Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Why They're Frummer

The basic impression never fails.  Stick someone in a black hat and suit next to someone wearing contemporary clothes and a suede kippah and ask people which man is more observant.  Almost every time the response will be "the guy in the hat and suit".
Not knowing anything about the two people this is the answer most people give based on first impressions.  It could be that the guy in regular clothes sits and learns all day long while and is especially medakdek in his mitzvah observance while the guy in the hat and suit is, well Sholom Rubashkin or something like that.  It doesn't matter.  Who's going to look more at place in the Orthodox shul down the street?
Many of us recoil from this simplistic observation and feel that it is quite wrong.  Judging people by the clothes they wear is superficial and can lead to great error.  What's more, there is a resentment in the non-Chareidi community over the importance specific uniforms play amongst the Chareidim.  It seems wrong to us that you should be rated by others based on the hat you wear, not on your basic actions.
As a result there is a great deal of effort put forth by many in the Modern Orthodox community to show that the halacha does not support some of the things Chareidim treat as assumptions.  One does not have to wear a black hat while davening or at any other time for that matter.  One does not have to wear exclusively white shirts and dark suits either.  A recent excellent book reviewing issues of importance to the Modern Orthodox community emphasizes this with plenty of halachic support.
But is that all there is to it, or does the paraphrase "Methinks the Modern Orthodox do protest too much" seem applicable here?
Consider where the term "Chareidi" came from.  It is based on a verse describing folks who tremble, are "chareid" for the word of God.  The Chareidi philosophy is based on a total dedication to connecting with God through the performance of mitzvos and that no area of life is devoid of mitzvos.
Thus for a Gerer chasid, the bekishe and shtreiml aren't simply a uniform to identify membership is a group but an act of worship.  The chasid doesn't wait to get to shul and put his tefillin on to begin his religious service.  He starts it with rising from bed and getting dressed.
The importance of this cannot be overstated as it puts non-Chareidi protestations at the seeming overemphasis on outfit in a different perspective.  As noted elsewhere, Modern Orthodoxy is often defined by what it isn't.  It isn't Reformative, it isn't UltraOrthodox.  Many in the community bristle at this definition but when one looks at the complaints I noted, it seems to resemble reality.
Consider that the Chareidi approach to clothing is positive - I wear this outfit to worship God.  Consider the Modern Orthodox retort - I don't wear that outfit because I don't have to.  Then look at other areas of difference between the two communities.  What is the Chareidi approach to television?  I don't watch television because it's against the Torah.  What is the Modern Orthodox rebuttal?  There's nothing against the Torah about watching television.
In each example one brings up the theme seems to be the same.  The UltraOrthodox perform acts with the express purpose of making them part of their worship.  These acts may be inventions, a product of the revision of history, a derivative of a chumrah from the gemara in Uktzin or the like.  They may have no basis in halacha at all!  Yet they are done as part of the ongoing service of God that is prioritized in the Chareidi community.
And the Modern Orthodox?  How is watching television part of one's worship of God?  How is a colourful contemporary outfit part of one's service to the Divine?  Are these acts of dedication to God or admissions that parts of their lives are simply exempt from serving Him?
It seems to me that this is why we have the immediate impression that the guy in the Oreo outfit is "frummer" than the guy dressed in a secular style.  Knowing nothing else about the two men we can reach one immediate conclusion.  The guy in black and white is making a positive statement to all who see him about his loyalty to Torah and mitzvos.  The guy who's dressed normally is not.  He may be just as pious or even more than his UltraOrthodox counterpart but in this one aspect where we see them he is lacking a positive statement of dedication.
Now, I reject the idea that the outfit is an important part of determining one's yiras Shamayim and level of Torah observance.  The pitfall of accepting that is a culture in which the outfit goes from one determinant to the sole determinant of one's acceptability to the group.  How many times in recent years have we seen people who own only variations on the Oreo outfit who did not have problems cheating and stealing?  How many times have we seen men whose lives revolve around the hats they wear rioting and attacking others who don't share their taste in clothing?
But I do think that this area raised an important challenge for Modern Orthodoxy.  One can look at regular clothes and say "Well I can't be bothered to bring God into that part of my life" or one can note that a Jew who is dressed in normal clothes might better relate to his non-religious counterpart and show him that an otherwise "regular" guy can also be observant, that the Torah lifestyle isn't simply for the "other" that requires a restrictive dress code.  A simple re-framing and suddenly Torah is in a new part of one's life.
There is a lot Modern Orthodoxy can learn from the Chareidim and this, the idea that Torah should impact all parts of our life including the most mundane ones, is one of those things.


Princess Lea said...

There is also middle ground between MO and chassidism. There are people like me, who don't identify with a particular outlook.

Is my clothing a service to God? Now that you mention it, I wonder. I never considered it that way. When I dress up on Shabbos, what is my motivation? Something to ponder.

As for who is "frummer"? Clothing doesn't reflect that, either way. Level of frumkeit cannot be gauged by any mortal judge.

