Rabbi Seth Goren, an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program, is a project consultant with Hillel’s Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning in Washington, DC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In at least one regard, Aaron had it easy: he knew exactly what to wear to work every day.
The details of Aaron’s wardrobe were very specific: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress, and a sash, with divinely ordained materials specified for each item of clothing. From the ornamented hem of his robe (bells and pomegranates) to the make-up of the headdress (pure gold), little is left to the imagination, giving this week’s Torah portion a remarkable similarity to the TV show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.
With his office gear already set in stone, I can’t imagine that Aaron ever had to agonize over questions akin to those that potentially confront us every day, like whether his ensemble matched or if his ephod made him look fat. He certainly never showed up to dinner parties to discover that someone else was wearing the exact same outfit.
For the rest of us, things can be a little more complicated. Modern-day Jewish life doesn’t always come with the clearest instructions on how to dress. Certainly, each person has definite boundaries, whether narrower or wider, as to what not to wear; I can’t imagine that any of us would wear a swimsuit to a business meeting, or a kittel on a first date. But when we rule out the absurd, things can get murkier for some. Do we cover our heads or hair? When, and with what? Made out of what material, and what color? Double or single coverings? Do we wear tzitzit, and when do we let them all hang out? How long should our sleeves and skirts be, and how far in excess of the minimum do we go (or how close to the minimum do we dare?)
Jewish leadership itself can also come with its own set of sartorial demands. Given the specifics of his uniform, Aaron must have stood out as a man of importance, even among his fellow priests. Does the way we dress change when we take on additional responsibilities in the Jewish world? Does it demand a suit when everyone else is just wearing coat-and-tie? Should what we wear be fancier or plainer or pricier or more affordable than what’s worn by the rest of the community we seek to lead?
On top of this, whether we like it or not, particularlistically Jewish garb often marks us as representatives of the Jewish people, and de facto Jewish leaders, when moving through the surrounding secular world. When we dress Jewishly, every action, whether politely helping someone up the stairs or rudely pushing others out of the way, can become and be perceived as a Jewish action, reflecting on all of us. For this reason, there are far-ranging implications flowing from what we put on the morning, from top to toes.
As much as all this may leave me slightly envious of Aaron, I appreciate his legacy and the extent to which I can share in his capacity to lead with fashion. Aware of my attire’s effect, I have the opportunity to act with Jewish intentionality, both in how I dress or how I relate to others. Simply by donning a kippah and leaving the house, I can become a public Jew, with a deeper potential to inspire and influence those around me. I may not sport a pomegranate-hemmed blue robe like Aaron, but I can still make a statement because of what I wear.