Contemporary North American Jews have largely acclimated to the general culture in which we live. Outside of those in the Orthodox community who dress in a distinctive manner, when it comes to clothing (except for the occasional yarmulka or ritual fringes) Jews dress pretty much the same as other North Americans.
Even rabbis — who not that many generations back combined the clerical garb of Protestant ministers with the academic robes of the university to produce the “rabbinic robe” — rarely indulge that practice any longer.
So we are often surprised when we come to this week’s Torah portion, which includes myriad regulations regarding the priestly tribe of kohanim — the family line originating with Aaron, the brother of Moses — and find explicit instructions about the distinctive ritual garb of the kohanim.
“These are the vestments [the kohanim] are to make: a breastplate, an ephod, a robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress, and a sash.” (Exodus 27:4) The Torah describes in great detail the ways in which and the materials out of which each of these ornamental garments are to be made. Clearly no one living among the ancient Israelite community would have mistaken a kohen for a “regular Jew”; kohanim were meant to be “special” by lineage and by the way they dressed. But what about the expectation of being special by way of right behavior? Curiously the Torah barely addresses this issue when setting out the rules for the kohanim.
A student I had the pleasure of studying this portion with for her bat mitzva service, Camille Donoho, taught me an important and provocative insight about priestly garments. In her teaching for her service, she asks whether it is the special garb that some people wear, such as uniforms, that makes them special, or whether it is the actions that people carry out that lend them true distinction. She comes down on the side of actions; after all, not everyone privileged to wear a uniform always behaves in the best ways.
We know from later Jewish sources such that there was even a time when the position of high priest was literally bought and sold through political corruption; despite their wearing of ritually correct garments, these high priests brought dishonor on their office.
In the Mishna chapter “Pirkei Avot” (“The Teachings of the Early Rabbis”), Rabbi Shimon teaches: There are three crowns, the crown of the priesthood (kohen), the crown of royal rulership, and the crown of Torah learning — but the crown of a good name (keter shem tov) is greater than all of them. The question Camille raised about whether actions or attire ultimately confer honor was anticipated, and answered, by the rabbis of 2,000 years ago. One may inherit a uniform but that does not make one suitable to wear it. That distinction must be earned by the ways in which one behaves in the world, regardless of what kind of uniform or clothes one wears.
There is an evolution in Judaism from the Torah’s hierarchical vision of inherited status of members of a priestly family to the democratic vision of the rabbis in Pirkei Avot: that one’s real reputation comes from the ways in which one’s moral and ethical values are reflected in one’s actions, behavior, and attitude.