Steven Weinberg
PhD Student at Rutgers University

Parsha Emor: How Tel Aviv Fashion is Priestly

Tel Aviv is a city known for many things—beaches, clubs, food, art, and coffee. It is also considered one of the best cities in the world for fashion trends. If you look around in Tel Aviv, you will see some pretty hip outfits and chic stores. The Gan Hahashmal neighborhood, located between Florentine and downtown Tel Aviv, offers independent designer boutiques which can be described as edgy and urban. The neighborhood of Neve Tzedek also features many cutting-edge clothing stores, albeit on the pricier side. To quote the guidebook Tel Aviv City Stories: “Tel Avivians have an urban chic of their own that is vibrant and eclectic. [In Tel Aviv], you’ll see many kinds of all stripes and feathers. Local fashionistas are known for their innovative approach to design, with unexpected clothing combinations that look amazing.” Yet, one of the least fashionable moves one can make in Tel Aviv is not to dress for the weather—that is, to dress in clothes that are uncomfortable, stifling, scratchy, confining. In short, it is not cool in Tel Aviv to dress in clothes that make you sweat. Part of the ideology of Tel Aviv fashion is to be comfortable, free, and fresh in your clothes. The guidebook—and, I stress, it was a very good guidebook—states that “Tel Aviv is super fashion forward, but because of the heat and the beach vibes, they’ve got an informal thing going on.”

This seems sensible enough. Dress for the weather. We all do this. Or do we? The truth is that, in many cultures, the rules of fashion pay little or no attention to comfort or, more precisely, staying cool. In America, lawyers wear suits all summer long, whether it be in the oppressive humidity of cities like Manhattan or Philadelphia, or in the dry, suffocating desert heat of Phoenix or Miami. The summers in Japan are extremely hot and humid, and yet a Japanese businessman would probably lose his job if he showed up to an important meeting dressed too informally. The one grace which Japanese culture extends to businessmen in the summer is that they may swap their dark suits for light grey suits. Even in Kenya’s capital city of Nairobi, located in the heart of Africa, it is expected that men wear suits to business meetings and that women wear a formal dress or blouse. And these are just secular customs. Throughout the world, in all three of the main Western religions, we see how religious dress routinely rouses the anger of the weather gods. Women wear head-to-toe burkas in Iraq, priests wear buttoned-up black suits in Rome, and there is scarcely a Jew in America on Yom Kippur—a holiday which falls in earlier Autumn on which temperatures can sometimes soar—who is not wearing a suit-and-tie or stockings and a heavy dress. All around the world, beads of excess sweat are dripping off the bodies of lawyers and holy men as a result of their expensive, yet oppressive, garb. If we could somehow siphon off and gather up all this unnecessary sweat and put it one place, the Dead Sea might no longer be the saltiest body of water on Earth.

We often forget what Judaism is, and was, really all about. Many will say that it’s about connecting with God, or with continuing the Hebrew nation, or with celebrating holidays, or with learning the moral lessons of the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. While these are all important aspects of Judaism, they are not what Judaism is all about. Who is the star of the Torah? Abraham? Nope. Jacob? Also wrong. Moses? No. God? Nice try. The star of the Torah is the Law. The Law is to the Torah what communism is to the Communist Manifesto. This is apparent in the very title of the Torah itself, which translates to Law with a capital “L.” There are, indeed, stories in the Torah—the ten plagues, the spies, the bite from the forbidden fruit, the flood. But most of the Torah is made up of Law—hundreds and hundreds of laws are promulgated to us, often more than once. In the popular imagination, these sections of the Torah tend to get overlooked because they are not as colorful and sexy as the stories. But the stories are there to serve the Law—not the other way round. What made Moshe’s meeting with God on Har Sinai so incalculably important was not that Moshe spoke to God directly, or that smoke and fire descended upon the mountain, or that Moshe went forty days and nights without eating or drinking. The reason we celebrate Moshe’s time spent on Har Sinai is because this was when he received the Law. This was when, so to speak, a star was born.

Law doesn’t get much respect nowadays. But it’s the same reason why the internet doesn’t get a lot of respect or adulation anymore. We’ve grown used to it. It’s just there—ready to assist us when we need it, ready to irritate us when it doesn’t work to our advantage. We don’t know what it’s like to have a world without internet, a world without law. If we did know such a world, we could better understand why the Torah—and hence, Judaism—is, in the end, all about the Law.

The Torah, when read carefully, or even when you just skim it, gives us a rather horrifying glimpse of what the world looked like before there was Law. The Torah, through its laws, intends to protect civilization, particularly Hebrew civilization, from descending into the barbarity of the primitive age. Each law that the Torah promulgates implies an earlier society in which humans did not have such a law. This is a rather disturbing prospect. When, for example, the Torah tells men in Leviticus 20 that they are not to have sex with their sister, or their daughter-in-law, or their mother-in-law, and or with a wild animal, it is not as though the Torah is just speculating. No, these abhorrent sexual acts would have been common, all-too-common, in ancient societies around the time when Moshe received the Law.

