Sunday, March 30, 2008

Dressing Up as a Rabbi

The Jewish Week, March 5, 1999

Jews have long been intrigued by the curious connection between Purim, our most joyous holiday, and Yom Kippur, our most solemn, noting that one possible translation of “Yom Ki-purim,” as it is called in the Bible, is “a day like Purim.” Among rabbis, I daresay the most popular answer to this riddle is that on Purim Jews dress up as fools while on the Day of Atonement fools dress up as Jews.

I’m not sure who originated that quip, but I would expect that it was probably a pulpit rabbi; because this little snipe expresses perfectly the frustrations so many of us feel. Rabbis see first-hand the hypocrisy of those who don the mask of piety one day per year, yet we feel powerless to combat it. But the main reason for our frustration is our deeper awareness that we need go no further than the nearest mirror to find the real fools who dress as Jews.

I now understand why nuns call their attire habits, for clerical clothing is indeed habit forming. We’ve always got to look the part, whether on Yom Kippur, when we wear the most garish sneakers (unless we’re in a shul that for some misguided reason shuns sneakers, where we wear the shiniest patent leathers), or on Purim, when we wear the most outlandish costumes. We’re the ones who let people know that it’s OK to wear Nikes or dress like Barney the dinosaur.

Rabbis are the only ones who never get to dress as real people. Most Jews who wear a kippah in public do so purely out of personal conviction, often after much soul-searching. Most rabbis do too; but we all know that whether or not we desire to wear it, it is part of the uniform. Female rabbis especially need to don the kippah to be recognized as rabbis, but men also know that the kippah grants immediate recognition, and with that extraordinary power, whether in hospital wards, in the classroom or when stopped by the police for speeding. So I find myself wearing a kippah more often than not for professional rather than purely personal purposes.

That’s bad enough, but it gets worse. We have to wear rabbinic smiles too, and clasp with rabbinic handshakes and hug rabbinic hugs. We fume with rabbinic indignation and scratch our chins in rabbinic contemplation; we nod with rabbinic insight and rabbinically turn the other cheek when abuse is hurled. It is ever-so tempting to be cloaked in the garment of the role.

And when that happens, the fools are us.

Thankfully, at my congregation, the rabbi gets to be a person once a month, when the congregants lead the entire service. Last Shabbat, I dressed like a regular congregant and sat in the pews. True, I wore the same tallit and kippah I normally wear, but they felt different. The difference is that I was not wearing them for public consumption, although with my seat near the front I was still very much in the limelight.

Just after the Torah reading, my seven-year old son skipped into the sanctuary and sat next to me. “So this is what it’s like,” I thought, as I put my arm around him, enveloping him in my flowing tallit. He cuddled close. At some point between our belting out Ashrei together and the beginning of Musaf, I looked down and noticed that he was fiddling with my tzitzit.

A fiddler on the tzitzit? (Sounds crazy, no?) What’s the big deal? Well, if the goal is to occasionally get to dress not as a rabbi but as a Jewish human being, that objective is achieved by the simple act of wearing a large flowing tallit with your little kid attached to the end fiddling with the fringes. That is a very big deal. Ethan was playing with my tzitzit and it blew me away.

I never got to do it when I was a kid. My father was a cantor. I was very proud of that, but week after week my friends got to play with their dads’ fringes (moms didn’t wear them back then), and I could only fiddle with my own, and dream. Now, for the first time, my son and I were engaging in this primal Jewish parent-child experience on a Shabbat morning, and I realized what a fool I had been to deny this to him for so long.

Memo to congregation presidents: Insist that your rabbi sit in the cheap seats at least one Shabbat per month. Memo to rabbis: Don’t turn down the invitation. Memo to everyone: Purim reminds us that, if we want to avoid being fools, we have to take off the masks and dress like human beings once in a while. Come to think of it, that is exactly what we learn from Yom Kippur.

No comments: