Being Conspicuously Jewish

June 26, 2020 | by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld

Please help me understand why Jews continue to identify themselves publicly. With all the violence towards Jews for thousands of years shouldn't we stop making ourselves a target?

The Aish Rabbi Replies

Thank you for raising the important topic. It is actually an interesting question whether or not Jews are obligated to dress differently from their non-Jewish neighbors. Beginning with the earliest well-known source on the topic, the Midrash writes that the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt because, among other merits, they did not change their names, their language or their dress. (Note that the earliest version of this Midrash (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 4:24) mentions only names and language, and not dress, but several later commentators and compilations of the Midrash do mention clothes as well.) It would thus seem that we must dress distinctly from the non-Jews, so that we do not intermingle with them and follow their ways.

In practice, however, most authorities do not obligate us to dress specifically differently from non-Jews. There is a general Torah obligation not to follow the ways of the Gentiles: “And in their ways you shall not follow” (Leviticus 18:3; see also 20:23 and Deut. 12:30). This would extend to such practices as imitating non-Jewish dress or hairstyles. However, according to the accepted ruling, it applies only to dress which somehow relates to idolatry or immorality or is otherwise nonsensical (see Rema to Shulchan Aruch Y.D. 178:1). Thus we may not follow the immoral dressing habits of the non-Jews, but it is fine to wear their sensible and respectable dress.

(It should be noted that even Hassidim, who today dress very differently from others, are actually just wearing the accepted dress of the upper classes of the Eastern Europe of a few centuries ago. That has become the prevalent dress in such circles, but at least historically speaking, there is actually nothing especially “Jewish” about it.)

Although the accepted practice is that Jews may wear the respectable and non-idolatrous clothes of the Gentiles, throughout history their appearance was always somewhat distinct. Maimonides (Hil’ Avodah Zarah 11:1) writes as follows:

We may not follow the accepted practices of the idolaters and we may not resemble them, not in our dress, our hairstyle, or the like, as it is stated “And you shall not follow in the ways of the nations”… This warns us not to resemble them. Rather, the Jew should be distinct from them and recognizable in his dress and other deeds, just as he is distinct from them in his beliefs and understanding.

Thus, although there is no obligation to dress in an unusually weird or antagonizing manner, it was understood that Jews will stand out to some degree and not simply blend in with their neighbors. This, as Maimonides explains, is part of the intention of the obligation not to follow the ways of the nations.

This has been further reinforced by such practices as wearing four-cornered garments with tzitzit, not shaving with a razor, and the universal custom for men to always cover their heads (as well as the law that married women must cover their hair). In modern times in particular, religious Jews often stand out for their more modest dress.

In addition, there were many times in history when the non-Jewish authorities would obligate the Jews to wear a distinct badge or garment – such as the peculiar conical hats of the Middle Ages (sometimes referred to as the “Jewish hat”) – to set them apart from the Gentiles. (The concept of Jews wearing a yellow star or the like long predated the Nazis.)

Apart from all of this, Jews would generally dwell separately from their non-Jewish neighbors (also often imposed by the state), forming their own social and community structures.

Thus, although Jews throughout history would generally not purposely make themselves glaringly distinct from their neighbors, they would maintain some separation and would almost always be identifiably Jewish. Although the Sages obligate us to maintain positive relations with our fellow citizens – such as giving charity to non-Jews (Talmud Gittin 61a), observing the laws of the land (Talmud Baba Kama 113a), and praying for the welfare of the state (Pirkei Avos 3:2), we do not hide our identity. (In fact, although a person is permitted to disguise himself as a non-Jew in order to save himself from a dangerous situation (as many did during the Holocaust), if a person is asked if he is Jewish or not, he is not allowed to deny his Jewishness – as that would appear a renunciation of his faith (see Shulchan Aruch Y.D. 157:2).)

It’s important to see this issue in a bigger light. The Jewish mission to the world is to be a “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6 & 49:6). This is accomplished by teaching the world of the existence of God through our ethical and spiritual ways (as opposed to openly attempting to convince them, which is bound to backfire). Thus, our goal must not be to hide ourselves away and devote ourselves to God in private, not letting anyone know we exist and are Jewish. Rather, we proudly stand up for our beliefs, letting the world know who we are and what we stand for – and the extent to which devotion to God and mankind sanctifies a human being.

As a result, it is important that people know we are Jewish. This of course does not mean antagonizing our neighbors through bizarre behavior or being visibly Jewish when it might be physically dangerous to us. But generally speaking, we should not hide our Jewishness. We should act in such a way that sanctifies God’s name – enabling people to see how noble the servants of God are. Again, we might have to hide our Jewishness in specific countries, neighborhoods, or times of the day because of the danger. But we should not do so just because we’re embarrassed to look different and to stand out – only when our personal safety is at risk. Our mission to the world obligates us to clearly stand for something – and to let the world know just how glorious that something is.

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