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Rebecca's Presentation at Vanderbilt University on Costume and Acculturation

Slide 1:

Rebecca Abrahamson is active in cultural diplomacy, has traveled in this capacity to Istanbul and Cairo, co-hosted a conference on making the UN Resolutions for a Culture of Peace into law at the Knesset, and is editor of "Divine Diversity: an Orthodox Rabbi Engages with Muslims." She is married to Ben Abrahamson, who is also active in Muslim-Jewish dialogue and cultural diplomacy, and busy with her children and grandchildren.

Slide 2: With the help of God

You discover that there are basic values that are important to you. These act like a rudder guiding you, or, as we are talking costume, a thread that you grasp that you cannot let go of if you tried. You follow that thread, in the form of perceiving signals from the world, donning new costumes, sending off new signals to the world and receiving feedback, until you reach your self actualization, with the help of God.

Slide 3: Costume is distinction and identity

Leviticus 18:3 After the doings of the land of Egypt, wherein ye dwelt, shall ye not do; and after the doings of the land of Canaan, whither I bring you, shall ye not do; neither shall ye walk in their statutes. To be a separate people and keep our role as bearers of the five books of Moses, the writings of the prophets and scrolls, and our commentaries on scripture, we needed distinctive dress. Often, this distinction was only subtle. Being costumed can aid in both group belonging and alienation. You are less you, and more part of a group.

Slide 4: Just as Jews have a distinct role to play in the world, men and women have distinct roles to play. This is reflected in costume.

Deuteronomy 22:5 לא־יִהְיֶה כְלִי־גֶבֶר עַל־אִשָּה וְלא־יִלְבַּשׁ גֶּבֶר שִׂמְלַת אִשָּה כִּי תועֲבַת ה׳ אֱלהֶיךָ כָּל־עשֵׂה אֵלֶּה׃

A man’s item shall not be on a woman, and a man shall not wear a woman’s garment; whoever does these (things) is an abomination unto the Lord, your God. This verse lacks a parallel structure, with the broader “male item” and narrower “female garment”. Commentaries on biblical verses are recorded in the Mishna, Midrash, and Talmud. These were oral traditions that were later written down. Later commentaries include Rashi (France, 11th century CE), Maimonides (Spain and Egypt, 12th century CE). Rashi’s interpretation: “so that she (not) look like a man, in order to consort with men, for this can only be for the purpose of adultery (unchastity)”. (cf. Sifrei Devarim 226:1; Nazir 59a). No cross dressing. Restrictions on sexual behavior.

Slide 5:

Male or female garments?

A “male item” also includes a weapon of war. In some communities women do carry guns in self defense. Beautifying oneself is considered a female activity. What is considered a male item or female garment is decided by the surrounding culture. A Scottish kilt is a male item. In the west, pants have become a female garment, and it has become acceptable for men to check their appearance in the mirror.

Slide 6:

Women’s hair covering is derived from Numbers 5:18

וְהֶֽעֱמִ֨יד הַכֹּהֵ֥ן אֶֽת־הָֽאִשָּׁה֘ לִפְנֵ֣י יְהוָֹה֒ וּפָרַע֙ אֶת־רֹ֣אשׁ הָֽאִשָּׁ֔ה וְנָתַ֣ן עַל־כַּפֶּ֗יהָ אֵ֚ת מִנְחַ֣ת הַזִּכָּר֔וֹן מִנְחַ֥ת קְנָאֹ֖ת הִ֑וא וּבְיַ֤ד הַכֹּהֵן֙ יִֽהְי֔וּ מֵ֥י הַמָּרִ֖ים הַֽמְאָֽרְרִֽים

Then the kohen shall stand the woman up before the Lord and expose the [hair on the] head of the woman; he shall place into her hands the remembrance meal offering, which is a meal offering of jealousies, while the bitter curse bearing waters are in the kohen's hand. : “Dat Yehudit” refer to oral traditions passed down by women. This is in contrast to “dat Moshe”, which refers to the letter of the law. Dat Yehudit means that married Jewish women cover all of or most of their hair. Perhaps dat Moshe would just refer to any head covering, in any case, dat Yehudit is what orthodox Jewish women follow.

Slide 7: Men’s head covering

Derived from the Temple Priest’s garments Sign of submission to God More a custom than requirement - Black velvety - Chassidic classic. There is a rounder kind which indicates one Chassidic group, a flatter kind which indicates another. This includes Sephardic Haredi communities - Crocheted white - Chassidic reverent, hippy. - Knitted and colorful - modern orthodox. - Bucharian large and colorful - the Bucharian Haredi community, hippy.

