Halachah in the Modern World: Should There Be A Dress Code in Our Synagogues?
by Rabbi Hillel Hayyim Lavery-Yisraeli
A gender-mixed prayer
space and a synagogue open
to all results in a wide diversity
of people with different
attitudes and approaches to
Jewish prayer who come
dressed in a wide variety of styles. And while
we say that we value and welcome this diversity,
it is not uncommon to hear ourselves
and those around us criticizing others in
the synagogue not only for the way they pray,
but especially for the way they dress. This
is magnified if the person receives an honor
such as an aliyah.
And so we ask, should there be a dress
code in our synagogues? What is the minimal
requirement that we could comfortably
enforce on visitors?
But first, let’s acknowledge that any restriction
on dress is going to be more of a demand
on women than on men, even if the same
standard of coverage is imposed on both.
Limitations on men’s attire would be well
within the norms of how most would dress
anyway. If we create a space which men
can enter as they are, but which women can
access only after modifications to their
appearance, we send the message that this
space is the domain of men and women must
be altered to be accepted. A synagogue
should be a safe place for all; imposing
limitations on modes of dress makes it party
to the oppression and objectification of
claim that it’s
hard to concentrate
dressed in a certain
This is hypocritical.
by imposing my preferences on another person,
she will have a harder time focusing
on her prayers since she had to dress in a way
that makes her uncomfortable or feel unbecoming.
Furthermore, we don’t prevent
young children from entering our synagogues;
we even encourage it, even though
their behavior can be distracting. We don’t
limit newcomers and visitors even though
they are likely to talk to their neighbors, distracting
the rest of us.
Contrary to the modern quasi-religious
trend of combating sexual distraction by
hiding women, when talmudic sources discuss
rabbis who were exemplary in not
succumbing to temptation, these rabbis were considered pious because they put restrictions
on themselves, not on the women whom
In Midrash Tanhuma, Satan takes on the
disguise of a beautiful woman to distract
Rabbi Matia ben Harash in the middle of
his Torah studies. At first, Rabbi Matia tries
to look the other way, but whenever he does
so, Satan moves to the side to which he is
looking. Finally, in despair, Rabbi Matia
gouges out his eyes with burning hot nails.
God sends Raphael to heal his eyes, but
Rabbi Matia refuses help until he receives
God’s promise to give him immunity to any
future temptations. Note how Rabbi Matia
never asks the ‘woman’ to leave his study
house or to dress differently. His response
to temptation affects him alone.
In the Babylonian Talmud, tractate
Ta’anit, a man is caught gazing at a rabbi’s
daughter. When the rabbi punishes his
daughter for being “a source of trouble to
mankind,” the Talmud brands him as unfit
to teach Torah and commends his student
for seeking a new teacher.
Even in the Bible, when King David
brings the ark to Jerusalem, his wife Michal
criticizes him for his behavior during the
public celebration. She disapproves of the
way he danced and the way he dressed.
David rebukes her for criticizing someone
sincerely celebrating his closeness with God,
and God punishes her with childlessness.
There is no reason not to assume that
when someone comes to synagogue, they
do so sincerely, after having selected clothes
that, in their mind, honor the occasion and
place. If we find those clothes distracting or
inappropriate, we need to change ourselves,
not the other person.
Beyond subduing our feelings at inappropriate
times or places, we need to
learn to not objectify people or to draw
conclusions about them based on their
Rabbi Hillel Hayyim Lavery-Yisraeli has
served Masorti congregations in Israel for the
past five years and has taught Talmud at the
Conservative Yeshiva. In July 2012 he
became the rabbi of the Jewish Community
of Gothenburg, Sweden.