“We Are What We Wear?”
By Rabbi Toba August, AJRCA Professor of Rabbinics
A few weeks ago, the Anti-Defamation League sent a letter to Urban Outfitters clothing company, objecting to products that resembled uniforms prisoners were forced to wear during the Holocaust. Besides being deeply offensive, these clothes, along with others called “holocaust-chic,” show disrespect and encourage the young people who will wear these outfits to take a flippant view of this dark time in history. One commentator said that the store’s strategy might have been to “shock millennial shoppers and gain their fleeting attention” — albeit a cynical and debased way to do so.
This week’s parsha, Tezaveh, describes the clothes worn by the priests as Begdai Kodesh – holy garments. They were the proper outfits for “splendor and beauty.” Clothes were a serious matter, not to be worn carelessly.
What we wear sends a message to ourselves and others. Do our clothes reveal who we are or do they conceal our true selves? Are we wearing outfits for shock value or to make a political statement?
Often our garments can give us confidence and pride as we recall Shakespeare’s words that “the apparel oft proclaims the man.” (Clothes make the man.) The priests’ outer clothes were intended to reflect a holy and spiritual inner content.
Wearing their unique garments, the priests were constantly being reminded of their responsibilities to God and to the Israelites. The Talmud explains how each of the eight garments for the Cohen Gadol, the High Priest, had redemptive qualities. For example, the trousers (avnet) atoned for immorality, the turban (mitznefet) atoned for arrogance, and the robe (me’il) atoned for lashon hara, that is, gossip. All eight pieces worn together reflected the ideal moral strength and character required to be a holy leader of the Israelite people.
For Biblical priests, the right clothes were not just a fashion statement or a way to get the people’s attention. Commanded to wear the breastplate and the stones on his shoulders that contained the engraved names of the Twelve Tribes, the priest was literally carrying his people and was responsible for their moral, spiritual and educational well-being.
Urban Outfitters created clothes insensitively, not considering their impact on either the wearers or those of us who would be shocked seeing people dressed in prisoner uniforms from concentration camps. We can choose what we wear responsibly and like the priests from Biblical times, our choice in garments can inspire us to be our better, moral and ethical selves.