While I love Judaism and being a rabbi, I will admit that there are two things that my Christian colleagues have of which I am envious.
The first is the garb. Recently I had the honor and privilege to participate in the installation ceremony of a new colleague, the Rev. Elsa Peters, who took over the pulpit of The United Churches. I was invited to give the Call to Worship, the introductory words, and I, like the rest of the clergy who were to participate, were invited to robe.
This is where rabbis come up short–we do not have ecclesiastical robes that we wear, we do not have clerical garb. So while the other ministers were putting on beautiful robes adorned with colorful stoles, I had my dark suit and kippah (yarmulke). I felt underdressed.
Rabbis don’t have garb which identifies us as clergy, and sometimes I wish I did. We don’t have a collar we can wear which will make us stand out, no stole to wrap around our shoulders which identifies our office. When I am asked at times to assert my “rabbi-ness” in public settings–in political rallies or other such interfaith gatherings–I don’t have anything to turn to other than my title. There are times I wish to be easily identifiable as a faith leader, as a member of the clergy, and some recognizable garb would go a long way.
The closest thing we have is a tallit, the four cornered prayer shawl attested to in the Torah, in this week’s Torah portion. In the Torah this week, in the Book of Numbers chapter 15 we read: “God said to Moses as follows: Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all God’s commands and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God.” These verses are interpreted into the tallit, the draping garment with fringes on the corners, traditionally decorated with black or blue stripes (though there is no design requirement aside from shape and there are some colorful ones out there.)
The difference is the tallit is not an exclusive rabbi garment–it is meant to be worn by all adult Jews. And we wear it at particular times: during morning services and Kol Nidre/Yom Kippur evening. There are other customary times associated with wearing the tallit–the prayer leader during services will tend to wear a tallit regardless of which service it is. This is why I wear a tallit during Friday night services. But even here it is not exclusively a rabbi garment as anyone can lead services.
Granted there are some contemporary ways the tallit has become like rabbi garb. When I was ordained part of the ceremony was being adorned in a tallit. (My special all-white tallit I wear on the High Holidays was newly acquired when I became a rabbi.) Some of my colleagues do wear their tallit when they gather at rallies and other times. And while wearing the tallit as a sign of the office is attractive to me, in my own personal practice I usually reserve the tallit for leading and participating in Jewish worship.
Which leads me to the other thing of which I am envious: the idea of call. When I hear of my Christian colleagues talk of joining the pastorate, I hear them speak of “answering the call” to go to seminary. And when I hear them speak about joining a particular church, I hear them speak of “answering the call” of a particular congregation. We do not use this language in the rabbinate.
Yet while we don’t use the language, I understand the sentiment. It elevates the idea of serving as a member of the clergy and of serving as the leader of a particular church above the mundane of entering a career and taking a job. It is about something more, a desire to serve and a feeling that one is meant to put others above oneself. That there is something greater than oneself and that to serve–to serve God and to serve humanity–is not just a choice but a drive and deep desire. (Caveat: this is only my interpretation based on how I understand it when I hear it, my colleagues might talk about it differently.)
And this idea of call–of service–connects back to the tallit and why we have it in the first place. Not as some clerical garb, but as a garment that is meant to remind us that we are all called to heed to the covenant and the sacred obligations which define that covenant. We are called upon to do certain tasks in this world–observing the cycles of life and of time, doing acts of kindness and compassion, working to leave this world better than how we entered it–and the tallit, or specifically the fringes on the tallit, serve as a means to focus our spiritual energy on those sacred tasks.
So we do have a call and a garment which helps us answer it. When we wear a tallit (or even if we don’t) we ask the question of ourselves: what are we called upon to do? And how to we fulfill that call?
Now if only we had a clerical robe. I wouldn’t worry so much about dressing myself.