Do Clothes Make The Man?

fabric robes patterns colours clothes material rolls stitch

“You shall bring forward your brother Aaron, with his sons from among the Israelites to serve me as priests: Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, Eleazar and Itamar, the sons of Aaron. You shall make only clothes for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty.”

With these words a new phenomenon makes its appearance in Jewish life. Never before have we encountered robes of office, formal insignia marking off their wearers as holy people charged with a particular function in the religious life.

Indeed this whole section of the biblical narrative strikes us as strange, given all we know of what has come before. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob did not wear special clothes. Nor did Moses. They were shepherds. They dressed simply. In any event, what they wore is utterly irrelevant to the biblical message. As Erich Auerbach noted in his classic study, ‘Odysseus’ Scar’ (published in his book Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature), the great difference between Homer and the Torah is that Homer constantly describes appearances; the Torah rarely does.

Homer is fascinated by the play of light on surfaces. The Torah is deeply disinterested in surfaces: landscapes, portraits, physical descriptions. With few exceptions – only when it is necessary to understand what happens – the Torah does not tell us what its heroes and heroines looked like or what they wore. The biblical text is, in Auerbach’s phrase, “fraught with background,” meaning that the physical setting of its narratives is unspecified in the text, inviting us, the listeners, to supply it from our own imagination. If Homer is like television, the Torah is like radio. It focuses not on the image but the voice.

It does so for a deeply serious reason. There is a definitive moment in Samuel I when the prophet is commanded by God to anoint a new king. Saul has failed. He is too temperamental, insecure and concerned with popularity. He fails to fulfil the divine command. (Incidentally, this is a classic case where the Bible does emphasise appearances, precisely to show that they are misleading. Saul, when we first encounter him, is described as “a young man in his prime; no one among the Israelites was handsomer than he; he was a head taller than any of the people.” He had physical stature but not moral stature. That is the message the text seeks to convey.)

Samuel is told to go to the home of Jesse (Yishay) because one of his sons is the man chosen to be king:

When they arrived and he saw Eliab, he thought: “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands before Him.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Pay no attention to his appearance or his stature, for I have rejected him. For not as man sees [does the Lord see]; man sees only what is visible, but the Lord sees into the heart.”

Judaism — the religion of inwardness, not appearances; of ethics, not power; of character, not the formal dress of office – is not the place we turn to, to find the specification of official uniforms. On at least two famous occasions we find biblical heroes donning robes of majesty. There is Joseph in Egypt:

So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I hereby put you in charge of the whole land of Egypt.” Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his finger and put it on Joseph’s finger. He dressed him in robes of fine linen and put a gold chain around his neck. He had him ride in a chariot as his second-in-command, and men shouted before him, “Make way!” Thus he put him in charge of the whole land of Egypt.

And there is Mordechai in Persia:

[Haman] answered the king, “For the man the king delights to honour, have them bring a royal robe the king has worn and a horse the king has ridden, one with a royal crest placed on its head. Then let the robe and horse be entrusted to one of the king’s most noble princes. Let them robe the man the king delights to honour, and lead him on the horse through the city streets, proclaiming before him, ‘This is what is done for the man the king delights to honour!’ ”

“Go at once,” the king commanded Haman. “Get the robe and the horse and do just as you have suggested for Mordecai the Jew, who sits at the king’s gate. Do not neglect anything you have recommended.” So Haman got the robe and the horse. He robed Mordecai, and led him on horseback through the city streets, proclaiming before him, “This is what is done for the man the king delights to honour!”

The non-Jewish, non-Israelite setting of these passages is obvious. That – Tanach seems to imply – is how others do these things; not us. Robes, rings, chains of office, chariots, horses: these are external signs of glory, unworthy of a people who judge authority by humility, and majesty by obedience. It is hardly coincidental from the Torah’s perspective that it is precisely Pharaonic Egypt and Xerxes’ (Ahasuerus’) Persia, that celebrate the visual trappings of official dress, who also issue the first decrees of genocide against the Jewish people. A culture that worships external symbols of power will in the end lack the inwardness and humanity to respect the dignity of the powerless.

Nor is this all. At least five episodes in the book of Bereishit turn on the subject of clothes (the nineteenth century English writer Thomas Carlyle wrote a book, Sartor Resartus, dedicated to a “philosophy of clothes.” In a certain sense Bereishit is an anti-philosophy of clothes). There are Esau’s bigdei chamudot, “best clothes,” that Jacob puts on to take Isaac’s blessing. There is the ketonet pasim, the “richly embroidered cloak” or “coat of many colours” that Jacob has made for his favourite son, Joseph. There are the clothes of a [temple] prostitute that Tamar puts on when she removes her “widow’s garments” [bigdei almenutah] in order to attract Judah. There is the begged, cloak or robe, that Joseph leaves in the hand of Potiphar’s wife when he flees from her attempt to seduce him. And there are, as mentioned above, the special robes [bigdei shesh] and insignia of office that Joseph wears as second-in-command to Pharaoh.

