As a child, I was envious of my Christian friends, who went to church on Sunday in jeans and ratty Chuck Taylors, while I was stuck attending synagogue in scratchy stockings and pointy patent-leather shoes.
By the time I was a teenager, I had learned how to work around the wardrobe restrictions, sewing scraps of sari fabric into ankle-length skirts, hiding late-90s platform Mary Janes under long ruffles, passing myself off as both “shul appropriate” and “artsy.”
I don’t go to synagogue anymore. In fact, as one half of an inter-religious duo, I now occasionally go to church. And what do you wear to church? Anything. A T-shirt? Yes. Torn jeans? Sure, if you’re a teenager. Flip-flops? Emphatically, yes. A few weeks ago, the pastor was wearing flip-flops. They’re utilitarian if you’re going to be baptizing people.
I don’t think that much about clothing anymore. I don’t fear being “inappropriate,” but I’m also more willing than I was as a teenager to learn the rules of whatever setting I’m in, and to accommodate them. The truth is, I had completely forgotten about my childhood jealousy of “church clothes” until last weekend.
Sunday, I woke up at 8, kissed my beloved good-bye (she was headed to church, where she would be singing in the band), and headed to meet up with a rabbi I’ve been trying to connect with. I waited a while, but she wasn’t there, and after getting good and mad about it, I checked my email and found out she’d gotten terribly sick. Hungry, disappointed, and mad at myself for having gotten mad at a sick person, I realized I could still make it to church in time to catch a song or two.
So I went. I showed up 30 minutes late, carrying a Tupperware of oatmeal, wearing my jeans and my flip-flops. No one, of course, thought twice about any of this.
That’s when that old anger crept back in. How wonderful it was to be welcomed with hugs and how are you’s, despite the fact that I hadn’t eaten breakfast, hadn’t planned on being there, hadn’t put on fancy clothing. Jews could really use a lesson in welcoming people as they are, I thought.
Since then, I’ve been thinking about the theology behind the dress codes. I have, clearly, always identified with – even idolized – the Christian perspective that God doesn’t care how you look; that your presence, your prayers, your actions, and your desire for spiritual connection take precedence.
In comparison, Jewish insistence that I wear skirts, shiny shoes, and jewelry sounds nothing but vain. For years, I could see only two options. A: Jews believe in a God who judges us based on the state of our manicures. (But I don’t… and most of the Jews I know don’t…) or, B: Jews and Christians both believe in a God who cares more about ourselves than about our outfits, but we Jews have woven our superficiality, our assumptions of wealth and success as expressed in our clothing, into the very fiber of our culture. Ugh. That’s even worse.
Until yesterday, I believed option 2. Believed it, and despised it, and let it fuel the fire of my discomfort with Judaism.
And then it dawned on me that I’d been looking at the whole thing from the wrong angle. (Comparing always leads to trouble….) I asked myself simply, Why does how you look at synagogue on Saturday matter to Jewish people?
The answer has nothing to do with what God thinks of us, and everything to do with what we think of God.
Jewish people welcome the Sabbath by lighting candles and welcoming the “Sabbath bride” into our homes. A bride. A metaphor for the day being as holy as a woman on her wedding day – a person who, in Orthodox tradition, literally gives blessings to members of her community. I don’t know about you, but if someone holy were coming to spend 24 hours in my house, I would scrub the toilet and hide the dirty laundry. I’d set the table, and use my nicest dishes. Not because I’m trying to show off, and not because I think my holy visitor will judge me based on what I have. Simply because she’s holy, and I want to honor her.
This concept of the Sabbath naturally extends to the house of worship. The instruction that I wear my finest clothes is not about me. It’s exactly the opposite. It’s an expression of my respect for the holiness of the day – a day set aside from the rest of the week – for praising, welcoming, and honoring the presence and the holiness of God.
Suddenly, I’m ok with Judaism’s don’t come as you are policy. Live as you are. Be who you are. And one day a week, shabbos, step outside of yourself. Carry your reverence for the holiness of the day on your person.
To my surprise, I feel as though despite my resistance, I have understood this intuitively the whole time.
Throughout the many years in which I’ve distanced myself from the “requiredness” of Judaism and immersed myself in a new world of cultural Judaism, I have always felt something lift in me in the moments between holiday preparation (the frantic attempts to stuff clutter behind closet doors, sweaty from challah baking in a hundred-degree kitchen) and the arrival of guests. In the few precious moments stolen for a shower, for changing into cleaner, nicer, clothes, is a feeling, a breath, that separates this moment from the rest.