Wednesday, December 13, 2006
Jason Weiner on Black Hats
I was recently reading through the first volume of "מילין חביבין", Yeshivat Chovevei Torah's new Torah journal, and found one of the articles to be more than a bit misguided in my opinion. Jason Weiner's article (on page 127) was nice and written well, but honestly a little absurd.
First of all, in half the Jewish world, in Arabic, Islamic, and Balkan countries, Sefaradic Jews did not wear Western clothing at all, and certainly not those types of hats! They would only view the "black hat phenomenon" as Europeanism, or perhaps even a form of embracing liberal Westernism (exactly the opposite of how the Haredim view it. i.e. for the very reason Haredim wear it, Sefaradim shouldn't; to be "protected" from "over Westernisation").
Halakhicly: there are always two main aspects of halakhah, the actual halakhah and "מעשה רב" (minhag and the historical development and practice of Jewish law). From the "legal" perspective one cannot say that being without a hat or other head covering is ever “inappropriate” (long story halakhicly, but see שו"ת קציני אר"ץ and שו"ת יביע אומר on the subject).
From a historical perspective it is known that our ancestors in ancient Israel (for example) did not cover their heads. The only reason people started wearing skullcaps in the first place is because that’s what the general population in Europe wore, only in order to keep their heads warm! There never has been any "Jewish" mode of dress, and we are not permitted to create one now, not halachically and not ideologically. Historically Jews dressed exactly as the non-Jews, based totally on the standards of that time and place, unless forced to wear particularly “Jewish” clothing by the non-Jews (which were only decidedly “Jewish” by the non-Jews) and when they moved from those countries they usually changed their garb again to fit the new standards. ..The very fact that so many religious Jews do not wear black hats and suits for religious reasons would nesitate the idea that wearing it would be an attempt at separating oneself from "כלל ישראל" (everyone agrees that to suggest that it would be more proper if all religious Jews around the world wear black hats is both completely bogus and impossible).
Judaism is obviously not about the clothing people wear, if one were to make it out to be that, they are only minimising the realm of halakhah. Judaism is a religion, which we are not to add to.
Suits are also an aspect of modern standards of dress just as T-shirts are, only one is more casual and the other is more formal. Yet not everyone has a mitzvah to dress formal 24/7! Suits are obviously not meant to be worn consistently according to contemporary standards. Maybe Rabbinic scholars and their students should dress like that, but not every guy who attended a yeshiva is an aspiring Rabbinic scholar. Yeshiva today in the Orthodox world is just a parallel to college just as the "Cheider" (or "Talmud Torah") were parallel to non-Jewish grade school at any given era or locale. It's just that the standards have gotten higher. There is still a separation, though, between young men who attend yeshivas and actual or aspiring Rabbis. I still wouldn't say that particularly European dress is necessary for Rabbis, I don’t even know that a suit is necessary.
Another point he failed to consider in his article is that black hats and such may be the way Hasidim in south-eastern Europe dressed, but it is not how the yeshivas in north-eastern Europe or western Europe dressed. In a way it seems they were both just mimicking local fashions; Lithuanian and German Jews were copying western European styles, and Polish and south-eastern European Jews were copying an older style of the local dress itself. The opinion of most Chasidic Rabbis was to remain with (what was considered to be) traditional Jewish dress, especially during a time when the world was quickly modernizing.
Therefore even though the yeshivas today call themselves "Lithuanian-style", most of the actual student body are usually the descendants of Chasidic south-eastern European holocaust survivors, and follow in their (Chasidic) ways. In a way, their wearing of suits and hats is a moderate diversion from the modern modes of dress, whereas the Chasidic styles in Europe were also a moderate diversion from the dress of their place and time. We see then that, in essence it’s not about "black hats" or "Chasidic dress", it’s about the age-old question of preservation of the "old ways" in the face of modernity and change. So to reiterate, it might at times be beneficial to preserve some old cultures and traditions, but generally it was not the "Jewish way" to preserve the standards of dress from country to country! ומעשה רב עיקר!