Sunday, July 22, 2012

Jewish [dis]unity

Achdus.  Jewish Unity.  These days, it's all the rage in the Orthodox Jewish world.  Countless events, publications, and more, are all named with the goal of Jewish unity in mind.  Earlier this year, an Orthodox Union magazine was titled, "Jewish Unity - It Begins With You" and contained a mirror on the front cover.  I cite this merely as an example of the prominence of the movement.  It's become a catchphrase, a buzzword, in the Jewish world.  Since assuming a position as a pulpit Rabbi, people frequently ask me, "[a]re you for Jewish unity?", as if such a complex question and topic can be answered in one word.  What exactly does unity mean, I wonder.  Unity of opinion? Purpose? Dress?  That we can all get along on some level?  Does serious disagreement run counter to Jewish unity?   

My post this morning is not really about Jewish unity, but is tangentially related.  When people praise the ever sought after Jewish unity, the praise often goes as follows:  "There were so many people doing 'x' together; some were wearing knitted kippot, some velvet kippot, black hats, straw hats, streimelach, bare heads, all in the same room at the same time."  Invariably, the mark of unity is that people wearing different styles of clothes, now used to identify people with a specific stream or subculture within the Jewish world, have come together for a particular event or cause.  But why the focus on dress?

More and more, it seems that dress has become the marker of how identify, judge, and relate to others within our community.  Now, it's obviously true that the clothes a person chooses to wear reflect something about their choices and preferences.  Wearing the garb associated with a particular subgroup within the Jewish community no doubt does tell us something.  But increasingly, it seems we no longer allow for slight variance or individuality, but prefer the superficial prejudice of costume as a near absolute.  

When determining the religious preferences of individuals, the focus (for men and women) is almost entirely on dress.  "They look like a frumme yid (serious Jew in Yiddish)."  Rather than focusing primarily and mainly on the character of individuals as markers of quality, the focus is primarily on dress.  People can abuse, steal rob, etc., but as long as they dress in the costume, their status is affirmed.  If someone, for whatever reasons, chooses to forego the costume (think Mattisyahu, who recently shaved the beard and abandoned much of the classic Chassidic dress), they are likely no longer to be trusted.  People who choose not to wear kippot or yarmulkes, as they're popularly known, are not considered serious.  No matter the charity work they do, that they are always there for those in need, or that they pray and study with diligence on a daily basis.  

I myself have witnessed such things on multiple occasions in my short time in the Rabbinate.  Person 'x' will be specifically banned from performing certain functions (for example, a Kosher food supervisor or other role) merely because we "don't trust someone who dresses like that."  There's something toxic out there, and we're so deep in I'm afraid we're totally blinded.

It's now the month of Av, when we mourn the destruction of Jerusalem, the Temples that twice stood there, the idolatry that preceded the Babylonian invasion and communal discord and fracture that preceded the Roman version, and the resulting exiles.  Today, dress has become our idol, borne from superficiality, prejudice, and a desire to feel included and exclude the other.  Praising an event for its unity based on the variety of dress is paradoxical and perplexing.  Time for us all to engage in some serious reflection this year.   

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