Dilemmas in Dressing for Davenning
This topic usually comes up as a side point to other discussions — Shabbos Attire is usually a good place to go looking for it, as in these two posts on Hirhurim, or this three-part series by MOChassid. Another good topic is Black Hats, such as this post at On The Main Line and this one at the new Orthodox Reflux. There's also a personal story by Jack at The Jewish [Soul] Connection which applies more directly to this topic. There's also a post of RYG"B's that deals with ideals of levush for various (semi-)contemporary Orthodox movements.
If you know of any other blog posts/conversations about it, please link to them in the comments!
So, anyway, this is the deal.
There's a halakhic ideal out there that one should dress for davening — not just on Shabbos, but at all times — as one would dress for an important meeting with someone really important. Back in the day, people would use the example of a King. Now they talk about the President, or going to Court, or having a Job Interview.
I always felt that it was a bit silly. After all, the Creator of Worlds knows me! God knows my conscious and subconscious thoughts — what's the point in treating a conversation with the Omniscient like a job interview? You don't need to impress God, and you most definitely do not want to try to fake God out with fancy clothing or bling.
So for most of my life, I pretty much ignored it when people talked about dressing up for davening. Sure, I eventually stopped davening at home in my pajamas, and wouldn't hhazan or lein in shorts, but that was about it.
Until Israel. Ironically enough, my views on this issue started changing when I was living and learning in the Valley of the Aboriginal Ghosts, Southern Jerusalem — one of the most friendly, comfortable, and informally-attired Jewish cultures I've ever experienced.
I began thinking along the lines of yes, it's absurd to think that you should try to impress God like a prospective boss at a job interview. And I do feel like I have a fairly informal relationship to God, thinking about God more in terms of Heavenly Parent or Ultimate Artist than as King or Master. But God still is the Monarch of the Universe, and just like people dress formally when they meet the President, or some other high government official — not in order to make a certain impression, but due solely to the formality and gravitas of the situation — it does make sense to dress in a formal/respectful/dignified mode (whatever you want to call it) when having a meeting with the Omnipotent.
So around Rosh Hhodesh Elul, around when I moved into my new neighborhood and started my new job, I also started wearing a suit/jacket and tie to weekday minyans. After all, according to the communal norms of the society (both Jewish and general) in which I live, that's the accepted [male] clothing standard for an important meeting with someone very important. Unlike the impression I get from the Hhareidi and Hhareidi-leaning worlds, I do not consider my clothing to be a ritual object. To me, the ideal is to dress 'respectfully' (or whatever), on the whole — not to wear a hat, or wear a jacket, as some specific sacralized article of clothing. I knew a guy a few years ago when I worked in a camp who wore a jacket for davening — over his t-shirt and shorts. That never made sense to me. I also don't understand why, in the words of Rav Asher Balanson, the minhag is not to be "medayek" to that extent. It seems to me that if people were really serious about this ideal (as opposed to not holding by it, as I used to), then they should express it in action. Monochromatic people who talk about jackets and [black] hats seem to be more interested in social and communal consequences of uniformity than in actually putting this ideal into practice. Wouldn't they wear a tie if they had a meeting with the President?
Anyway, the transition was made significantly easier due to the fact that the shul I started going to around here (the only one with an early enough weekday shahhris that I can go to before work) isn't your typical Modern Orthodox shul that embraces a wide variety of observant Jews and their everyday clothing; there's one of those down the street. It's a Yekke shul, with very exacting communal norms of dress and decorum. They expect all men, whether married or not, to adhere to their minhag hamaqom (local custom) and wear a tallis during morning minyan, and they also expect anyone honored with an ‘alíya (and the hhazan, etc.) to wear a tie, jacket, and hat. Now, I don't wear a hat (someone lent me his when I got an ‘alíya) because it's not part of 'dignified dress' in my culture. But the suit/jacket and tie thing makes perfect sense to me. Of course, there's a twist here — according to RYG"B, it's part of their culture/ideology to be dressed in a 'dignified' or 'respectable' manner all the time, a position I respect and understand, but don't agree with.
I've been calling this a "religious experiment" (even if only to prevent a hhazaqa), so here's what passes for 'results' — positive, negative, and neutrally notable — so far:
- It feels right. This is the ideal, and I'm expressing it in action. I really feel like this is what I'm supposed to be doing... when I'm not having doubts. Or thinking uhm yeah, okay, what's the point? why did i start this again?
- I'm worried about yuhara. If I believe that I'm adhering to a halakhic ideal, how do I prevent myself from looking judgementally at others, like the monochromats I bashed up above? Or the vast majority of my Modern Orthodox / Dati ‘Olami world? After all, this is a personal hhumra; I'm not telling everyone to go out and copy my wierd quirks!
- Side-benefit: I've become more comfortable in formal clothing. However, this also makes me worried. What if I'm not doing this for the positive ideal I think I'm representing, but for a negative reason? All my life I've hated dress-shirts, suits/jackets, ties, and dress-shoes. While part of it has to do with proletarian, countercultural tendencies, a big part of it is Sensory Hypersensitivity/Integration issues, and one of the ways that expresses itself in me is in a very strong psychological aversion to buttons. Yes, you heard me. I can't stand the feel of buttons. There's something about the combination of roundness and smoothness that gets its sensation all over my hands and won't go away. This is why I try and buy dress-shirts with fabric that covers the buttons (which unfortunately it's very hard to find in non-white), and why in general I can't wear a 'regular' dress-shirt unless the buttons are covered with something like a sweater or a tie. I'm also an INFP, a personality type that (seemingly accurately, in my case) includes a strong attachment/attraction to that which is seen as 'good' or 'holy' as well as a corresponding pull towards being intrigued with the opposite. So what if this is all about some kind of self-defeating embracing of something I've always seen as bad/aggravating/negative, instead of putting a positive ideal into practice?
- I no longer feel comfortable davening in less formal clothing. In situations in which I am unable to change, I feel semi-naked, or unprepared. I actually feel the standards of 'this isn't what I should be wearing to my appointment with the Divine'.
- A big problem is the fact that my work environment is "business casual". Only one co-worker wears a tie or jacket (and very rarely at that), and polo-shirts are normal. This'd all be a lot easier if I could just get dressed for work, and happen to be at the 'proper' level of formality for davening as well. As it is, I have to change when I go between the two places, and the extra clothing takes up valuable space in my bags. And besides that, as yall can see from the pictures of me I've put up, my general mode of being clothes-wise is casual. I wear sweaters and jeans, and t-shirts and sandals or hiking boots. This whole formal clothing thing feels like fakery sometimes.
- There seems to be someone who agrees with me — according to Micha Berger in this www.hashkafah.com posting, Rav Shlomo Riskin 'required jackets and ties for shacharis (Not hats)' in a high school even. However, this anecdote is the only one I've ever seen about it. There's got to be some kind of reason why more people don't hold this way... am I missing something?
- Growing up geeky, I developed a strong fear of being seen as weird. This definitely qualifies me as weird. And I'm paranoid of friends, acquaintances or relatives finding out about my change in practice. When I go home to my parents' for Shabbos, I dress for shul as they've always seen me dress — Southern Jerusalem style (dress-shirt [either with covered buttons or a sweater] and slacks; remember, I've always hated suits/ties). How do all those guys who 'flip out' in Israel and come back monochromatic do it? Are they just so sure (or full?) of themselves and their newfound frumkeit that they just don't care what other people think?
Update: Jewish Worker (Bluke) had a short post on this topic here back in May.