The other day I went shopping for a dress. Not to worry—it wasn’t for me. Actually, it wasn’t for anybody. I just decided to get on the Internet and google “Bat Mitzvah dress” to see what fashions are being touted these days. I knew I had landed an authentic site when minimizing each close-up of a model, the screen flashed me a “L’chayim!”
One of the last people on earth who should be writing about fashion is me. This may be one of those subliminal, oppositional responses to my father who was a custom tailor men’s clothing designer (in his language—a cutter), or just a personal distaste for shopping. If I need a couple more shirts or a new pair of pants, I head for Sears, and if I don’t find anything there, my safety store is Costco. Iris Apfel, had she the power, would have me arrested for crimes against clothing. Nonetheless, I do think about clothes because Jewish tradition does, and believe it or not, the Torah has what to say about it.
For example, the Torah is concerned about materials, and forbids the combination of wool and linen, known as sha'atnez (pronounced: sha-at-NEZ; see Deuteronomy 22:11). In another example, the Torah instructs us to place tzitzit, fringes, on the four corners of our garments in order to “look at [them] and recall all the commandments of the Lord” (Numbers 15:39). And in the Talmud, we read: “Rav Huna bareh d’Rav Yehoshua wouldn’t walk four amot (literally “cubits,” a cubit approximating about 16 inches) with an uncovered head. He said: the Divine Presence is above my head” (Kiddushin 31a). His custom evolved into the widely-observed tradition of kippah or head covering which we wear during prayer, study, and meals (since prayers are recited at that time).
Dress at synagogue on holy days has become increasingly casual. This is a national trend not only in synagogues but in churches as well. I welcome the change because over the years, many women (and some men) have complained about the burden of having to dress up on a Shabbat, and how if they didn’t have to, they would be more likely to attend services. I know that some might question the sincerity of that complaint, but any barrier to attendance that can be reasonably lifted is worth the risk. Still, that should not be a license to dress thoughtlessly or carelessly. Given the trend toward greater informality in synagogue-wear, what values should our dress convey?
The rabbis speak often of tzeni’ut or modesty in how we behave and how we dress. Tzeni’ut is the value observed by people conscious of living within a divine matrix, in which every point in space is in some way a God point, and every point of our body is, in kind, a connection with God. Modest dress would be simple and unflashy. Tzeni’ut fashion would be dress that covers the body more than it reveals, but not necessarily hiding the body as shameful. There is nothing shameful about our bodies, but within Jewish spiritual consciousness, the holy is always covered. Like a Torah in the ark, or the hallah before the hamotzi blessing, our bodies are not for public display.
Back to my own internet shopping spree, here are a few descriptions of Bat Mitzvah dresses that I came across which are “suitable,” for the big day:
The sultry strapless bodis has a chic sweetheart neckline and is cinched at the waist (Terani)
…this beautiful ensemble drapes to the decadent mid-thigh hem (Rachel Allan)
The seam-sculpted bodice boasts halter styling that shows off your shoulders (Ellie Wilde)
Sweet and sassy, this darling cocktail dress… (Mac Duggal)
The models displaying the various dresses looked far less prepared for praying than they were for clubbing, and none of them looked like thirteen-year-olds.
As I was “shopping,” I was trying to reconcile what was being passed off as legitimate feminine fashion with decades of feminists railing against the objectification of women. What exactly were these revealing, flashy, sexy, “synagogue-friendly” fashions conveying? Was it—
It’s my body and I have the right to show it off, however I want to show it?
I am on the cusp of sexual maturity and I can now declare the lure of my biology?
I remain, as I have been for centuries, a sexualized object, and I willingly embrace that status, no matter how demoralizing it may be?
In all honesty, my shopping spree didn’t last that long, and I did come across sites that offered more modest fare. That’s the good news. Even better is the fact that in our congregation, the people who tend to the modest and unflashy predominate. But there are those Shabbatot when the violations of all good taste are on display, particularly at B’nei Mitzvah ceremonies.
It is said that at the age of 13, our children become adults. And I say—What were the rabbis thinking! The truth is we adults transfer very few responsibilities to B’nei Mitzvah precisely because we know they are not ready. We are not going to give them the right to vote, a license to drive a car, or permission to drink liquor. As parents and grandparents, I hope that we don’t let the sexy and sassy fashion designers or marketers turn them into sexual objects at a time when they are still working through healthy approaches to body image and their own sexuality. Exactly when would be the right time for that anyway? Mommies and Daddies have a very powerful word to keep their children, particularly their daughters, from provocative dress. The word is “No.” It’s not a dirty word and if used, children will not hate parents even as they throw a tantrum for their parents having had the hutzpah to exercise a little parental authority. The tantrum is all about their fear of being unable to withstand the peer pressure to dress as provocatively as their friends. But actually, they do have the inner strength to withstand that pressure. And parents are in a perfect position to help their children discover that strength. Now that’s a fabulous message to pass onto a young person standing on the threshold of maturity!
I’m no fashion maven and as Sears moves closer to bankruptcy, I’m beginning to angst over where to shop in the future. And now I know the Internet will be no substitute. But I do worry about a world in which wardrobe chic is developed by people whose values are antithetical to those of the Torah, and I suspect, feminism as well. It’s time to give a little more thought to how our families dress for synagogue. We owe it to our daughters and sons: when we walk into the synagogue, we should walk in a Jewish way, and not on the runway.