Rabbi Steven Pruzansky
Consider the absurdity of the following statement: “I know an Orthodox Jew who works on Shabbat, eats pork regularly, never wears tefillin or prays or learns Torah, is unfaithful to his/her spouse, walks bare-headed in public, or eats on Yom Kippur.” One would rightfully ask, what is it that makes that person an Orthodox Jew?
Yet, we occasionally read these days of “Orthodox” Jews who molest, steal, rob, murder, assault, spit and curse at women and little children, set fire to businesses they disfavor for one reason or another, eschew self-support, brawl, intimidate and terrorize other Jews, or are otherwise genuinely disagreeable people. So what is it that makes those people “Orthodox,” or, even holier in the public mind, “ultra-Orthodox”?
The costume they wear.
It is a mistake that is made not only by a hostile media but also by the Jewish public, including the religious Jewish public. To our detriment, we define people by their costumes – e.g., long black coats, white shirts, beards and sometimes peyot – and we ourselves create expectations of conduct based on the costume that is being worn, as if the costume necessarily penetrates to the core of the individual and can somehow mold his character and classify his spiritual state – as if the costume really means anything at all.
If the events in Bet Shemesh or elsewhere in Israel rectify that mistake once and for all, some unanticipated good would have emerged from the contentiousness.
This is more than simply stating that any “Orthodox” Jew who sins is by definition not an “Orthodox Jew.” In truth, that statement is flawed and illogical, because all people sin; the truly “Orthodox” Jew might be one of the few who still actually believe in sin – stumbling before the divine mandate – and still seek to eradicate it by perfecting himself and struggling with his nature.
But the Torah Jew is defined by a core set of beliefs, principles and religious practices. One who subscribes to that core set is Orthodox notwithstanding any personal failings he has, failings which according to the Torah he must strive to reduce and diminish. No Jew – Rabbi or layman – is allowed to carve for himself exemptions from any mitzva. That is why deviations like the female rabbi, the dilution of the bans on homosexuality, the purported officiation by an “Orthodox” rabbi at a same-sex wedding, the relentless search for obscure leniencies in order to rationalize improper conduct, and other such anomalies drew such swift and heated reactions from the mainstream Orthodox world. The violent and criminal excesses in Israel have drawn similar rebukes but the thought still lingers: why do we even expect decorous and appropriate conduct from people who are perceived as thugs even within their own community, and who have literally threatened with violence some who would criticize them publicly? Because of the costume they wear.
Many of the brutes of Bet Shemesh have been widely identified as part of the sect known as Toldos Aharon (Reb Arele’s Chasidim). The thumbnail sketch by which they are known always includes the declaration that they “deny the legitimacy of the State of Israel,” which in today’s world should be – and largely is – identical to being a member of the Flat Earth Society. They are “devoted to the study of Torah,” reputedly. Really? What is the nature of their Torah study? Are they Brisker thinkers, analytical and questioning, or are they more akin to another Chasidic sect, whose rebbe famously discouraged learning Torah b’iyun (in depth) because he claimed such distances the student from Divine service? (That rebbi preferred a superficial and speedy reading of the words of the Gemara as the ideal form of Talmud Torah. And it shows.)
But what most identifies Toldos Aharon is…their costume. This, from Wikipedia: “In Jerusalem, married men wear white and grey “Zebra” coats during the week and golden bekishes/Caftan (coats) on Shabbos. Toldos Aharon and Toldos Avrohom Yitzchok are the only groups where boys aged 13 and older (bar mitzvah) wear the golden coat and a shtreimel, as married men do; however, married men can be differentiated by their white socks, while the unmarried boys wear black socks. In other Hasidic groups, only married men wear a shtreimel. All boys and men wear a traditional Jerusalemite white yarmulke. Unmarried boys wear a regular black coat with attached belt on weekdays, unlike the married men, who wear the “Zebra” style coat.”
Does any of this sartorial splendor have the slightest connection to Torah, to Orthodoxy, to living a complete Jewish life, to true divine service? Memo to real world: there is no such concept as authentic Jewish dress. The Gemara (Shabbat 113a) states that Rav Yochanan would call his clothing “the things that honor me” (mechabduti) – but the Gemara does not see fit to even describe his clothing in the slightest fashion. Jewish dress is dignified and distinguished, clean and neat. We are especially obligated to wear special and beautiful clothing throughout Shabbat (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 262:2-3). But beyond the tzitzit and the kippa for men, and modesty for all, there is no such thing as Jewish dress, the prevalence of contrary popular opinion notwithstanding. We are never told what Moshe, Ezra, Rabbi Akiva or the Rambam wore, and we are informed that one reason the Jews merited redemption from Egyptian because “they did not change their garb” (i.e., they did not adopt Egyptian styles) – but we are never informed what kind of clothing they did wear. Why? Because it doesn’t matter one whit.