AztecQueen2000 said...

Is Chassidic/Chareidi clothing necessarily "holier?" Shtreimels are made of the fur of non-kosher animals. Killing an animal to make a fur hat (while being unable to use its meat) could be construed as bal tashchis. Black and white clothing is reminiscent of the Catholic clergy, whereas the Torah describes the bigdei kehuna as being very colorful. Fedoras started out as women's hats.
Is it yiras Shamayim, or just being imitative? I refuse to go with any one group being better solely on the basis of dress.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

On a rational level, chasidish clothing is quite imitative. Shtreimls come from the Mongols who occupied eastern Europe. Bekishes are from the Polish nobility as is wearing one's pants tucked into one's socks. However, and this the important point, the Chasidim aren't wearing those outfits to be imitative. Frankly I doubt any Chasid knows that he's dressed like a Mongol/Polish parody. He's wearing those outfits as as expression of his Avodas HaShem.

Yochanan said...

MOs dress "normally"? Since when is wearing a funny circular hat and strings coming out from under your shirt "normal"? Since when is making sure no linen and wool is mixed in a piece of clothing "normal"? And for the women, since when is considering your elbows to be sexual "normal"?

ahg said...

I think it's just because for far too long with have let the chareidi world set the standard of what it means to be a pious Jew. In reality we should regard their mode of dress in the same way we regard the Burka Babes in Israel - as having stepped outside the realm of acceptable chumurot. I think it's sad that you find most Sephardic rabbis today have adopted the Ashkenazic yeshivish dress to conform and/or be accepted as equals.

SJ said...

lol u guys r talibans or taliban wannabees just admit it already.

Sparrow said...

I think of MO as a way of taking from secular culture and using it in service of torah. It's about being engaged with the wider world while still remembering my priorities. I don't define it negatively. I also think of it as a way of observing a certain baseline of halacha both publicly and privately while using chumras in a private way.
That Torah should impact your life in a direct way? I don't think that it's just a Charedi concept. I think being MO is about using the best of the secular world as well as Torah. Nobody ever said walking a tightrope is easy...

Yochanan said...


Although it has a lot to do with imitating the Ashkenazim, keep in mind that many Sfardim started to wear Western clothes during while their countries were under European rule.

I've seen pictures old black and white photos of Jews in Lebanon or Syria where the older men are wearing fezes and the younger ones suits and ties.

Hillel said...

while as a chareidi i have issue with your post, as i think most people don't pause too long to consider WHY they dress they way they do *though in some ways it might keeop them frummer)
i must take issue with your example of a 'non frum' chareidi.
when the story originaly broke i thought like many others that he was guilty of quite a few crimes but perhaps not as severe as it was madce out to be.
it has now eeen clearly shown that his 'crimes' were minsicule ands mostly standard operating procedure which the banks were aware or before hand.
in other areas the man in practically an angel in his kindness and tzdoko.
i would be very careful in using such a victim of our 'legal system' as an example of a criminal in any way.

MIghty Garnel Ironheart said...

Hillel, is there a special search engine you and your fellow Chabdniks use to seek out any mention of Rubashkin on the web so you can rush to misrepresent his crimes?

Sparrow said...

Actually, Google tailors your results according to previous searches, giving you results they think you'll agree with. is a search engine which will give you unbiased results.

harediandproud said...


You are one smart fellow. Very good points.

Just an h'aarah. Although I disagree with you re: Rubashkin and his "crimes" (are you aware how easy it is for the G-men to catch anyone they want to on financial crimes? Just ask Al Capone), I think we can agree that the puishment is excessive. Doesn"t he deserve some rachmanus, at least to the extent that you shouldn't gratuitously throw his name in in unrelated post?

Back to the post itself. Uniforms are the way we snap judge all people. When you see a black fellow with endless bling, what comes to mind? For all you know he's a sweet little person, but we rely on stereotypes when there's no time for anything else.

Same for Jews in general, we tell our children that when lost to approach a person with a Yarmulke. Used to be a good idea.....sadly.....

Although I still think we would tell them to seek out a Jew if there's no cop around.

Proud MO said...

Most Chassidim and chareidim don't dress that way to serve God. They dress that way because that's how they were raised, and they don't think twice about it. They do it because it's "the thing to do".

MIghty Garnel Ironheart said...

Harediandproud, here's the beef (forgive the pun) with Rubashkin. Yes, his punishment was excessive but that was because of two factors:
1) He was caught at a time when white collar crime was rampant in America and the courts were in a mood to slap it down. Look at how Conrad Black was punished for a minor infraction and how hard he had to fight to get out of prison.
2) Rubashkin lied in court, treated the judge like a Jew-hating fool and his followers openly announced that any guilty verdict was proof of anti-Semitism. Is it any wonder the judge had it in for him?
Rubashkin's posing as "an angel amongst men" just made things worse because the more trouble he got into, the more his being Orthodox was flashed around and noted by people. Talk about the chilul Hashem he caused!
Remember what I wrote you about perspective.