Slide 8:

Men’s side curls

Leviticus 19:27 Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard.

This mitzvah applies to men only, at all times and in all places. It is discussed in the Talmud in the tractates of Makkos (20a-21a), Nazir (57b) and Kiddushin (35b). This mitzvah is codified in the Shulchan Aruch in Yoreh Deah 181. It is #43 of the 365 negative mitzvos in the Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvos and #176 of the 194 negative mitzvos that can be fulfilled today as listed in the Sefer HaMitzvos HaKatzar of the Chofetz Chaim.

Slide 9: Men’s prayer fringes and shawl

Numbers 15: 38-41 38 Speak to the children of Israel and you shall say to them that they shall make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations, and they shall affix a thread of sky blue [wool] on the fringe of each corner. :

39 This shall be fringes for you, and when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord to perform them, and you shall not wander after your hearts and after your eyes after which you are going astray.

40 So that you shall remember and perform all My commandments and you shall be holy to your God.

41 I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt to be your God; I am the Lord, your God. A time-bound commandment and thus not applicable to women.

Slide 10:

Modesty - Tzniut

Applies to both men and women Concerns both outerwear and behavior Applies to clothes, body language, tone of voice, p.d.a, no or little eye contact between men and women, which seems to lead to less eye contact all around, facial expressions. Chassidic classic - Muted emotional landscape Chassidic reverent, and hippy - emotive Modern orthodox - emotional expression depends on surrounding culture. - Boundaries between people (except for the hippies :-)) - Privacy - Humility that one’s talents and blessings are gifts

Slide 11:


Orthodox Jewish styles Chassidic classic: “Behelt” - Emotions, body language and facial expressions held in check - Little p.d.a. - Guarded. - Tailored, formal wear. Women - Short, coiffed wigs or neat hats or scarves. Long sleeves, double with a basic shirt and a vest or blouse on top, tailored skirts Men - Yarmulke, hat - Long black buttoned coat - this is actually a dress, like a jalabiya. - Formal black pants or pantaloons No flapping in the wind here either in outerwear, body language, or emotional expression.

Slide 12: Chassidic reverent: “Joyous”

- More relaxed emotional expression, more p.d.a. - More flowing, looser materials. - No wigs, only scarves.

Slide 13: Modern orthodox: “Balance”

Balancing the modern world with Torah observance translates to a hybrid style in dress and interpersonal interactions. Large range.

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Slide 15:


In all Abrahamic faiths, men are the heads of the household

The father decides the customs of the home. The wife and children are obedient to the father’s religious directives. As it says in the book of Psalms: He is your master and you will bow to him.

Slide 16: Patriarchy Men only have this patriarchal right in Abrahamic religions if they follow in the footsteps of Moses and their Rabbi, or of Jesus and the New Testament, or of Muhammad and the chain of transmission of Islamic oral tradition. You need a hierarchical structure to maintain peace and mental health. We do not imagine that a husband and wife will be “partners with our own separate interests.” Men have a spirit of prophecy when a child is born and it is good to defer to him in naming the child. Men have inherent patriarchal talents. When groomed to believe he will advocate for wife and kids, his aggressive nature is focused.

Slide 17:

How does costume affect identity?

Two different liberal assumptions: 1 - Social change for the sake of social change. Push for change regardless of outcome. Barriers to change are signs of repression and bigotry. Root them out. Revolutionary. 2 - Social change for the sake of the betterment of humanity. Constantly re-evaluate the social changes to see if they are really improving people.

Slide 18:

Closet classic-liberal or revolutionary-liberal?

Revolutionary liberals and an abrasive interpersonal culture come hand in hand. Tabula Rasa assumes that people can and must be swayed via social and political pressure. This even affects frinedships.

Slide 19:

People who are connected to tradition see themselves as vessels for a higher reservoir of knowledge. If they do not know something, they can go and look it up. That fosters humility and healthier interpersonal interactions. They do not see every interaction as a platform for activism. One may realize that even when winning an argument, community is suffering.

You do not just wake up a changed person. Limbo may happen.

Slide 20:

This brings us to costume.

Any process of personal change involves: 1 - one separates oneself 2- then one stands alone - arrived at limbo. 3 - then one is united with one’s new group - conversion, reversion. מיוחד, יחיד, אחד

Costume assists in making personal change.

