Does Judaism care about what you wear?

One of Judaism’s most important teachings is that what is inside matters much more than what is outside, yet beauty also has spiritual power. That dynamic tension of focusing more on inwardness than materialism, while also appreciating the beauty of the aesthetic, is how we can understand an approach to clothing in Judaism. In the Torah, clothing serves many purposes, ranging from covering our bodies, to disguising ourselves and “deceiving” others, to elevating ourselves and even inspiring us to live up to moral ideals. We project an image through the clothes we wear, and our clothes, in turn, influence us — our mindset, feelings and actions. For many Jewish thinkers, clothing was not merely about what is on the outside. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote, “A person’s clothes are a sign of that person’s qualities.”

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  1. In the Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deot (Laws of Human Dispositions) 5:9, Rambam writes, “The disciple of the wise should wear becoming and clean clothes, and it is forbidden to have a spot or grease or anything of a like unclean nature, found upon his garment. He should not wear clothes fit for a king, such as trimmed with gold or purple which attract everybody’s gaze, nor the clothes of a pauper which put the wearer to shame, but average garments of becoming style.” What type of clothing does Rambam advise us to wear? What underlying values does Rambam’s advice reveal? What do you think about Rambam’s guidance about how we dress? Do you agree with his general guidelines, or do you have a different idea of what we should wear?
  2. At times, appearances and first impressions are a source of accurate information. For instance, research shows that you can tell a lot about someone’s personality, politics, and age just from looking at a photo of their shoes. On the other hand, Rabbi Sacks reminds us that our tradition encourages us to focus on “inwardness, not appearances; ethics, not power; character, not the formal dress of office.” Considering all of this, what do you think we can accurately make judgments about based on physical appearance, and what do you think we should not make judgments about based on physical appearance?
  3. The Hebrew word for “clothing,” “beged,” comes from the root, “bagad,” meaning “to deceive” or “to betray.” Do you agree with the idea that our clothes “deceive” others, or do you think that we are simply projecting the best version of ourselves or the version of ourselves we want others to see? What is the line between “deceiving” others and projecting the best version of ourselves?
  1. Read the following article, “Morality police patrol for exposed flesh at NYC school.” The article describes the dress code at the school as follows: “Must wear dresses or skirts and blouses. Skirts are mid-calf or longer. Shirts and tops have a neckline that covers the collarbone. Tops are long enough to cover the middle of the body, even when leaning over or raising one’s hand…” What is your reaction to this type of dress code and to the article? Do you think institutions like schools, workplaces, stores and restaurants should have dress codes, or do you think people should be allowed to wear whatever they want? What are the possible benefits of dress codes and what are the drawbacks?
  2. Think of influencers, celebrities, brands and companies, fictional characters, and any other people whose style you admire. Create a Padlet board with a few images, videos and/or words that describe this aesthetic. After creating your Padlet, reflect on your vision of your personal style. How would you describe your style? If you were to give your style a “title,” what would you call it? What are the main messages that you want your clothing and style to convey? Why is this important to you?
  3. Watch this video, “What Is Tik Tok Doing To Teenagers?” about how clothing can indicate what type of aesthetic or social group teenagers belong to (note: this video contains some explicit language and content). What do you think about Tik Tok styles such as the ones described in the video? When is fashion and style an empowering form of self-expression, and when is it more about the pressure to fit in with a particular group? How can we take inspiration from trends or groups without completely losing ourselves in those trends?
  4. Watch this video, “Why dressing for success works” about research that found that when workers wear nicer clothes, they achieve more. The studies referenced in the video found that “wearing nicer clothes may raise one’s confidence level, affect how others perceive the wearer, and in some cases even boost the level of one’s abstract thinking, the type in which leaders and executives engage.” What do you think about this study? Do you agree with the idea that we can achieve more by wearing suits as opposed to sweatpants? Does reading this study influence your thinking about how you dress at all?
  1. Watch the video and reflect on the following questions:
    • How important is fashion and style to you? Did you always have this attitude toward clothes? Where did this attitude come from?
    • Who is someone whose fashion or style you admire? What is it about the person’s style that inspires you?
    • Do you find that the clothes you wear impact your mindset or how you feel?
    • What is a message that you want to convey to others in the way you dress?
  2. Identify a clothing item or accessory that lifts your spirits or has sentimental value for you. This could be a garment, a pair of shoes, a watch or jewelry, a tallit, a pair of tzitzit or kippah, or something else. Wear the item and share with your peers why it is important to you and how you feel when wearing it.
  3. What is one thing you want your parents or teachers to know about the way you choose to dress? What is one piece of advice you would give to yourself about the way others dress?
  1. Sandra Blakeslee, “Mind Games: Sometimes a White Coat Isn’t Just a White Coat” (New York Times)
  2. Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, “Do Clothes Make the Man?
  3. Rabbi Ari Kahn, “Clothes Make the Man
  4. Rabbi Menachem Feldman, “The Kabbalah of Fashion
  5. Rabbi Reuven Mann, “Does Clothing ‘Make the Man’?
  6. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Tetzaveh (5772) — The Aesthetic in Judaism,” “Tetzaveh (5768) — Do Clothes Make The Man?” and “Dressing to Impress (Tetzaveh 5780)
  7. Ray Smith, “Why Dressing for Success Leads to Success” (Wall Street Journal)

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