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 women.
Some will claim that it’s hard to concentrate on prayer with people nearby dressed in a certain manner. This is hypocritical. Maybe 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 they encountered.
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 appearance.