Tzitzis and Uniforms
I was speaking to an old friend earlier tonight, we were catching up and he described the yeshiva he’s currently learning in. He described it as a small place with a strongly analytical style of learning. He described the rosh yeshiva as having a moustache. I had to ask him to confirm he meant just a moustache. Turns out he’s clean shaven except for what is apparently a magnificent moustache. Then he told me the dress code was anything you want, something I’d never heard of in a yeshiva catering to guys at his level. (He’s 24 and will probably always be in full time learning.)
Naturally that led into a discussion of dress codes, or more specifically, white-shirt-and-black-pants-dom. My take is simple; in theory dress codes make sense, people of certain professions are expected to dress to a certain standard. In practice the yeshiva dress code is flawed. It attempts to create perfect homogeneity based on a single ideal of how someone should look. After all, a lawyer is expected to wear a suit, but he’s not told to only wear a three button navy with pinstripes and a white shirt with a red tie. He’s expected to wear a suit and from there he can use his discretion and express himself through his choices. The yeshiva dress code is meant to be anti-choice, which my friend claims is against Jewish values, which I’ll get to in a minute.
I went to a Chofetz Chaim branch, which meant almost any color or fabric went fine as long as the pants weren’t too light and the shirt too dark. The white shirt system never affected me and I’m not even sure I was aware of it. My brother went to a different school, one that required white shirts and black pants. This killed him in a way, but not in the way you might think of. See, he went to a school with some very wealthy kids. Since your color and materials are all laid out for you, the kids expressed themselves in the only way they could; the labels they wore. The big thing was always who was wearing what, and the more expensive something was, the more shtark it was. (Possibly “schticky” as well. I’m not really up to date on my semi-fake Yiddish. Also, I’m aware this ironically sounds like a girls school with all the attention to clothes.) My family, is not well off at all. Pretty much the opposite, I grew up on hand me downs and thrift stores. But my brother who just wanted to fit in started badgering my parents for Hugo Boss shirts and Kenneth Cole shoes. He pretty much spent all his Bar Mitzvah savings on stuff from Saks so he wouldn’t feel so bad about himself in that school. He left after that year. His abiding memories of a white shirt yeshiva are the superficiality of it. And that’s the failing with the attempted homogeneity of white shirt-dom. There are white shirts, and then there are white shirts. Kids just want to fit in. When wealthy parents are buying their kids Versace, the poorer parents suddenly have kids who want the same. That’s the failing with the system. For it to truly work, they should use the British school uniform system. Everyone wears the same thing from the same supplier. As far as school goes, everybody’s equal.
Now for my main point. The only beged mentioned specifically in the Torah are tzitzis. According to the Rambam, Hilchos Tzitzis the strings have to be the same color as the garment, and the garment may be any color. The strings are called white, because we’re not commanded to dye them (besides techeles) but you may, and if you do, the strings must be the same color. So according to my friend, the only garment mentioned in the Torah is also allowed to be any color we wish. Tzitzis are a form of personal expression and he claims that the basis of our garments in the Torah is that of a personal expression of the wearer.
I’m not convinced of this argument yet, because I can easily counter that the fact tzitzis are dioraissa implies a certain level of conformity, clothes wise. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to finish this conversation. If anyone can shed some more light on this Rambam I’d appreciate it.
I will be flying to New York this Sunday, so the blog will probably be on hiatus as I’m not bringing my laptop so I don’t know if I’ll have computer access. I’ll be in Brooklyn then Forrest Hills all week. If anyone wants to suggest something I simply must do/eat/see while I’m there please feel free to give me activity recommendations. I’m heading to Chicago after that, so same goes for you Illinois readers as well.