Slide 21: Separation

No one at college really noticed I was wearing skirts, but they did notice that I was eating pre-wrapped kosher meals in the cafeteria. I noticed that this affected my interactions. People would inquire about the dietary laws or the state of Israel. The “costume” of keeping kosher was forcing me to learn more about these subjects. This separated me from others.

Slide 22: Standing Alone in Limbo

It can be okay to say, “I am new at this and still learning”, and not engage at levels above my knowledge. Some will view you not as an individual, but as a representative.

Slide 23: A journey

Whether revolutionary or conservative, liberals agree on: - Why have lots of kids? - You should be following your own bliss, not rules. - The Bible was okay back then, or was never okay. - Differences between people lead to prejudice, both in gender and in nation. At college, the Christians looked happier. The revolutionary liberals were stressed and cynical. Classic liberals were scarce. One’s thread may turn out to be: I wanted happiness more than I wanted social causes. But still have to deal with the above four major points.

Slide 24: Separation:

Kids - Big families may not really be taking up more resources. This may have been a projection of a modern lifestyle, not what must be. Little kids do grow up and turn around as a source of support and happiness. Bliss - People keeping the Bible appeared happier than the cynicism that was developing around me in revolutionary liberal circles. Bible - If God is real, then His directives are better for me than my stream of consciousness. Differences - Orthodox Judaism is so big on gender roles and chosenness that even non orthodox Jewish progressives cannot stop apologizing for these controversial subjects. If you cannot stop apologizing for something, it shows how real it is. Differences can indeed lead to prejudice. But differences are real, and when used in the right way, they are as good as a benevolent intra-family patriarchy.

Slide 25:


The single woman and the orphan (in Jewish tradition, lacking one parent) is considered especially vulnerable and in need of protection. The message in the 1970’s and 80’s at the time was - women can do it all, go out and battle, assert yourself. When I heard about special sensitiveness towards women and the orphan, and I only heard about them from the devout, it was like coming home. Another thread.

Slide 26:

I had been costumed as a liberal revolutionary, and a prof had me all set to become a progressive Jewish rabbi. When I embraced tradition, he treated me in a way that nowadays would be considered harassment. Would a male student have been treated the same, and if so, would that theoretical male student have been wounded in the same way? It turned out that “we are all equal” became a license to bully at worst, dismiss at best. This was a thread I could not relinquish if I wanted to.

Slide 27: My husband Ben got into Muslim - Jewish dialogue.

I saw that he was reaching Muslims on a level in which they felt understood. Muslims can seem like a large quasi-Jewish community, but they lack activist culture, which Jewish culture has. They yearn to be understood. There is too much variety in the world to keep pushing the concept that differences lead to prejudice.

Slide 28:

If each gender has such a God given role that even progressives cannot forget about it, if even chosenness is so huge that liberals cannot stop apologizing for it, then I personally could only conclude: Differences between genders and peoples are real. They are divine and meant to be used for the good. The Qur’an assumes that differences are divinely bequeathed and inspire people to “strive as in a race for virtue”. Al Maeda (5:48) Then We revealed the Book to you (O Muhammad!) with Truth, confirming whatever of the Book was revealed before, and protecting and guarding over it. Judge, then, in the affairs of men in accordance with the Law that Allah has revealed, and do not follow their desires in disregard of the Truth which has come to you. For each of you We have appointed a Law (Shari’a) and a way of life (deen, common law). And had Allah so willed, He would surely have made you one single community; instead, (He gave each of you a Law and a way of life) in order to test you by what He gave you. Compete, then, one with another in good works. Unto Allah is the return of all of you; and He will then make you understand the truth concerning the matters on which you disagreed.

Slide 29:

In the book of Genesis, we have the source for the Noahide covenant, which are seven basic laws that each nation is meant to apply to its own land and character. These were recognized by US Presidential proclamations 4921 and 5956, and formed the basis of modern political theory as we know today as formulated by Christian Hebraists Erastus, Hugo Grotius, John Lightfoot, John Selden - architect of the English Parliament - and the founding fathers of the United States. They were impressed by the position of the non-Jew in the ancient Hebrew Commonwealth, who had equal civil rights bout could keep her own monotheist religion.

Slide 30:

The Seven Laws of Noah

used by 16th - 18th Century European Christian Hebraists to define a proper citizen.