One fact links all these episodes. Garments are used to deceive. Jacob wears Esau’s clothes to deceive his blind father Isaac when he puts out his hand to feel him. The brothers stain Joseph’s cloak with goat’s blood to persuade their father Jacob that he has been killed by a wild animal. Tamar changes her clothes and puts on a veil to hide her identity from Judah. Potiphar’s wife uses the robe Joseph has abandoned to bolster her claim that he tried to rape her. And Joseph uses his new-found appearance as a senior Egyptian ruler to hide his identity from his brothers (“Joseph recognised his brothers but they did not recognise him”).

It comes therefore as both a shock and a confirmation when we discover that the Hebrew word for “garment,” begged, also means “betrayal” (as in the confession, Ashamnu, bagadnu). That is precisely what garments are in Bereishit – instruments of deception and betrayal. Indeed that is the message conveyed by the very first reference to garments in the Torah, when Adam and Eve, against God’s instruction, eat from the fruit of the tree in the midst of the garden:

Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realised they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.
Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, Where are you?”
He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”
And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

Clothes were the sign of the first great betrayal, the first breaking of a divine command.

Clothes are what separates nature from culture. Desmond Morris once called man “the naked ape.” Of course, that is precisely wrong. Homo sapiens is the non-naked animal, the only being in creation whose external appearance is fabricated, made, a detachable second-skin. Hence the gap in human affairs between appearance and reality, the appearance we make by (among other things) the clothes we wear and the reality of what we think, plan and feel. Shakespeare has Hamlet deliver to his mother the queen a remarkable speech, the thrust of which is that not only is he dressed like a mourner; in addition, he actually does mourn:

Seems, madam! Nay, it is; I know not seems.
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forc’d breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected ‘havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shows of grief,
That can denote me truly: these, indeed, seem;
For they are actions that a man might play;
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

The Torah’s point is Hamlet’s also: there is a difference between “is” and “seems” – between what we really feel and “the trappings and the suits” of what we wear.

If we are to understand Judaism we must never forget that it represents a specific moment in – as well as an eternal truth about – the history of mankind. Neither Moses, nor even Abraham, are primeval figures (as they would be if the Torah were myth). They are “latecomers.” The great symbol of ancient civilisation, the Tower of Babel, precedes the call of God to Abraham. Judaism does not represent the birth of civilisation; it represents a critique of civilisation. It is precisely when human beings discover technology, build cities, construct advanced methods of warfare (the Egyptian horse-drawn chariot is the key biblical example) and erect self-serving monuments that the human potential for evil becomes seriously destructive. Empires elevate rulers by degrading the mass of mankind.

One of the most visible symbols of empire is robes of office. They exalt the few at the cost of the many. They represent a thoroughly hierarchical society of a kind to which (as we pointed out last week) Judaism is essentially opposed. The English language lacks a word like the Hebrew begged, which links “garments” and “betrayal.” But it has another one that covers roughly the same territory, namely “sophisticated.” On the one hand it has a positive connotation – it means “refined, cultured.” On the other it has an ancient and disreputable history deriving from the pre-Socratic philosophers who used to teach for money and were known (and criticised by Plato) for their persuasive but fallacious arguments. Thus “sophisticate” also means “to spoil, adulterate, corrupt, pervert, mislead.” Civilisation always runs the risk of substituting “seems” for “is.” Those who dress like kings may have the heart of slaves, fearful, resentful and vindictive. Those who wear the robes of holy people may (like the sons of Samuel) be corrupt. That is why Jewish sensibility is, on the whole, sceptical of official uniforms. God sees, and teaches us to see, the inward person, what Hamlet called, “that within which passeth show.”

Why then did God command Moses to set in motion the making of special garments for the priests, “for glory and for beauty”? The answer lies in the analysis given by the nineteenth century sociologist Max Weber. Weber was fascinated by the question of leadership. What is it that gives some individuals authority over others? His most famous insight – it has become part of the language of everyday speech – is that certain rare figures have what he called charisma. Charismatic leaders, by the force of their personality, are able to exercise influence over others. They speak to their fears, their concerns, hopes and dreams. They articulate a narrative that explains them to themselves. They construct (or, in the case of prophets, receive) a vision that motivates and moves. They are transformational. They do not leave a group or nation as it was before. They do not (as some leaders do) merely “keep the show on the road” or “keep the ship from sinking.” They change the people with whom they come into contact. They are the midwives of something new.

