Don’t Judge a Priest by His Breastplate
D'var Torah Tetzaveh
February 27, 2021
Continue the conversation with Adath's Antiracism Committee on Sunday, March 14, 2021 at 7:30 pm. Pre-register here to join on Zoom.
Today’s Torah portion is an interesting one in that it is heavy on details. It methodically documents how the menorah of the Tabernacle is to be lit every day as well as how to construct the ephod and holy garments for Aaron the high priest and his sons. Sometimes it is easy to see a list of details and just go through the motion of completing it, but as Jews we have an obligation to try and seek to understand the deeper meaning.
This Dvar Torah was a group effort by members of Adath’s Antiracism Committee, and as such, found the descriptions of clothing to be prepared for Aaron as the Kohen Gadol, very compelling. Aaron’s holy garments are described in such detail that we could draw an actual picture of what he looked like as the high priest.
It is reasonable to ask why G-d demanded that his high priest to be so ornately and specifically dressed. We read about how Aaron’s garments were constructed to shoulder the burdens of his people through the two shoham stones, one on each shoulder. Clearly the details hold significance. They symbolize the actions he needs to take as a high priest. In addition, the breastplate must have been wondrous to see with all the gemstones laid in gold. We imagine that one could probably see and identify Aaron and subsequent high priests from a distance.
As a group, we thought about what assumptions other Jews made about Aaron when they saw him in his holy garments. Did they assume him to be important? Probably. Did they assume him to be special? Probably. Did they think he must be a person of good character? Probably.
We could go on and on about what qualities or characteristics we could assign to Aaron based on his garments. So, what are the implications for us as Jews.
We are going to imagine ourselves getting ready for synagogue. If you’d like to, close your eyes. Please imagine that it is a time when we are able to be together in the synagogue in person, something we are all looking forward to! What are you choosing to wear? Do you put on a kippah? Are your parents’ voices in your head telling you what not to wear? Are you choosing it based on comfort or appearance or because it belonged to a grandparent? How does it make you feel? If you closed your eyes, you can open them now.
We all choose what to wear for many reasons. It makes us feel a certain way, it makes people perceive us a certain way, it signals to others something important about who we are, whether we want it to or not. As Jewish people preparing for synagogue, we may make certain choices such as putting on a Kippah or magen david necklace to connect us to our Jewish identities and other Jews. We can wear these special things or we can choose not to, depending on context or circumstances. Are we in a place where we feel safe to be Jewish?
Rabbi Jordan D. Cohen talks about the concept of a “Hiddur Mitzvah, the enhancement of a mitzvah through the adornment of the act. This is why we say kiddush over fine wine in a beautiful cup rather than over juice in a paper cup. Both will fulfill the minimum requirement of the mitzvah–but by adding beauty we add to the holiness of the act.” For Jewish people the way we dress may enhance our relationship to G-d. And how lucky we are to not only have these ways to connect to our people, history and G-d and be able to fulfill this Hiddur Mitzvah, but to have safe spaces in which to do it.
For others, the way they dress that feels connected to their authentic selves and their histories may put them in danger. Furthermore, there are aspects of our identities that we cannot choose to take on and off like we do with our clothing. Our skin color, for example, is not something that we choose. And often the choices we make about what to wear in tandem with our race can lead people to judgements. Here in Minnesota and all around the United States, everyday fashion choices have to be carefully considered by people of color, Muslim people and transgender people just to name a few.
We are going to ask you to imagine together with us again. Once again, if you’d like to, please close your eyes. Imagine you are walking down the street and you see someone walking towards you. They are wearing baggy pants, an oversized sweatshirt and a hoodie zipped up and with their hood on. How are you feeling? Do you imagine yourself looking at this person or averting your eyes? What thoughts come to your mind? Are you imagining this person as White or Black? A man or woman? Would it matter if it was just one person or a group?
Open your eyes. Unlike Aaron, who was chosen to be the Kohein Gadol because of who he was and was dressed accordingly, today, many times we form judgements, not just about what a person wears but about who they are as a person or the circumstances of how they are living their life. It is a snap judgement that we are trained to make without even knowing we are making it.
