways. The Asbury Park Press dialed him up for some more trenchant analyses of Orthodox-related matters, this time focusing on the new “ultra-Orthodox” mayor of Lakewood, Meir Lichtenstein.

Heilman first defended the tendency of Orthodox Jews to vote as an ethnic group in areas where their numbers constitute the majority. “They’re not acting different in any way than other ethnic groups,” he said. “They vote to fulfill [their specific] needs. The only way to change that is through the democratic process.”

Thank you, Professor Heilman, for your able defense.

Unfortunately, he then implied that Mr. Lichtenstein was selected as mayor simply because he was “one of theirs,” without regard for his education, political skills and the ability to unify a city.

“I don’t think it would be any different if you had a neighborhood where the neighborhood was overwhelmingly African-American,” Heilman said. “You wouldn’t be surprised to see the mayor becomes a black mayor.”

Is it not possible that Meir Lichtenstein has displayed enough talent over his tenure as a committeeman that he was awarded the job on merit?

Was Senator Lieberman elected because most people in Connecticut are Modern Orthodox Jews? How about Michael Wilde, a member of Hatzolah, who is another orthodox mayor in the town of Englewood, New Jersey.

Orthodoxy seems to be a thorn in the side of certain people who would like to wish it away. Take The Jewish Week, for example, another paper that seizes any opportunity to cast aspersions on the Torah community. The paper was happy to report on a new initiative launched by Yeshiva University, the Center for Jewish Future, whose purpose, according to The Jewish Week, is “to stem a rightward shift” on the part of Orthodoxy.

“Investing 6.5 million dollars in…an effort to reclaim its centrist base amid Orthodoxy’s continued move to the right, Yeshiva University has opened the Center for the Jewish Future (CJF) - …as a means of inspiring a more “open, tolerant” brand of Orthodoxy.”

Why the need to sink millions into such a vaguely defined venture? According to Heilman, Yeshiva University is so afraid of being overshadowed by “chareidi-like” elements that they have to show the world (to the tune of six-and-a-half million dollars) that they are against the “rightward shift.” In other words, they are not fanatics or ultra-Orthodox like people in the yeshiva world; they are “modern,” “open,” “tolerant.”

What is a chareidi anyway?

Parshas Vayechi provides us with some clues. It marks the siyum of Seder Bereishis and the end of the life of Yaakov Avinu. The Torah recounts that Yaakov wanted to foretell what would happen at the end of time, but the information suddenly eluded him. The Gemorah in Pesachim explains that though he sought to tell the shevotim what would take place b’acharis hayomim, it became hidden from him. Instead, he imparted a lasting message to each one of his sons.

He addressed Shimon and Levi together and cursed their rage and the anger they displayed in their reaction to Shechem’s mistreatment of sister Dinah. He foretold that they would be separated and dispersed throughout Israel.

In the sefer Toldos Yitzchok by Rav Yitzchok Karo, published in the year 1558, a novel explanation is offered as to why Yaakov Avinu spread these two shevotim throughout the rest of Klal Yisroel.

He says that Shimon’s and Levi’s anger against Shechem was triggered by their great brotherly devotion to Dinah. They carried this loyalty to an extreme, however, while the other brothers did not display enough of it. Therefore, Yaakov sent Shimon and Levi throughout the rest of Israel to dilute some of their own anger, but at the same time, to infuse the rest of the shevotim with the attribute of brotherly feeling and responsibility.

In our own circles, we see that people are apathetic towards problems confronting our community and the many difficulties our brothers are facing. It seems, at times, that we urgently need a member of the tribe of Shimon and Levi in our midst, to awaken our desire to do good and to stand by one another.

Among the apathetic masses, you find people of conscience and action who are not daunted by the enormity of the issues confronting them. There are men and women in every community who are able to overcome the urge to do nothing. They labor mightily to bring solutions to intractable problems. You find people who seek to calm the agitated, right the wrongs, care for the abused, and fight injustice wherever it is found.

These people bear within them the positive qualities of kaas as described by Rav Yitzchok Karo some 450 years ago. They should be seen as lighthouses lighting up the way for others; they should be a beacon others can rally around.

Though the world may be slipping down a precipitous slope, these heroes show that it really is possible to raise the bar for dedication and responsibility to the klal.

Though sheker has a tremendous drawing power and appears to triumph over the people of emes, a true ish emes does not get flustered or worried that his team is not ahead. He perseveres; he remains loyal to the truth and never waivers.

The ish emes follows the words of our chachomim without hesitation. He doesn’t look over his shoulder and count how many people are behind him. He never considers flipping over to the other more popular side. In the end, the ish emes and others like him are the only ones who remain standing.

Every generation has its unique tests of faith. Meeting those challenges demands that we have the courage of our convictions and not be deterred by opposition.