A sect that obsesses so much on clothing that it distinguishes the married and the unmarried by the type of socks they wear, and insists that everyone wear the same two coats, is not practicing a form of Judaism, in that respect, that is either traditional or brings honor and glory to the Creator. It is a practice that is not designed to induce others to gush about what a “wise and understanding people” we are. They are rather fabricating artificial distinctions between Jews – likely in order to foster cohesion within their small group, ward off outsiders, and better exercise mind control over their adherents. It is no wonder that such a group is not responsive to any known Rabbinic authority – not even the Edah HaChareidis – nor is it any surprise that the sect’s deviations from Judaism can be so repugnant to all Jews and all civilized people. Surely there is more to prepare for in marriage than simply the acquisition of different color socks.
One can search in vain the Torah, the Talmud, the Rambam, the Shulchan Aruch and the classic works of our modern era for any guidelines similar to what appears above. If these hooligans wore modern garb, we would not hesitate for a moment to denounce them, to agonize over how it is they left the derech, over the failings of their parenting and education, and probably over the high cost of tuition and the toll joblessness is taking on the Jewish family. That the reaction of many to this criminal behavior is less shrill is attributable to but one cause: the costume. For some odd reason, we expect more.
We assume the costume mandates fidelity to halacha and engenders considerate and refined conduct. It doesn’t. It is unrelated. It is irrelevant to spirituality. It says nothing – nothing – about a person’s religiosity. I have dealt several times with conversion candidates who insisted on wearing Chasidic dress – who had beards, peyot, long black coats, white shirts, would never wear a tie, and wouldn’t even hold from the eruv – but they were still non-Jews. In the shuls where they davened while studying for conversion, members wondered why these frum-looking men never accepted kibbudim (honors). They didn’t, for one reason: they were not yet Jews. They just thought they were wearing the costume of Jews.
All the lamenting and hand-wringing is partially warranted, and partially misplaced. Partially warranted because we have for too long tolerated discourteous, larcenous and vicious conduct among people who self-identify because of their “dress” as religious Jews – the consistent rudeness, the unseemly “bargaining” that occurs when a bill is due, and, as one extreme example, the recent arson at Manny’s. (Manny’s is a popular religious book store in Me’ah She’arim that carried a great variety of sefarim – including mine – that was targeted by similar violent groups for carrying “disapproved books.” The store was set on fire a few months ago, and the owners largely caved to the pressure.) None of that is “Orthodox” behavior in the slightest. And it is partially misplaced because we play the game by their rules when we gauge people’s spiritual potential – or even spiritual level – based of the coat, hat, yarmulke, shoes, socks, shirt, pants or belt that they wear. It not only sounds insane, but it is insane, and it should be stopped. No one is more religious because he wears black or less religious because he wears blue or brown.
We would never consider people who habitually violate Shabbat, Kashrut, etc. as Orthodox. We should never consider people who are routinely brutal and abusive, or have disdain – even hatred – for all other Jews outside their small sect – as Orthodox either. They embrace certain Mitzvot and dismiss others, as well as ignore fundamental Jewish values. Certainly – traditional disclaimer – these goons are but a miniscule, atypical, unrepresentative, extremist, outlier group unrelated to the greater Charedi community that is only now awakening to the dangers within.
Nonetheless, even the greater community would benefit if they too began to de-emphasize the “costume” as at all meaningful or indicative of anything substantive. The Sages state (see Tosafot, Shabbat 49a) that the custom to wear tefilin the entire day lapsed because of the “deceivers.” (One who wore tefillin all day was reputed to be trustworthy, until the thieves learned that trick and used their “tefillin” to swindle others.) Those who reduce Judaism to externals necessarily exaggerate the importance of the costume, and naturally provoke those common misperceptions that cause the Ultra-Distorters to be deemed “Ultra-Orthodox.”
Would we make great progress in the maturation of the Jewish world if a blue suit occasionally appeared in the Charedi or Yeshivish wardrobe? Perhaps. But we would certainly undo the inferences that attach to certain types of dress that leave many Orthodox Jews wrongly embarrassed and ashamed of the behavior of “people like us.” They are not like us. We must love them as we would any wayward Jew, and rebuke them as we would any wayward Jew. Even wayward Jews wear costumes.
Then we can promulgate the new fashion styles – the new uniform – of the Torah Jew, where beauty, righteousness and piety are determined by what is inside – not what is on the outside – by deeds and Torah commitment and not by appearances.
May we never again hear someone say that “X looks frum.” No one can “look” frum; one can only “be” frum, which itself is not as admirable as being erliche. That lack of sophistication is atrocious, embarrassing, and corrosive to Jewish life and distorts the Torah beyond recognition. We know better than that, and we are better than that. In a free society, anyone can dress exactly like others or unlike others if he so chooses. But it says nothing about their values, only about their identification with one group or another. We should stop trusting people simply because they don black coats, black hats, and wear beards – or, for that matter, kippot serugot. All are costumes. None convey any real truths about the real person.
The true measure of every Jew – and every person – is always within.