Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Preparing for Purim: Uniforms, Costumes and Alter Egos

This summer our Israeli Bronfman Fellows (Amitim) were asked to show up one night dressed as their “alter-egos”. That night, the room filled with secular girls in modest dresses, religious kids without kippot, tough-guys, cross-dressers, a young man who dressed “straight” and two geeky computer nerds (perhaps in a desperate claim that in real life they weren't nerds…). It was a moving educational exercise on identity. Some of the Amitim confessed to yearning to become their alter-ego, while others were expressing the dark doppelganger of their identity, someone they fear they could easily become if they did not walk the straight and narrow. It was a stirring reminder to how clothes are one of the most powerful conduits of identity.

Clothes are the stars of this week’s Jewish texts and rituals: This week’s portion, Tetzave, introduces the Priests uniforms, and this Wednesday night is Purim, the holiday of reversal, parody and costumes. The story of Esther is a tale of changing clothes and changing identities, and ever since Jews started wearing costumes on Purim, it has become a day of exploring the boundaries of clothes and identity. The Hebrew language conveys a deep suspicion of clothes in the designated word: begged, which simultaneously means both clothes and betrayal. But are clothes necessarily a betrayal?

Let’s start with a positive reading of clothes: Clothes, so much more than simple physical protection, in fact perform a magical act of belonging. By dressing in a certain way one can embody something beyond the physical body. We use clothes to convey social status, to attribute ourselves to a certain category, or to express psychological and socioeconomic statements.  Clothes are a second chance, an opportunity to transcend our body, to become “other”, to embrace something larger than ourselves.
This is brought to an extreme in uniforms (uni-form), in which a person is redeemed from their individuality and becomes unified with something larger. The Priestly garments represent this union:

You are to make garments of holiness for Aharon your brother,
for glory and for splendor. (Exodus 28:2)
וְעָשִׂיתָ בִגְדֵי-קֹדֶשׁ לְאַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ לְכָבוֹד וּלְתִפְאָרֶת. (שמות כח:ב)

The term “glory”, kavod is otherwise only used in the Bible to describe God. By wearing those clothes, the priests are no longer mere human, but rather receive something of the Divine Kavod. This does not occur through lineage, it occurs through clothes, as the midrash puts it:
While in their vestments, their priesthood is vested in them.
Not in their vestments, their priesthood is not vested in them.
Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 73b
בזמן שבגדיהם עליהם – כהונתם עליהם;
אין בגדיהם עליהם – אין כהונתם עליהם.
(סנהדרין פג:)
It is the “clothes that make the priest”. This very positive interpretation of the role of clothes and uniforms is based on an assumption about the human state. The great Classical Reform German commentator Benno Jacob describes clothes in this vein, employing not only the priestly garments, but also an interesting interpretation of the Garden of Eden story which sets clothes as the height of Divine Creation:

Clothing constitutes the necessary distinguishing mark of human society. In the moral consciousness of man it serves to set him higher than the beast. The status and glory of man are reflected in the character of his attire. Just to be clothed already lends dignity to man, thus the priests were given special garments “for glory and for splendor”.
Benno Jacob (1862-1945)
Clothing is a symbol of human dignity, nakedness the essence of the beast. The nakedness of man symbolizes his mortality. The fact that the Lord himself gave Adam and Eve garments and clothed them indicates that clothing is not just a social convention but an extension of the work of creation, a kind of second skin given to man, a nobler material encasement. (Benno Jacob on Genesis 3:21)

For Benno Jacob, dignified clothing is a mitzvah, the obligation to be a dignified German mentsch. This was an important troupe in German Judaism (and early American Judaism) of the time: Jews should dress like dignified priests, not like those schleppers from the shtetls of Eastern Europe. In the dirty industrializing world, dignified clothes served to redeem a person from mortality, giving a “second skin, a nobler material encasement”.

The days of 19th century clothed dignity were strewn aside in the 1960’s, when a  suspicious reading of clothes was embraced: clothes represent a concealment of the “true self”. Uniforms are the height of a loss of individualism, while nakedness is purity and holiness. Our bare skin is our priestly garment. This naturalist narrative can also employ a reading of the Garden of Eden, in which the focus is on the fact that God created clothes only after Adam and Eve ate from the tree. Clothes are only needed once the “fall of man” has occurred, for wearing clothes is an act of post-sin concealment, a sign of culture’s betrayal.
Amid this great debate about clothes and humanity, Purim presents an interesting perspective: realizing that there is no way to overcome the fact that clothes simultaneously reveal and conceal our “true self”, we must become playful: wearing the “uniforms of life” which elevate us, but always with a grain of salt, refusing to be boxed in by our clothes (colorful striped socks under the formal suit, anyone?).  
More radically, Purim invites us to set aside a time in which we completely reverse our wardrobe, which in turn reverses our identity. It is an invitation to cross dress, but not only to cross genders (the classic Purim costume, mentioned in many collections of Rabbinic customs), but to cross and reverse all the other dichotomies and uniforms of our lives as well. On Purim we are using clothes against themselves, to deny their power to box us in, and simultaneously to redeem us from needing redemption. At its scariest hours, Purim, like the good carnival that it is, makes us wonder if there is an "authentic self" at all, or whether it is all just endless masks upon masks.

My three year old this year declared that she is getting dressed up as a baby. What she is probably reminding us is that she is no longer a baby (but would still sometimes like to be allowed to be one!). I haven’t decided what I will dress up as this Purim, and whether it will be one of the alter-egos that I sometimes yearn to be, or to ridicule one of the doppelgängers I fear. Either way, I hope to take the playfulness with me this year, not to upend my belief in a search for authenticity, but to remind myself that there are many ways to find it.

Purim Sameach!

p.s. Quoted in the name of the Baal Shem Tov is an amazing interpretation of costumes as a pivotal cross-dressing across socio-economic status, which allows a new vision of society (i.e. a “true” fulfillment of the mitzvah of tzedakah):
“It is a mitzva [commandment] to obey and to dress up on Purim” - Indeed, it is a great mitzva, because in this way one cannot tell the noble man from the poor. And therefore they [the rabbis] instituted the mitzvah of gifts to the poor on Purim, because when people dress up, the mitzvah of tzedakah may be performed in its most appropriate manner [כתיקונה]. One does not know then to whom they give, and the one who receives does not know from whom they receive, and thus no one is embarrassed to appear needy and dependent on human kindness. This is the best manner of anonymous giving, when one gives while in costume to someone else in costume.
Quoted in S. Tudor,"ההסוואה וההתחפשות" מחניים קד (1966) 33