Rabbi Eliyahu Weintraub, a great kabbalist teacher, tells the following story: During the reign of Czar Nicholas I in Russia in the 19th century, a harsh decree was issued that all male Jews were required to wear hats similar to those worn by non-Jews. The Jews were very concerned about the severity of this decree and some felt they would rather be killed than comply with it.
The Hassidim, the pious Jews of the community, quickly went to the bustling study house of the beloved Kotkzer Rebbe, the great Hassidic teacher. For many hours, they debated the decree heatedly among themselves. Some didn’t think it was such a big deal and others vehemently opposed it.
The rabbi opened the door, annoyed, and asked: “What’s the loud noise? What’s going on here?”
“Oy,” they said. “The tyrannical government decreed that the Jews must change their clothing immediately and wear the clothing of a non-Jew,” they cried out in anguish.
The rabbi quietly replied, “The only clothing of a Jew is tallit and tefillin,” and he quietly and firmly closed the door after him. They looked at each other in disbelief, but they accepted the words of the great master and took upon themselves the decree of the government.
This story is brought in response to this week’s Torah portion, when God instructs Moses about how the Israelites should not follow the practices of those whom they live among: The words are b’hukotai lo telekhu, “and their laws you shall not follow” (Leviticus 18:3). The biblical polemic urged us to resist behaving like our neighbors because they were involved in idol worship, the very antithesis of our being in covenant with one God. It is not surprising that the Bible would discourage us from taking on the ways of our neighbors at that particular time.
But in a vastly different era with Jews living under the rule of a government, not self-ruled in small shtetls or ghettos, the rabbinic dictum is dina malkhuta dina — the law of the land is the law. The Kotzker Rebbe knew this and it was one of the values that informed his reaction to his students’ bickering. Dina malkhuta dina creates a framework for us to live amicably within a larger cultural context by sharing a common legal structure with our neighbors. Our abiding civil law, while not abrogating Jewish law, was the goal of the rabbis.
But if we look deeper, beyond the civil and Jewish legal dimensions of this story, we see that the Kotkzer Rebbe warns us on a spiritual level to carefully discern what is truly Jewish and what is not. Is our Jewish identity defined by the style of hat we wear? Of course not, most of us would say. (Although the type of kippah we wear could be another matter!) Our ancestors were afraid. In their understandable haste, they attempted to distance themselves from their neighbors and they erred. They misestimated what is truly Jewish and what is not. The Kotzker Rebbe’s words caution those now in our broader community who claim a monopoly on defining Jewish clothing above and beyond ritual garb.
For those of us living in liberal Jewish communities, the Kotkzer Rebbe’s words can inspire us to embrace what is truly “Jewish” clothing. By donning a tallit or laying tefillin, we envelop ourselves in Jewish tradition. We grasp the opportunity to come closer to God in the midst of a flourishing and egalitarian community.
But then why are so many of us reticent to don sacred attire? Many of us were not raised wearing a tallit or laying tefillin. Can we access these mitzvot? This is foreign to us. It can be risky to try something new. But what do we have to lose, other than stepping out of our comfort zone? By wearing these articles of truly Jewish clothing, we embrace our freedom in one of the most open societies that Jews have ever experienced: 21st-century America. U.S. law ensures our freedom from secular decrees about what we wear, and it ensures our freedom to don Jewish garb as well.
Let us not take this freedom for granted. Hats don’t keep people Jewish, but tallit and tefillin can.
Rabbi Susan Leider is the senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. She can be reached at email@example.com.