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February 23, 2018 1:42 pm

The True Purpose of Uniforms

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A Torah scroll. Photo: RabbiSacks.org

Parents of children attending the prestigious Taimei Elementary School in Tokyo were recently shocked to discover that buying a new school uniform for their children would set them back a staggering 80,000 yen (around $700).

Although the school is state-funded, it is located in the luxury shopping district of Ginza — home to Tokyo’s equivalent of Rodeo Drive — and enrolment is extremely competitive. It would appear that the school’s administration took this coveted exclusivity to a whole new level by commissioning designer label Georgio Armani to design their new uniform –resulting in the hefty price tag.

Irritated parents launched a campaign against the innovation, and last week the issue was raised at a session of the Japanese parliament, forcing government ministers to apologize.

The saga began back in November, when headmaster Toshitsugu Wada informed parents of the uniform change. But none of the parents expected a designer collection, and certainly not a uniform designed by Armani — whose Japanese head office is conveniently located just 200 yards from the school. “I was surprised such luxury brand-designed uniforms were picked for a public elementary school,” one unnamed mother told The Huffington Post, adding that she was “worried the wrong notion that something expensive is good and something cheap is bad could be imprinted on children.”

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The use of school uniforms has all but disappeared in American schools — but maybe that is about to change. One bill currently proposed in South Carolina would require children to wear uniforms on a daily basis.

There is endless data to demonstrate that buying stuff for kids ahead of a school year costs parents a lot of money. In the case of teenagers, a lot of money is also spent on new clothes.

So South Carolina state lawmaker Cezar McKnight is proposing that all students attending state schools wear the same outfit, and that the uniform in question be limited in cost. The bill also proposes that students from low income families be provided with five sets of uniforms free-of-charge. “If they all wear uniforms, the children who can’t afford the really nice clothes won’t have to be ashamed of what they’re wearing,” one mother said.

The preamble to the bill details the phenomenal peer pressure that sees parents laying out small fortunes on designer clothes for their kids to wear at school. But not everyone agrees with McKnight’s bill. “If I’m going to spend money, I’m going to go out and buy what my kids want,” another mother told a local newspaper. “Kids should have the freedom to wear whatever they want to school.” An enterprising student has even launched a petition to stop the bill.

Neither required clothing nor uniform appearance is a hallmark of Judaism.

I recall hearing from former British chief rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, that he once attended a United Nations religious leaders’ conference — where he discovered that Judaism is the only faith that does not have a formal dress code for its religious leaders. At the closing session, every faith leader was asked to attend in their official vestments for the purposes of a group photo. It suddenly dawned on Rabbi Sacks that he didn’t have anything in particular to wear. In the photo, he appears alongside hundreds of clergy, all of them in flowing robes and garments of every color imaginable — while he is dressed in a plain suit and tie.

This is a remarkable observation — and cases that might seem to be exceptions to this rule, are actually further proof of it. For example, the elaborate costume worn by contemporary Sephardic chief rabbis of Israel is a throwback to the uniform worn by Jewish religious leaders of the Ottoman Empire. Meanwhile, the striking garb worn by Hasidic leaders and their followers can be traced back to the clothes worn by 18th century Ukrainian and Polish noblemen.

There is, however, an exception, even if it has no contemporary application — the clothing prescribed for priests while they performed the duties of the Temple, described in detail in the Torah portion of Tetzaveh (Ex. 28:2): “you shall make sacred garments for Aaron your brother, for honor and for glory.”

The Or Hachaim commentary notes that these clothes, however intricate and beautiful they may have been, were not important in-and-of-themselves — which is evident from the fact that Moses was not required to wear them during the first week after the Temple was ready — before Aaron and his family took over.

Rather they represent an ideal, with the four “white” garments signifying the unutterable four-letter name of God, and the four “gold” garments signifying the less elevated four-letter name of God whose pronunciation is permitted. Priests were expected to serve the people, and to help atone for their sins — both sins of faith, as represented by God’s elevated name, and sins of human weakness, characterized by God’s other name.

The garments acted as a reminder of this dual expectation, a clear demonstration that drawing inspiration from one’s clothing is the true purpose of any uniform, something it is safe to say could never be achieved with a uniform designed by Armani.

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