When the Torah instructs us, in Leviticus 17, not to eat the blood of animals, the Torah is not worrying that the Hebrews might hypothetically hatch the idea to drink animal blood sometime in the future. No, the Torah is reacting against the widespread practice in the ancient world of chugging down animal blood like it was Gatorade. When the Torah outlawed murder, it did so not due to some Kantian moral theory on why murder is contrary to human reason. Rather, it outlawed murder because people were constantly murdering each other without a second thought. This is why the Law is so celebrated in the Torah. The Law is our savior—our rescuer and shield from the primitive world it sprung out of.

In 1934, the legendary essayist Walter Benjamin published a two-part article in a Jewish newspaper in Germany—the Jüdische Rundschau. The article was entitled: “Franz Kafka: On the Tenth Anniversary of his Death,” and in this article, Benjamin attempted to develop his own theory of the literary universe which Kafka had created. Benjamin theorized that, in his literature, Kafka depicts a world before the giving of the Law on Har Sinai. Benjamin focuses on how, in Kafka, there are an array of not-fully-formed creatures, beings which seem to be half-animal and half-human. In The Trial, for example, one of the secretaries, named Leni, has webbed fingers. Benjamin also emphasizes how, in Kafka, Law itself is crude, corrupt, and sexualized. When Josef K. opens up the law books at court, he finds pornographic, sadistic images inside. This primitive world which the Torah did so much to try to wall the Hebrews off from reemerges in Kafka.

But this is only half of Benjamin’s argument. Kafka’s novels depict this pre-Sinai society but they take place in contemporary rather than in ancient times. Benjamin’s point here is that Kafka saw the barbarity of this pre-historical world, ironically, in the modern age. Benjamin thereby refers to this Vorwelt as Kafka’s secret present. We need only look at the year in which Benjamin’s Kafka essay was written to understand how he reached this interpretation of Kafka. It was 1934. The Nazis had just come to power in Germany and looked at laws as though were written with a Sharpie on a whiteboard. They were burning books like medieval inquisitors. And in the historical backdrop was the First World War—with its mustard gas, and machine guns, and rat-infested trenches—which had scorched the continent twenty years earlier. It is not surprising that Benjamin, as a Jew, was forced to write this essay in Paris—in exile.

The parsha of Emor handles the rigid requirements of the Israeli priestly class—the Cohanim. The Torah’s overall stance on the purpose and need for Law is applied with even greater exactitude and strictness to the priests. The Law was designed to prevent the “regular” Hebrews from sliding back into barbarous paganism. For the priests, the Law was configured to make them more pure and more civilized than the rest of the already-pure and already-civilized Hebrew nation. The Law endeavors to make the priests angelic, unblemished, immaculate. The priests are forbidden, for example, from approaching corpses, unless they are those of immediate family members.

The haftarah for Emor comes from the Book of Ezekiel. Ezekiel was himself a priest and grew up in and around the Temple in Jerusalem. In this chapter, Ezekiel attempts to further define and expand upon—even at times contradict—the requirements which are established for the priests in Vayikra. Ezekiel devotes several verses to discussing how the Cohanim should dress themselves. And although Ezekiel grew up in Jerusalem, the clothing he commands to the priests to wear is far more Tel Avivian. Ezekiel writes that when the Cohanim are in both the inner and outer court of the Temple, they must not wear any wool—rather linen. Wool, a thick, heavy, scratchy fabric encourages your sweat glands to open up whereas linen, a light and breathable fabric, is diaphanous to the skin. Even though it is, then, obvious why Ezekiel would decree this, he even offers a superfluous explanation in the next verse. He says, quite simply: the priests shall not wear any clothes which make them sweat. Sweat was regarded as unclean, impure, animalistic. In fact, we have one phrase in English which vividly bears this out: Sweating like a pig. Sweating like a pig. Here, sweat is connected with what is culturally considered to be one of the filthiest animals which quite literally lives and rolls around in mud.

Ezekiel recognized that if the Cohanim wore wool under the heat of the Jerusalem sun, they would sweat like pigs and they would, in a sense, sweat out bead-by-bead the purity which their office commanded of them. Hence Ezekiel ordered them to wear linen—a fabric which is light, which breathes, which does not encourage perspiration. Tel Aviv is often considered to be the Babylon of Israel, the unholy city, the nucleus of sin. Surely, the light, comfortable, revealing clothing Tel Avivians wear contributes to this reputation. But they “religiously” dress for the weather, and in this sense they are downright priestly.

In Judaism, there are many areas of life for which, under the Law, we must sweat. We need to sweat our food, our marriages, our holidays, our circumcision. Yet, according to Ezekiel, one thing we ought not to have to sweat, is sweat itself.

[Excerpted from my weekly podcast The Schrift: Ancient Jewish Wisdom for Modern Times, available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts]

About the Author
Steven Weinberg is a PhD student at Rutgers University in the German Department. His dissertation is on Franz Kafka and the Kabbalah. He grew up in Philadelphia, but moved to Israel in his late twenties, where he studied literature at Ben-Gurion University. Currently, Steven live in Berlin, but travels to Israel and America as often as he can. His blog is based off his podcast, The Schrift, a weekly lecture series on Torah, German literature, and meditation. The Schrift is available on Apple and Spotify platforms.
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