The Priest's Clothes and The Judge's Robe©

The Priest's Clothes and The Judge's Robe©
Rabbi David Baum, Congregation Shaarei Kodesh
February 20, 2016 – Parashat Tetzaveh

Last Shabbat as we all now know, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia passed away. Justice Anthony Scalia was a controversial figure but no one could deny his brilliance almost unparalleled in the history of the court.

What ensued almost immediately after his death was an interesting bi-product of our democracy. The questions started emerging: who will be the next judge? Who will appoint this judge, the current president there are many things we don't know like who will appoint who will this be? Will this person be male or female? What part of the country will they come from? Will they be Harvard or Yale educated like the recent justices? These are all the questions I’ve seen online, but here’s one question I haven’t seen: what will this court justice wear. Did you know that there are no rules for wardrobe as to how a Supreme Court justice may dress? Can you imagine if our next supreme court justice wore Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors?!?

So today, I’m not going to tell you which president should appoint the next judge, and I won’t tell you what gender or background the judge should come from. But I will tell you one thing: I think the judge should wear a simple black robe, just like all the other judges, because clothes matter, and these clothes, in particular, matter. It is said that clothes make the man, but can man also make the clothes? Today, we are going to see that through the judge of today, and the priest of the past.

As I thought about this issue, I read something very interesting: from former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner. In her research, she found that there is no rule to tell us what a justice has to wear while sitting on the bench, but there is precedent. In England, the court system that our country's system is based upon, judges wore colorful robes and ornate wigs, but it didn't happen the colonies.

The first official portrait of the first chief justice, John Jay, shows him in a robe of black and red with white borders. The 'story' is that Thomas Jefferson himself objected to the pomp and circumstance of wearing colorful robes and big wigs: As an ardent supporter of modest republican citizenship, Jefferson was against “any needless official apparel,” especially “the monstrous wig which makes the English judges look like rats peeping through bunches of oakum.” It is believed that by 1801, when John Marshall became chief justice, the justices were in the habit of wearing black. It seemed that the attire of our judges did matter to our founding fathers.

In this week’s parashah, Tetzaveh, we learn about the clothes of the high priest in great detail.

The Supreme Court and the Priesthood actually have a lot in common. There’s a lot of secrecy in both. There are no cameras allowed in the court room proceedings, and no pictures are allowed either. If it weren’t for the book of Leviticus, we wouldn’t really know what happened behind the closed doors of the Mishkan and the Temple. And on Yom Kippur, when the high priest goes into the Kodesh HaKodashim, no one knows what is happening. It’s a mystery. But probably the most interesting thing they have in common is the fact that they both have uniforms, and the uniforms are very important.

What do the clothes of the priests teach us about our people? How important are clothes?

In our parashah, we read about the importance of the clothes of the priest. In chapter 28:43, we read the line:

43They (the priests clothes) shall be worn by Aaron and his sons when they enter the Tent of Meeting or when they approach the altar to officiate in the sanctuary, so that they do not incur punishment and die.

Rashi says that officiating without being dressed in all of the proper garments is a capital offense. So we know it is important, but the question is, why?

The answer can be found in the first verse of this story:

וְעָשִׂ֥יתָ בִגְדֵי־קֹ֖דֶשׁ לְאַהֲרֹ֣ן אָחִ֑יךָ לְכָב֖וֹד וּלְתִפְאָֽרֶת׃

2 Make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron, for dignity and adornment.

That is what the intricate design of the priests clothes were supposed to convey – something to take your breath away.

Dr. Raymond Schindlin quotes the Letter of Aristeas, a possibly fictional first-century BCE account of a visitor’s impressions of the Temple as the writer saw the vestments of a high priest named Eleazar (Aristeas 96, 100):
We were struck with great astonishment when we beheld Eleazar at his ministration, and his apparel, and the visible glory conferred by his being garbed in the coat that he wears and the stones that adorn his person. . . The total effect of the whole arouses awe and emotional excitement.

The Midrash tells us that in the case of the high priest, he is clothed in white linen which literally mimicks God as God is said to be dressed in light and glory.

Clothes are important, clothes are one of the few things that set us apart from animals. The midrash tells us that God dressed Adam and Eve, and all humans after them, in garments of light.

It was actually an act of creation.

But here's the thing about that – we may have been created on a higher level, but our actions determine whether we stay on that level.

How good are the clothes we wear, no matter how beautiful, when we act in un-Godly ways? This happened with the high priesthood. At points in history, the priesthood became corrupt. People stopped trusting it, and the beautiful garments did something completely opposite – they became shells of what they were meant to be. Sometimes, fancy clothes can do that to a person – it can make you think you have the power of God, but without the goodness and responsibility.

And so, we return to our justices clothes. I want to share what Justice Sandra Day O'Conner said about her robe: My fondest thoughts about my robe have to do with the tradition at the Supreme Court for putting it on. On argument days, a buzzer sounds about five minutes before the oral argument starts. The justices go to the robing room—the court’s version of a locker room. Each justice has a locker; attendants help the justices fasten their robes. Then the justices, without fail, engage in a wonderful custom. Each justice shakes the hand of every other justice before walking into the courtroom—an important reminder that, despite the justices’ occasional differences in opinion, the court is a place of collegiality and common purpose.

Justice Scalia was probably the most Conservative justice on the court, and he argued fiercely with Ruth Bader Ginsberg, or as some call her, Notorious R.B.G, a liberal court Justice. One would think they were the bitterest of enemies, but actually, that was far from the case. She wrote a letter after Scalia's death that stated the following:

Toward the end of the opera Scalia/Ginsburg, tenor Scalia and soprano Ginsburg sing a duet: "We are different, we are one," different in our interpretation of written texts, one in our reverence for the Constitution and the institution we serve.
From our years together at the D.C. Circuit, we were best buddies. We disagreed now and then, but when I wrote for the Court and received a Scalia dissent, the opinion ultimately released was notably better than my initial circulation.
Justice Scalia nailed all the weak spots — the "applesauce" and "argle bargle"—and gave me just what I needed to strengthen the majority opinion. He was a jurist of captivating brilliance and wit, with a rare talent to make even the most sober judge laugh. It was my great good fortune to have known him as working colleague and treasured friend.”

Maybe a simple black coat helps them remember that they are there for a common purpose, something greater than themselves. Maybe we should put all of our presidential candidates in black robes!?! But it's not just the robes, it's the people in the robes. Thankfully, our Supreme Court seems to be one of the last places in government where people can disagree civilly.

It's February, and we are a number of months away from the election, but with each passing day, we come closer, and we have to decide how we want the world to see each one of us – will we make our clothes beautiful, or ugly, with our behavior? Can we disagree without being disagreeable?
Everyday we have an opportunity to put on clothes. Can you imagine if you also intentionally looked at yourself as if you were wearing a garment of light over your clothes. Perhaps we would act just a little holier in the world.

My blessing for each one of you is that you see yourself as if you are wearing the clothes that God dressed you in – a garment of light, and may you remember that in every interaction you have, and may it bring you to realize that we have a common purpose – to bring more of God into this world.  


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