Today, numerous examples exist that show how dress, religion, and/or actual physical characteristics that can’t be changed all impact what we think of a person. For those in the Black community, wearing hoodies, baggy pants, and vibrant colors impacts peoples’ perceptions of them. Hoodies and baggy pants generally make us think of athletes, thugs, bad kids, or kids looking for trouble, not smart, intelligent, kids looking for opportunities for advancement. Even if you saw a white kid wearing these same clothes, you may judge them first based on the clothing that they are wearing and the associations you make with it. Then when you realize that the color of their skin doesn’t fit your assumption, your thinking may be challenged.
This does not only happen at a personal level but also at a systemic level. Black women are one and a half times more likely than white women to be sent home from work because of their hairstyle. Whether on purpose or accidentally, Black women are discriminated against for having natural hair that does not align with white beauty standards. White hair and hairstyles are the default of what we assume smart and professional people should wear, but that requires those born with a different curl pattern to spend countless hours, hundreds of dollars, and sometimes the use of harsh chemicals to achieve a look that is perceived as professional. This is being fought with “The Crown Act'' which stands for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair.” This law prohibits race-based hair discrimintation, which is the denial of employment and educational opportunities because of a persons’ hair texture or protective hairstyles including braids, locs, twists or bantu knots. As of 2020 “The Crown Act'' has been signed into law in 7 states. It was considered in many others including Minnesota, but was not passed.
Hair in the workplace, or baggy pants on the street both illustrate some of the ways people’s identities, clothing and positions come into conflict. It might be easier if we could say we were judging people only based on their clothes, not their race. Unfortunately, the world is more complicated than that. It is not just about what Aaron wears but about who he is that informs judgements of him. It is a person's race, gender, religion and more that inform how they are perceived by others. To think we judge people based only on one aspect of their identity, such as their clothing, is both inauthentic and dangerous. It creates a world where we go through making assumptions without being aware of what we are doing.
The Crown Act highlights a powerful way to mitigate judgement based on people's appearance and race. There are many examples of how these judgements are not so easily stopped and can be violent or even lethal towards others. In 2020 the Human Rights Campaign reported at least 44 transgender or gender non-conforming people were violently killed. These people were predominantly Black or Lantinx transgender women. We cannot say for certain that these people were killed because of how they dressed but trying to dress authentically as a transgender person certainly puts you at risk. The fact that these people were predominantly Black or Latinx further highlights that not only what we wear but our race causes people to judge us. This parsha highlights that even to G-d the way people dress is important. Aaron is commanded to wear garments that reflect his position. So how can we be okay with living in a world where people are judged and put in danger because they dress in a way that reflects their position and identity.
We need to challenge ourselves to consider the assumptions we make about how people look, that there may be a very good reason, a deep history and connection for all people to their choices of clothing. That a transgender person dressing in accordance to their gender identity or a Black man choosing to wear baggy clothes are also Hiddur Mitzvot. That if what Aaron wears highlights his holy position and we respect that then the choices of these people reflect their positions and are deserving of the same respect. We make these judgements automatically and unintentionally but this is a call to action. We need to start noticing our own tendencies to judge and react to people who aren’t like us. We can appreciate the times that we feel safe enough to express our Jewish identities and want to make space for others to express their identities as well. In this way we can lift up the holiness within each of us.
This is lifelong work, learning to notice the ways we are thinking and making the conscious choice to think differently. We hope to create space for each of us to begin or continue this work. We have two opportunities we would like to extend to you all. First, at the end of services today please join us for breakout rooms where we will be diving into each of our own relationships to assumptions we make about people based on their race and clothing. Dudley Deshommes-Kohls will lead us into that conversation with breakout groups led by other members of the Adath Antiracism Committee.The question we are going to start with today is, think of a time you made an assumption about someone based on how they were dressed. How did their identity influence your assumption either in support of it or contradicting it? The goal is to take some time to think about how this comes up in our own lives and reflect on that together. If you find that conversation meaningful and would like to continue to dive deeper with us, we invite you all to join us on Sunday, March 14th at 7:30 pm for a facilitated conversation around antiracism in our own lives. Thank you and shabbat shalom.
Conversation over Kiddush:
Think of a time you made an assumption about someone based on how they were dressed. How did their identity influence your assumption either in support of it or contradicting it?
Continue the conversation with Adath's Antiracism Committee on Sunday, March 14, 2021 at 7:30 pm. Pre-register to join on Zoom.
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