We live in a time when everyone works so hard to make ends meet that we have little time to give anything much thought. We are so trapped in the pursuit of our livelihoods that we allow ourselves barely a moment to wonder what it’s all about. We have to slow down, we have to give life more thought; we can’t be too preoccupied to be purposeful in life. We have to be mindful of our obligations and make sure to carry them out.

We are all soldiers engaged in daily battles, but we have to strengthen ourselves with the lessons of Torah and apply these lessons to our lives. Only thus will we be able to rise above the vicissitudes of life and meet the many challenges each day brings.

We cannot act out of anger or fury; all our actions must be calculated to attain proper goals. Brotherly love must drive us in all our interactions with fellow Jews.

So many people we know are experiencing difficulties with shidduchim, with parnassa or health-related issues. Our hearts must go out to them and we have to rush to their aid as if they were our brothers. As they indeed are.

We wear our black hats to indicate that we are members of the tribe of Shevet Levi. We display passion in all we do. We hew to the traditions of our forefathers. We are eminently faithful to the ethos of Shevet Levi. Is everyone who wears a black hat perfect? Of course not. Is someone without a black hat a lesser Jew? Of course not. But the hat is worn to signify an identification with the path of passionate brotherhood that Yaakov avinu asked Shimon and Levi to spread throughout Am Yisroel.

The next time someone asks you why you wear that hat, you can tell him it is part of the uniform of Shevet Levi. And with that response, endeavor to be a more noble bearer of that royal tradition. Know that you are being watched; you are being held to a different standard.

The Rambam at the end of Hilchos Shemitta V’yovel writes that, “Not only is Shevet Levi set apart as the army of Hashem; every man endowed with the intelligence and spirit to separate himself from the masses and to serve and worship Hashem despite the norms and agendas of other people, is kodesh kodoshim.

“Hashem will be his portion forever and he will also merit to have his needs fulfilled in this world just as the Kohanim and Leviim,” the Rambam writes.

When the Jewish people finally learn this lesson and attain this lofty standard, the nations of the world will take note of and discuss, not our hats, but our hearts.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Granted black hats can represent meaningful ideologies, but the fact that hats are used as a barometer for committment to yiddishkeit is a big problem. I personally straddle a unique fence being a Jewish communal professional in the secular Jewish world, yet a product of the yeshiva system. The concern I have is that we should pride ourselves on the actions and not on the look. Regarding the repentance of Ninveh, Hashem saw their actions and not the sack cloth and fasting. So while their is a valuable branding of the back hat, make sure that the message always remains that yiddishjeit is about growth and not image.

8:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And another thing...on your statement, "Clothes make the man,” the saying goes. While a person’s character and soul are assuredly not determined by sartorial law, what we wear and how we present ourselves often does go a long way toward defining us."

Maybe a crackdown on the untucked and disheveled yeshiva bochur is in order. The image of black and white is supposed to be professionalism, but because of the yeshivish culture this is thrown away for the image as I mentioned before.

Of course, its not everyone who is disheveled but I think bnai torah should look at themselves as torah professionals - no matter the color the shirt, whether hat or hatless. As you say, "the clothes make the man."

8:12 PM  
Blogger Searchingsince83 said...

I agree with Jh.

Another thing is, If we dressed like our predecessors "as far back as we can remember" we would be dressing in white, beige blue green brown, etc.. soots with hats to match!" this whole black and white thing has gone a bit overboard and the psychological factor of Identity afirmation seems to box out and allows stereotypes and prejuduces from/towards other valid frum yiddin to fester. i.e. much more anymosity, dogmatism, mis- communication developes do to this contrived group.

Did Shimon and Levi Wear uniforms? Were Yaakovs sons dressed in black hats or was it rather they continued wearing Arbah Kanfot? In addition perhaps dress indicated indentity with avodah zorah unlike today.

In addition this Uniform is worn indiscrimanently, If a Jew works he is not shimon of shevet levi and yet still feels compelled to put up some sort of facade. This is confusion to our kids and simply a fictitious way of life.

In short it I found the Rav's argument to be nice'n fluffly but neither conclusive nor reafirming. This issue bothers me on a deep level because as you said "clothes make the man" and I don't like the culture that is developing because of this.

Thank you for sharing your mind.

7:57 PM  
Blogger Searchingsince83 said...

as far back as we can remember" we would be dressing in white, beige blue green brown, etc.. soots with hats to match!"

I was referencing the way Bochurim would dress in places like Slobodka!

8:00 PM  
Blogger Bein Hazmanim said...

btw - there is no such chazal anywhere that says the jews didn't change those three things - names . clothin and language.
alot of medrashim say similar or two of them or other lists but nowhere does it say these 3.

8:23 PM  
Blogger Searchingsince83 said...

doesn't look like much dialogue is happening is anybody there?

4:03 PM  
Blogger baal darshan said...

I don't wear a black hat. I must be from shevet zevulun.

8:07 PM  
Blogger Searchingsince83 said...

Are you gonna have a dialogue or is your dogma to be left unquistioned!?

9:56 PM  

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