By Hannah Pollak
One would never expect to see an Opinion’s piece in a YU newspaper discussing whether or not the University should have an academic integrity policy. In the same way, no one would ever question YU’s zero tolerance towards bullying, abuse, or other more trivial or severe infractions. Different, however, is the heated issue of a dress code, a debate that doesn’t seem to have the same degree of consensus. I’d assume that few would argue that YU should enforce strict rules of how exactly students ought to dress. However, there are many who do believe that there should be natural, almost intuitive, standards and sensitivities met when it comes to a student’s personal presentation on campus. While others passionately disagree. Some might say that even if a dress code is not enforced and is merely expected, YU would be undermining the foundational values of a liberal society turning the school into a place of religious elitism instead of beautiful diversity and Jewish inclusion.
While I cautiously subscribe to some liberal values, and deeply believe that YU is a beautiful place of diversity and Jewish inclusion, I still think that some level of a dress code would be justified. No matter how you like to understand the meaning and implications of “Torah U’Madda,” and regardless of your opinion about the Five Torot, it’s important to recognize that YU adheres to the values and beliefs of age-old, authentic Judaism. We have a policy of academic integrity because the Torah commands us to be honest. There is zero tolerance toward abuse because injustice and assault are unacceptable in the Jewish tradition. We relentlessly fight bullying because of our axiomatic belief that every human was created b’tzelem Elokim [in G-d’s image]. We are an inclusive school because of our central value of veahavta l’reacha kamocha– loving our peers as we love ourselves. And while many would not place integrity, protection of the vulnerable, and love for our fellow Jews in the same category as a dress code, allow me to suggest that dress code in a yeshiva is in fact, an issue of values.
In my personal opinion, Yeshiva University is primarily a yeshiva, a place where Torah is learned and lived. YU is a Makom Torah. It is a place where students come to get an education and earn a degree but, more importantly, do so in an atmosphere of constant growth and learning. Working upon the premise that YU is fundamentally a place of Torah learning, it would be reasonable to believe that in order to show reverence to the teachers, the students, the Torah, and to G-d Himself, a respectable dress code would not be an outdated, derogatory, anti-liberal measure. It is true that we are not in elementary school anymore, but we are not in a secular college either. Just as no one would say that a strict student uniform would be appropriate, perhaps absolute freedom in regard to dress should be considered undesirable as well. While it is presumptuous to say that value “x” is more important in Torah than value “y,” it has generally been accepted that loving our fellow Jew is a central pillar in halacha. In any case, that does not mean that we should dismiss other central values such as, in this particular case, kavod haTorah (honor for the Torah). Sometimes tension is created between respect for other human beings and the respect for Torah. However, I personally think that it is possible for an individual and/or an institution to grapple with two seemingly exclusive values.
As the holiday of Shavuot, Zman Matan Torateinu [The time in which our Torah was given], approaches, I try to visualize what Ma’amad Har Sinai [The Sinaitic Revelation] might have looked and felt like. The Torah speaks about the Jewish People hearing the lightning and seeing the thunder– we saw G-d himself speaking through the cloud (whatever that means…). Everyone trembled, and tangibly felt the happiness and awe of the moment. The Torah prescribes to “let your children and the children of your children know the day you stood before your G-d in Horeb” (Devarim 4:9,10). Chazal learn (Moed Katan 15a) that this means that, just as the Torah was originally given with “reverence, fear and trembling,” so too every single day throughout history, as we re-experience the Sinai revelation, Torah should be learned with “reverence, fear and trembling” as well. While not the only way, intentionally dignified or proper dress is a valid way to display reverence towards Torah, and at the same time, help guide one towards developing an internal sensitivity to the true value of kavod haTorah.
Parenthetically, it is important to emphasize that it’s unacceptable to judge any person whose dress does not explicitly reflect our perceptions of respect for Torah. Do not jump to the simplistic conclusion that since you dress one way and I dress in another, that you must have a higher level of appreciation for Devar Hashem (G-d’s word) than I. Instead of questioning what others do, why not ask instead: how does our own kavod haTorah look, perhaps in more internal ways than dress code? How much do we respect Torah scholars, how much do we invest to apply what we learn, and– to be very honest– do we look as put together when we open a sefer in the comfort of our homes as we do when we learn in shul or the Beis? I personally know people who are way less particular about their dress code than I am (not to say that I am Miss Put Together at all), and at the same time probably have significantly more fear of Hashem and respect for Torah than I do. We all know that, sadly, the “yeshivish look” is not necessarily the main authentic staple used to identify a real ben Torah.
I want to restate my belief that a dress code for YU would be reasonable and religiously justified. Nonetheless, this belief is only theoretical. I’m not as simplistic as to believe that actually enforcing a dress code would be healthy or even constructive. I’m not as naïve as to think that YU even has the authority to make dress code an issue of policy. However, it is the responsibility of the students to create an ambiance that resembles the Matan Torah experience. The challenge of dress code might be analogous to the challenge of lashon hara [gossip]. It’s practically impossible for YU’s administration to create a lashon hara-free school. They can educate us and create awareness, but at the end of the day, it’s up to the students to guard their mouths and be sensitive not to speak poorly of another person. The same comes to mind about the challenge of creating a Shabbos atmosphere on campus. Our dedicated staff could organize the most exciting and inspiring Shabbos programming, but ultimately, it’s the students’ responsibility to allow that Shabbos aura to be felt.
So, should YU have a dress code? That’s an interesting theoretical question. However, considering that the question will probably never be practical, if we sincerely believe that out of respect for Torah v’lomdeiah [Torah and her scholars] some standards and sensitivities ought to be upheld, why not start with fully committing ourselves to the values we want the world to embrace? It is easy to say that the world should change out of a feeling of contempt or entitlement. On a less universal level, it is also easy to have an opinion about the many changes YU should implement. However, the challenge is to be the change. To be introspective and to take responsibility; to be consistent with what we believe in our personal lives. After writing this article, I say to myself: “Stop preaching and start doing.”