French Israel

Sunday, March 21, 2004

It's all black and white, right?
If you have no images, you're unfortunate indeed.I'm in a bit of a calm rage this evening, following one of the many debates with my 'hevroutha on the subject of... clothing.

As is usually the case with this subject, there's more than meets the eye. There's a whole system of typologies, metameanings, signifiers, and signified. Un symbolisme, quoi. Not just a symbolism but a mythology -- a world of imagination, but which is just as real in the minds of those who inhabit it as the imaginary world of those who play rôle-playing games (e.g. Shattered Isles and the like). At least these weekend gamers make their own costumes, and each one plays a different rôle in the community. Imagine that in a yeshiva-world setting.

At issue, as you may have guessed by now, is conformity vs. individuality. And though one may be, incorrigeably, an individual, should he submit to the common will and dress like everyone else (who is concurrently imagining himself becoming like the others)?

My 'hevroutha says yes.

I'll spare you my opinion for now. I'd better calm my rage before making my case, and then do so in a rational way, presenting arguments and counterarguments. The sad truth is that it's myself I'm arguing with as much as anyone else. It's just unfortunate for poor folks like my 'hevroutha that they take the side I'm not favouring.

We have two opposing dictums in Western civilisation :

Vestis virum facit -- "Clothes make the man"


L'habit le fait pas le moine -- "The frock doesn't make the monk" (otherwise in English, "One can't judge a book by it's cover").

Typically, as best I understand the consensus, the first is not valid literally, but only inasmuch as the person's clothing fosters his attitude and thus his ability to fit into a certain social or work environment. For example, a lawyer wears a suit, and a soldier wears fatigues. Anything else would be unacceptable to her or him, at least to the extent that she or he wants to live the rôle that he or she has chosen to live.

And typically the second is supposed to be wholly true, since we know that the monastic vocation takes a good deal of training, dedication, fear of God, etc. (Do I have to say l'havdil somewhere here? I'm not going to bother.) An imposter with alterior motives can put on a frock and call himself a monk, but that doesn't make him one. Enough persons have pulled that stunt that we don't trust that any more. And enough publishers have designed brilliant packaging for works of literature which are, objectively, stinkers. We all agree that you can't judge a book by it's cover.

But in yeshivish society you can, and apparently should, judge a man by his cova.
PinḼas Ivri 22:09


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