The concept of a universal basic law given by God, binding upon all humanity, as the unifying principle among all the many covenants God made with the nations, was the model that the 16th century Ottomans used when they set up the millet system and the 16th-18th century European political theorists used when they constructed the political institutions of Europe. The European political theorists used the word Noahide Law, Seven Commandments and actually quoted Maimonides extensively. John Selden expressed it this way: “I cannot fancy to myself what the law of nature means, but the law of God (Noahide Law). How should I know I ought not to steal, I ought not to commit adultery, unless somebody had told me so. ’Tis not because I think I ought not to do them, nor because you think I ought not; if so, our minds might change: whence then comes the restraint? From a higher power; nothing else can bind. I cannot bind myself, for I may untie myself again; nor an equal cannot bind me, for we may untie one another. It must be a superior, even God Almighty.” Abrahamic religions do not believe in individual directly confronted by the state, but in buffers between the individual and state - husband and wife, family, community, tribe, guild, and then, and only then, and lastly, the state. It should be unthinkable to police, say, school children’s views of alternative relationships, or force children to attend classes in school that describe alternative relationships in ways that the family, community, and spiritual leader disagrees with. The government cannot break through all societal barriers including the authority of Minister, Rabbi, or Imam and confront the individual ,if we would remember our heritage, that should be utterly unthinkable. Peaceful families and communities need not have “thought police”monitoring them and imposing upon them.

Slide 31:

The most difficult aspect of personal change can be rejection from those one had trusted. The second most difficult is simply acclimation to a new culture, the constant re-evaluation of how these new mores reflected upon my former values. This could be positive, like, wow, if only I could tell people that there is great stuff in the Bible, or negative, like, if this does not work out, where do I go from here?

Slide 32: United in a new community

There are always newcomers to any community, whether religious, political, alternative sexuality, social, etc. Fitting in regarding costume sends the message that I want to be accepted and that I accept you; I am not here to change the community, but to learn from it and be an asset. Costume includes outerwear and behavior. Giving to your new community can redress the balance of any lack of fitting in, any cultural gap that you cannot really close. Being an asset helps bridge that gap.

Slide 33: Back to the Bible

The book of Ruth is the seminal work that describes how an outsider cleaves to a new community. This is applicable both to the true outsider, ie Ruth had to Jewish ancestry and wished to become a Jew, as well as to anyone who is making a change. Newcomers have equal rights. Naturalized citizens are equal to those born into a community: Numbers 15: 13-16 13 Every native born shall do it in this manner, to offer up a fire offering of pleasing fragrance to the Lord. 14 If a proselyte resides with you, or those among you in future generations, and he offers up a fire offering of pleasing fragrance to the Lord, as you make it, so shall he make it. 15 One rule applies to the assembly, for yourselves and for the proselyte who resides [with you]; one rule applies throughout your generations just as [it is] for you, so [it is] for the proselyte, before the Lord. 16 There shall be one law and one ordinance for you and the proselyte who resides [with you].

Slide 34:

Ruth - Acclimation

In the book of Ruth, Ruth declares that she will undergo three personal changes:

I - Where you will go I will go (same basic laws) II - Costume: Your people will be my people (I will fit in to your community) III - Your God will be my God (I will keep the commandments)

She was accepted by Naomi and Boaz, but her different-ness put her at risk.

- Boaz told the fieldworkers not to harass her. Ploni did not want to marry her, so Boaz performed that redemption.

We see that Ruth cleaves to Naomi as her personal teacher. Although she was the daughter of a Moabite King and lived as a princess in Moab, she bowed to her mentor Naomi. She acclimated, but recognized her need to me mentored. Legend says she lived to see her great grandson David and great grandson Solomon as kings of Israel. They sat her on a throne next to them.

Slide 35:

Orpa - Limbo

Orpa was Ruth’s sister. She separated herself from her place of origin, and walked to the edge of the Land of Israel with Naomi and Ruth, but could not go that extra step of cleaving to a new community. She did not return to Moab. Judaism appealed to her, but she could not devote herself to it. She no longer fit in, she went on, alone, to Philistia. She remained in limbo

Slide 36:

One is lucky to really believe in God, the Revelation, and the chain of transmission of prophecy. But many come to religious communities looking for solutions. “If I find a nice Jewish orthodox man then I will start keeping kosher.” They partially don a costume. It is still a form of limbo.

Slide 37:


Leah converted to Judaism, Brookline Massachusetts. An American Swede, she towered over everyone. She told me, “I observe the orthodox. I actually mirror them in order to learn how to fit in. I do not mention that I converted, though my appearance and last name makes it pretty obvious.” In her forties and of little financial means due physical handicaps, she was set up with a man her age and they married. The ceremony was huge and joyous. (Her thread was to make it as an orthodox Jewish woman.)