But charisma begins to die almost as soon as it is born. Charismatic authority is strictly personal. It is unique to the individual who wields it, and it can never be replicated over time. Indeed it is essential to the survival of the group that it is not replicated over time. A charismatic leader is an agent of change, but a group, in order to survive, needs a form of leadership that is resistant to change; that is, instead, a vehicle of continuity, tradition and stability. Without this, the group will not persist long into the future. That is why, after the appearance in its midst of a charismatic leader, the group must undergo what Weber called the routinisation of charisma. This is the process whereby a certain form of authority is vested, not in an individual-as-individual but in an individual (or group) as bearers-of-an-office. Thus charisma is handed down from generation to generation in an orderly and predictable way, through laws of succession, together with rules regulating the behaviour of the holders of the office and their relationship to the group as a whole.

The prime example of the routinisation of charisma is contained in Tetzaveh, in the process through which Moses invests priestly authority in Aaron and his sons. The bigdei kehunah, the “priestly vestments” are its visible symbol. The cohanim are – by virtue of birth and descent, not personal qualities – the carriers of sacred office. Their work is holy. Their domain is the Tabernacle, the physical embodiment of sacred space. They are charged with mediating between the people and God. Their clothes mark their office and role.

Not accidentally, therefore, is Tetzaveh the only sedra between the beginning of Exodus and the end of Deuteronomy in which the name of Moses does not appear. The most important fact about routinised charisma is that it exists when the charismatic leader (i.e. Moses) is no longer there. We now understand precisely the connection between the sedra of Tetzaveh and the episode of the Golden Calf (later in the book of Shemot but, according to most commentators, earlier in time). The Golden Calf was a response to the crisis posed by Moses’ absence (“This Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt – we don’t know what has become of him”). It illustrated the weakness of charismatic authority: powerful in its presence but debilitating in its absence. The Israelites had to become the people who would continue to serve God after Moses had left them. That is what the Tabernacle, the sacrifices and the priesthood represent: continuity, the ability to sustain long into the future the experience of Sinai and the presence, in the midst of the people, of God.

A prophet needs no official vestments. His or her authority is charismatic, personal, spontaneous, unrepeatable. But a priest needs bigdei kehunah, “priestly vestments,” to show that in his case the office is greater than the person; it continues from generation to generation; it represents stability and “the persistence of faith” through time. The greatness of biblical Israel is that it never completely routinised charisma. From Moses to Malachi prophets arose to “speak truth to power” and prevent the service of God from becoming merely routine. But had there been only prophets, and no priests, Israel would have disappeared long ago. It would have lacked the essential ability to sustain its mission over time.

Partly because of the prophets, biblical Israel was able to correct the dangers of the routinisation of charisma. As the commentators point out in their remarks on the phrase mamlechet kohanim, “a kingdom of priests,” the word cohen itself means both “a prince” and “a servant.” The sons of Aaron may have been aristocrats of the spirit, but they were also servants, of both the people and God. The last of the prophets, Malachi, has a wonderful description of the role of a priest:

True instruction was in his mouth
And nothing false was on his lips.
He walked with me in peace and uprightness,
And turned many from sin.
For the lips of a priest preserve knowledge,
And from his mouth men should seek instruction
For he is a messenger of the Almighty Lord.

And in a famous phrase, the book of Psalms contains the prayer, “May your priests be clothed in righteousness.” It is clear then that the phrase in Tetzaveh, “for glory and for beauty” does not mean “for the glory and beauty of the priest.” It means “for the glory of God and the beauty of His presence” (see Sforno). The task of the cohen – and the message of his clothes – was to be a “signal of transcendence,” to point in himself to something beyond himself, to be a living symbol of the Divine Presence in the midst of the nation.

The last chapter in this story, however, is the most remarkable. It happened after the destruction of the Second Temple and the end of a functioning priesthood. It was then that kehunah was essentially universalised and democratised. In prayer, everyone became a priest. Each synagogue throughout the world was a miniature Temple. Through teshuvah (repentance) of Yom Kippur, each Jew was like a High Priest atoning for sins. “From the day the Temple was destroyed,” said the Sages in one of their most haunting aphorisms, “the Holy One blessed be He has nothing in this world apart from the four cubits of halachah.” Halachah invested, and invests, every detail of daily life with the charisma of holiness. No longer did anyone need a special uniform to single them out as priests or holy people because the Jewish people as a whole had become, individually and collectively, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”.

If the cohen represented the routinisation of charisma, Judaism – through its halachic sanctification of everyday life – eventually became the charismatisation of routine.”

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