Mark Twain once quipped: “The clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”
This week’s Torah portion describes the priests’ vestments. The priests were required to wear four garments: linen shorts, a tunic, sash and turban. The High Priest wore an additional four adornments: a robe, an embroidered vest, a breastplate, and a golden jewel inscribed with the words “Holy to Adonai” affixed to the turban.
If he did not wear even one of these garments he could not serve as a priest. The Talmud reports: “Rabbi Abbahu said in Rabbi Yohanan’s name: ‘When wearing their appointed garments, the priests are invested with their priesthood; when not wearing their garments, they are not invested with their priesthood.’” (Zevahim 17b)
To serve as a priest one must first be born to a priestly family. This week we also learn that in order to perform the sacrificial rituals the priest must wear the appropriate attire. Today we adorn the Torah scroll as we once dressed the priests. A book becomes our High Priest. The Torah assumes the priest’s mantle of authority.
Let’s reflect on the theory of dressing for authority. As contemporary culture becomes more and more casual will there come a day when professions will no longer be identified by their attire? Will doctors no longer wear white coats or scrubs? Could rabbis be seen leading services in jeans and not wearing a tallis and kippah?
During the early years of the Reform movement, its rabbis argued that Jews should not wear clothes distinguishing themselves from gentile society. Tallis and kippah were viewed as from a different age. The 1885 Pittsburgh Platform declares: “We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.” Rabbis wore robes and in some instances even top hats and tails.
The question remains: how does clothing convey authority? For the priests of old it was apparently synonymous with their leadership. The High Priest’s robe conveyed to all that this was the person invested with the requisite authority to offer sacrifices in the people’s behalf. From where does that authority emanate? Does it come from contemporary society or from our ancient traditions? The early Reform rabbis argued that it must come from contemporary society. Thus rabbis dressed in the style of their age. People appeared to think, if clergy of other faiths are wearing robes or tails then our rabbi should wear similar garb.
Still the authority to lead our prayers also hearkens to the past. We recite ancient words, in an ancient language. Must we then not only dress, if only partially, in an ancient garb? In what other area of life do we wear the garments dictated by ancient traditions?
Contemporary fashions come and go. Now very short skirts are in, even though they should not be. The tallis and the kippah remain. They are not a fashion dictated by designers or styles. And that alone offers us a measure of spiritual power.