Slide 38: She forgot stage II

In contrast, a young healthy college professor converted to orthodoxy and would introduce herself as “Christina.” She chafed at the privacy mores. People were not put off by her conversion, but by her being up front about it. She forgot stage II - “your people will be my people”, and that includes privacy mores. She stayed in limbo. (Hey, maybe that was her “thread”, to want to chafe people)

Slide 39: Caucasian Christians converting to Islam and to Judaism

- Looking for something exotic - Looking for costume in dress, structure, and law - Looking to be less “white” Caucasian Christians are not considered a minority group. Some westerners may grit their teeth at tolerating observant Jews and Muslims, but feel obligated to tolerate a minority, whereas this largesse does not apply to tolerating the Caucasian Christian.

Slide 40:


developed under Roman tyranny, which meant that in order to be a good Roman you had to assimilate to the Pax Romana. 

Perhaps outward observance had to go underground. In the Land of Israel, 2000 years ago, monotheists included Jews and monotheist non-Jews who were Temple sympathizers. They were referred to as “Muslamai” - those who give the Temple sacrifice known as “Shlamim”, and “Nazarenes”. This term has been preserved in the Qur’an as “Nasara” - Christians. So Muslims and Christians predate the Qur’an and the New Testament

Slide 41:

Romans 2:26-29

And will not the physically uncircumcised, (no costume) if he fulfills the law, judge you who, even with your written code and circumcision, are a transgressor of the law? For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly (mere costume), nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly (no costume); and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God. This is an example of praising the idea behind a law, but foregoing the costume of the law. Roman tyranny may have caused - no more costumes. Go underground.

Slide 42: At the fall of the Temple in 70 CE, Pharisaic Jews migrated to Persia and developed the Talmud.

The Muslamai migrated to Egypt, then to Himyar, developing Islam. The above two groups could not eschew their costumes of law, dress, diet, and gender roles.

The Nazarenes, as a non-costumed and thus underground movement, infiltrated Rome to such an extent that three centuries later, Constantine had no choice but to throw up his hands and say, fine, Christianity is the state religion.

Slide 43: Real costume really does lie in the heart, after all. Romans 2:26-29

To gain acceptance, perfection is not the standard, but wanting it to work was the standard. Those who maintained an antagonistic posture were the ones for whom a newly orthodox lifestyle did not work, and even backfired.

(Christina remained in limbo, Sara expressed bitterness as a result of lacking tools to acclimate to a new culture. Her son absorbed this bitterness, which she seemd to be doing to turn against her husband. I told her, “either change yourself, change the community, or go to another community.” Looks like her thread was that she wanted to kvetch.)

Slide 44:

Positive aspects of costume

Helps you identify who is likely to be compatible. Sends many messages before you even say anything. Rebuffs those you wish to have no dealings with. Puts a wanted barrier where you would prefer that barrier. People may hesitate to bring up certain topics with you because you clearly are in a certain camp.

Negative aspects of Costume

People assume you know more than you do, that you have a influence on other members of your group, and that you cannot fit into other categories. You are representing orthodoxy when maybe you are acting like a Bostonian.

Slide 45:

Trans, converts, reverts, newcomers, and privacy

Converts to Judaism are expected to keep their background private. The laws of speech forbid pointing out that someone is a convert or that someone is newly religious. Privacy is key to mental and social health. Newcomers to a community who impose their former identities are: - not respecting boundaries - threatening their sense of belonging - straining relationships. Thus pronoun directives make no sense to me. I do not know who is a convert to Judaism due to mores of privacy. Why should I be aware that someone who appears to be a woman used to be a man? When you don a new costume, don it right. Speech is a release and must stay free, or else feelings will be submerged and the fascists just may make a comeback. (the self proclaimed nazi who hugged me) You can have tolerance and discourse at the same time. You must.

Slide 46:

Clean Spiritual Slate

All three Abrahamic religions promise that conversion (reversion in Islam) wipes one’s slate clean and one is a new person, reborn. Caucasian reverts to Islam have some challenges as enough Muslims view themselves as non-white as to cause alienation. Non-white and non-Mideastern converts to Judaism likewise face suspicion and need protection and mentoring, as Ruth did. Many are seeking a clean slate. Think of endless freedom as common law. Much that is legal may not be recommended

Slide 47:

Blessings on your path! May it be with intellectual honesty, integrity, bring you to a higher ground, and may others say to you, “you look like you are thriving.”