A LETTER WRITTEN TO THE ZEIGLER SCHOOL OF RABBINIC STUDIES STUDENTS IN RESPONSES TO QUESTIONS OF WOMEN AND RITUAL GARMENTS DESIGNED FOR AND BY MEN
Dear Zeigler Community,
I have seen only some of the postings regarding the issues that might arise for women in the rabbinate or women who choose to wear a kittel as part of their garb for the Yomim Noraim. I wanted to briefly address this question as a woman in the field who spends a significant amount of time on the pulpit and thinks regularly about clothing, the rabbinate, issues of tzniut and body image.
It is nearly impossible (this may be true for male rabbis as well but I speak from my own experience here) as a female rabbi to not become constantly engaged in thought about what you wear on the bimah, in front of classrooms and in your work generally. Whether, fair or not, there is in our culture a particular focus on women who are leaders and what they wear, from jewelry to make-up to shoes, I rarely (and by this I mean almost never) go through a Shabbat without a comment, question, or discussion about what I am wearing or how I look. From the top of my head to my toes – people have a lot to say to me about my clothes, hairstyle, nails, shoes etc. This holds true from my congregants of an older generation as well as those of the younger generation.
In turn I have come to spend a lot of time thinking about what I wear: how it looks, what kinds of comments it might elicit and whether or not I feel comfortable wearing “it” whatever the “it” is. In some ways this is a very good thing – it reminds me that how I dress impacts how I am perceived as a klei kodesh and whether this is a fair measure of judgment. Still, it is a reality and we, each of us in our way must deal with these questions. It helps me to think about what modesty in Judaism demands of us in dress and behavior. On the flip side of the positives is, in my opinion, a very heavily weighted negative. I spend much more time than I would like fielding these comments, questions and thinking about my clothes, my ritual garb (which ones I wear), my make-up, or my shoes. I would much prefer to spend time focused on other things – that at least for me feel more important.
Now I come to the point at hand – the Kittel for women during this season. I have come as a rabbi to love Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur... and not just because I do lots of talking J. I have come to appreciate what it affords me as a female rabbi because I avoid the comments altogether about my dress, which the rest of the year plague my Kiddush conversations and post Shabbat emails.
I wear a plain white “men’s” kittel, underneath of which is some sort of skirt and top – the thing is, these are the only days my dress doesn’t matter. I have never received a single comment about my physical appearance when I wear the kittel.The kittel affords me a wonderful opportunity to focus on the “rabbi-ing” part of being a rabbi – teaching Torah, and engaging my community in a deep and meaningful prayer experience. In fact for me this happens at the Shelosh Regalim as well because my community has the custom of having its Klei Kodesh wear our kittels during all of these festivals. I think less about what I wear, and in turn find myself more focused and dedicated to elevating the holidays to their true meaning. As such I am so grateful for this plain white garment – it probably doesn’t look good--but isn’t that the point? We all look simple and plain – standing before our Creator and community on an even playing field – fanciness seems to matter so much less. I sort of wish everyone in my community would wear kittels. In fact, no one says a thing. Not one single comment has been made to me about my kittel or my shoes or make-up on those days. I simply stand on the bimah looking a bit like a simple rabbi teaching a little Torah. In fact, in my understanding of the minhagim surrounding the Kittel, this is the point – to elevate us to a place where we are nothing more than a corporeal being, a person trying to live even as we face our ultimate limited potential on this universe. Whether we are rehearsing our deaths with the kittel or celebrating our angelic whiteness, those plain old “men’s” kittels feel like a gift to me– one that I wouldn’t trade for any other garment. This keeps my life simple – teach Torah and let your community focus on your Torah and not on how you look... at least for a few days of the year.