Should we Listen to the Rabbis? Part 2

Selective Revisionism

To answer this question most prudently and exactly, I will say that at times it is imperative to listen, and at times it is best not to listen. Most of the time we should be comfortable following the dictates of our hearts while appreciating that the Almighty gave us brains with the intention of using them. The challenge, however, is how to take my advice while ensuring that our approach to life is honest and proper.

It would be wrong for me to paint all rabbinical decisions with the same brush, but it would be equally incorrect for me to ignore decisions that are fabrications of the truth or that are based upon values that are not authentically Jewish. An example of revisionist deliberation in rabbinical rulings is the biblical prohibition found in this week’s Torah portion: Lo yihyeh kli gever al isha, a man’s clothing should not be on a woman and a woman’s clothing should not be on a man, as doing so is an abomination against God. The Talmud in Tractate Nazir 59a expounds on this prohibition by unequivocally stating that the biblical commandment can’t be referring to women and men cross dressing as that obviously would not be an abomination. It also certainly can’t be referring to women wearing clothes designed for women just because men also wear clothes called by that name.  Rather the Talmud teaches that the biblical prohibition is limited to those who dress as the opposite sex solely for the purpose of immorality, to be indistinguishable from the other sex in order to gain entrance into their private domains for improper activities.

The Biblical commentator, Targum Yonatan ben Uziel, explains this law as a prohibition for women to don tefillin or a tallit. Unkelos, on the other hand, assumes it is referring to accouterments or accessories worn by the opposite sex. The Rashbam reduces his commentary to only four words and states: lalechet bein hanashim l’znut – for promiscuity purposes. And the Maharam Algaz in his Minyan Hamitzvot writes that the law makes exceptions for changes to local styles.  However, based on what is written in the Torah, there is no legal justification to forbid any gender from wearing attire that is suitably made for that gender or from wearing clothing that is intended as unisex. Obvious this proviso is limited to attire that adheres to laws of modesty and covers the more private parts of the human anatomy. However modesty laws are not associated with this Torah precept nor does it come with a one size fits all policy.

Our patriarch Abraham’s mode of dress was obviously different than the clothing worn today. In all likelihood the tunic of yesteryear resembled a loosely fitting women’s dress more than a Brooks Brothers three piece men’s suit. In all likelihood, most of today’s fashions bear little resemblance to the clothing worn by our ancestors. The Torah mandates are not intended to be a guide for fashion trendsetters, nor does Halacha have any interest in dictating or promoting what different sexes wear in each generation. The Torah is referred to as nitzchiyut or eternal.  It transcends time, trends, and fashion. Its purpose is to teach us morality and leaves us to decide how to express our own taste in fashion.

In researching this article I found an historical truth that may be hard for some on the far right to accept. If their motivation is sincere in denouncing the biblical laxity of females dressed in attire they disapprove of, then perhaps they would be open to discovering why wearing a black fedora may be equally problematic. Imagine if the article of clothing they believed was bringing them closer to spiritual nirvana was actually the clever guile of the evil inclination. How would they react when discovering the fedora’s humble beginnings began as fashion statement for females? Thus for the sake of uncensored accuracy and to protect the integrity of religion, I want to share an article found on the history of the fedora and black hat.  Instead of it being a symbol of male aristocracy, the fedora was actually a beged isha, a female garment.  ‘The Fedora was introduced in an 1882 theatrical play in France titled Fedora written by Victorien Sardou. The main character, Princess Fedora Romazova, wore a hat that later became known as the Fedora. The Fedora is a medium to small brimmed hat originally made of the finest woven felt and carefully crafted to adjust to the perfect fit because of the crown design. The popularity of the play and its well-known lead actress, Sarah Bernhardt, playing the part of Princess Fedora Romazova, the original Fedora was launched as a fashion hat for women of means. Men’s fashion soon adopted the Fedora hat and marketed it as protection against severe weather.  In the early part of the 20th century, the hat took on another role as part of the traditional attire of the male Orthodox Jews. This black Fedora is often still worn today.’

I remember watching a football game with some visitors from Israel but failing to discern the intricacies of American football their interest began to wane.  As they were about to turn the TV off, they noticed a fedora perched on the head of Tom Landry and innocently remarked, “Wow! In America even football coaches can be Orthodox Jews.” Yet, as stereotypical as their statement was, it still begs the question; should Orthodox Jews be permitted to wear a fedora? Should the same precedent used by the far right to prohibit women from wearing pants also be used to forbid the wearing of fedoras?

Personally I am of the opinion that styles change and just because the black hat was originally a garment exclusively worn by women has no bearing today and is permitted to be worn.  However in the spirit of consistency, all those who are willing to overlook the fedora’s origins should be equally accepting of women who wear garments that may have had their origins as exclusively male attire. Yet in the spirit of integrity I too have to be willing to change; I have to publicly declare that I may be wrong. If the rabbis’ stick to their principles and demand of their followers to stop wearing the traditional (newly traditional I should say) black fedora; if they are willing to acknowledge that the custom now goes against their understanding of a Torah edict,  then these rabbis’ will have elevated their stature in my eyes. I still may disagree with their general principle but I will definitely do so with a newfound admiration.


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jack Engel


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