September 21, 2018

Sartorial Salvation – Thoughts on Torah Portion Tetsaveh

Sartorial Salvation


Thought on Torah Portion Tetsaveh 2016


Last Shabbat, I taught about the Tallit, the four cornered prayer shawl with the fringes attached to the corners. Many people don’t wear one at synagogue. They say they not “bar/t mitzvahed” – please remember, you are automatically a bar/t mitzvah when you turn 13. Some say they are not Jewish (yet, in some cases). I say we are very liberal at our synagogue about non-Jewish seekers trying on Jewish practices, in this case, literally.

But some say that they don’t like engaging in externalities. Spirituality is an inner experience, not something that you wear. I appeal to any memory that you might have of wearing a uniform. I have my memories of wearing a U.S. military uniform for three years, and lately of my putting on my Jiu Jitsu gear. People have special clothes for the beach, for yoga, for gardening, for running, dancing or biking. Something happens when you suit up.

This week’s Torah portion, Tetsaveh, is partly concerned with the vestments of the ancient Israelite priesthood. Those of priestly descent (people named Cohen and the like), however, have no special vestments today. Whatever a Jew chooses to wear depending on their religious orientation, at services or not, anyone can wear it, all other things being equal (e.g. male/female, obviously, in the Orthodox world).

I love wearing my tallis/tallit (both pronunciations are acceptable), I love teaching about it, I love it when someone starts wearing one on Shabbat, and especially when they go out and acquire their own. You can feel wrapped in the Divine light.

Oftentimes I get The Question. Someone mentions the unscrupulous behavior of some Orthodox Jew.  I remember asking the same question myself, of my local Chabad rabbi when I was teenager. It is tragic. Some people, no matter how much they suit up, nothing sinks in. Other folks carry themselves with sterling virtue, not only with no special vestments, but no religion to speak of. Often this leads to a very painful conversation. The truth is that spirituality (here meaning the inner life experience of the transcendent), morality and religion have almost no predictable relationship with each other.

All three require a separate act of will. You can be a ritually observant Jew, or not ritually observant, and be equally moral or immoral, spiritual or not spiritual. It is obvious that you need an act of will to act more religiously observant. You also need an equally firm act of will to be moral and a further act of will to be spiritual. Those who teach that being ritually observant makes you more moral and spiritual are wrong. Nothing can make you so except your own will to do so and further will to acquire the skills.

Here is what all three, ritual observance, moral virtue and spirituality, have in common: each entails a loss of freedom. If you keep kosher and/or keep Shabbat, for example, even minimally, you are not completely free in how you eat or spend your weekends.

Being truly moral always involves a conscious intention and choice to do the right thing, and often involves restraint and maybe even a cost, sometimes loss of money, sometimes loss of ego. You just can’t benefit yourself and you can’t just do what you feel like doing.

Being truly spiritual means you can’t conduct your inner life any old way you want to. You have inner standards that you have to live up to.

No sartorial salvation, we like to say. No way of dressing, no get-up or uniform will imbue us with inner qualities. I am one of those who believes, as it says in the Talmud, “rachmana liba ba’ei” – “God wants the heart.” Any external commandments are there solely to help us cultivate our spiritual and moral qualities.

So why wear a tallit, for example? Once you have made the decision to cultivate your moral and spiritual qualities, and all the realms that are connected with that, you will need all the help you can get to help you live by that decision. You will have to re-decide and recommit every day.

You might have to write it on your hand so you can look at it morning and night, maybe even write it on your forehead, and have other people read it back to you. As usual in life, other people can often see things that we cannot see.

Clothes definitely don’t make the person, but once you decide who you want to become, external symbols of inner realities can remind us who we are and what we aspire to be.