The fashion conscious people of the world know it to be true: “Clothes make the man.” What we wear has a profound effect not only on how others see us, but on how we see ourselves. I learned this when I was first graduating from Cantorial school. Our first interviews were conducted over the telephone, but our advisors suggested that we dress in a suit – as if the interview were happening live and in person. You know what? It made a BIG difference. Wearing my suit and dress shoes, I felt professional, organized, put together. I know that when I spoke, I presented myself in that way as well.
This week’s Torah portion, T’tzaveh, talks a great deal about the clothing of the priests. We learn about everything they wore from the hats on their heads down to their linen undergarments. Every piece was designed with care. Every color, stone and ornament had meaning. Why? The priests needed to be enveloped in their role from the outside in. The clothing served not only to broadcast their role to the community, but also to help the priests themselves feel the importance of their job.
This brings me to the question of attire in the synagogue, and it is a fascinating question. Many people feel that we should wear our best to services. Clothing should be modest, so as not to draw attention away from prayer, but nice – at least as nice as what we would wear to our places of employment. They argue that this good attire shows our respect for G-d and the importance of the synagogue as a place we should dress up for.
Others suggest that the synagogue is a place where we should feel comfortable. After a long day at work, we should be able to put on a comfortable pair of jeans and gather to sing and pray casually with our community. The synagogue, according to this group, should be a relaxed and friendly environment – not one where it is necessary to dress to impress.
In my own synagogue, people from the two camps seem to comfortably co-exist. In the same service, I can look around the room and see jeans and suits. I am glad that both groups feel comfortable expressing these two points of view, but it leaves me in a bit of a quandary when someone asks me directly how they should dress for synagogue.
I grew up in a Reform congregation where women wore skirts, stockings, and (often) heels to services (heaven forbid you should wear nice slacks!) They have since moderated that, and I know that my mother often wears slacks to synagogue (nice ones, though – not jeans!). As a result of this upbringing, I cannot imagine even wearing a pantsuit on the bima. I always wear a skirt whether I am sitting in the congregation or on the bima.
I like dressing up to go to synagogue. It means that even though I go every week, services are special. But surely, readers you know me by now – I don’t like to tell others what to do! I like to make people question what they do, define reasons for their choices. If you are going to wear jeans to synagogue, don’t let it be because that is what you were wearing all day, and you didn’t think about it. Let it be a conscious choice. Similarly, if you are going to dress up for services, don’t do it because that’s what you have always done. Our clothes inform how we feel about ourselves. How do you want to feel when you step foot in the sanctuary?
I walk right on the line. I want to be comfortable and I want to feel special and respectful. I wear comfortable long skirts. My long skirts mean that I don’t have to worry that when I sit on the bima, people can see up my skirt! It isn’t comfortable or relaxed for me to have to worry about those kinds of things. My long skirts are very comfortable, but they are also not my every day attire. They are special and dressed up for the occasion of Shabbat and worship. It’s a compromise that works quite well for me, even though I’m pretty sure that the fashionistas of the world would call my Shabbat dress a “fashion don’t!”
I am interested to hear your thoughts. How do you dress for synagogue and why? How would you recommend others dress? Do you have a different answer for Friday evening versus a Saturday morning? What about kids and teenagers? Should clothing rules be different for them and if so, should they lean more towards dressing up or dressing down?