A Note from the Author:
This article was written before the horrific October 7 massacre of more than 1,300 Israeli civilians by Hamas terrorists. With Israel at war and with astounding antisemitic rhetoric and violence throughout the West—including in the United States—one may well ask: is the topic of this article at all worthy of discussion in wartime? I myself have asked this question.
I take counsel from C. S. Lewis and his 1939 address “Learning in War-Time,” in which he reminds us: “We can therefore pursue knowledge as such, and beauty, as such, in the sure confidence that by so doing we are either advancing to the vision of G-d ourselves or indirectly helping others to do so.” In other words, when the barbarians are at the gates—or are indeed breaching the gates—we must commit ourselves to the pursuit of beauty and truth with our full vigor and with a renewed sense of purpose. It is in that spirit that I offer these reflections and dedicate them to my brothers and sisters in Israel—innocent men, women, and children, who were killed for the simple reason that they were Jews.
Picture this: the august chamber of the United States Senate. Rows of antique wooden desks arranged in concentric semi-circles facing a raised dais, itself festooned in rich drapery. Senators rising to their full height to advocate on behalf of their constituents—the citizens of the United States of America. A presiding officer—a senator himself—forgoing the de rigueur business suit and tie in favor of wearing cargo shorts and a sports shirt, effecting a bohemian-homeless aesthetic. In a regrettable first for our nation, this scene unfolded last month in Washington with the full approval of the Senate’s majority leader.
This sight engendered several deep emotions for me—and I suspect for many others—all negative and some deeply troubling. Perhaps, though, this reaction is simply the result of subjective preferences, none bespeaking a deep or eternal truth. Perhaps my reaction is merely one of embarrassment for the apparent lack of professional seriousness that such casual dress implies. It’s plain good manners to show up to life well-dressed, and if one is honored to serve in a role of political leadership—a role on which the eyes of the nation are focused—that obligation becomes more pronounced. Or, perhaps, my dismay could be attributable to the perpetual “what is wrong with this new generation?” feeling that is mustered when older standards—of any merit, or of no merit at all—are discarded in favor of new and easier comportments.
But I think not. I think my visceral reaction to last month’s degradation can be attributed to two deeply moral objections, both firmly rooted in my faith tradition as an Orthodox Jew, and, I would suggest, our country’s Judeo-Christian moral heritage.
First, I believe these feelings of shock-horror stem from the moral repugnance of violating the sanctity of hallowed spaces. Etiquette and good character proscribe meeting with dignitaries or entering houses of worship in casual attire out of respect for what or whom—or Whom—they represent. The United States Senate, one of the critical organs of our body politic, should be afforded similar respect. Seeing someone in the rarified space of the Senate in such sartorial ruin feels like an affront to the very concept of Western democratic ideals themselves.
In fact, the Jewish legal and faith traditions understand that holiness of place is defined by twinned-but-opposite characteristics. On one hand, holiness is effected by the sublime actions for which the space is reserved and intended: a temple for sacrificial rites, a synagogue for prayer, a cemetery for the temporal repose of the faithful, and so forth. These hallowed purposes then disallow mundane activities from taking place within those consecrated spaces.
In Jewish thinking, the designation of a place for a sacred purpose effects holiness. That holiness then disallows regular—or non-holy—activities from being co-domiciled therein. And this doctrine actually creates legal proscriptions: for example, one cannot cut through a synagogue to go from Point A to Point B, thereby using a sacred space that was designated for prayer as an alleyway of expediency.
Similarly, sacred spaces require specific decorum. While Judaism certainly does not believe that “clothes make the man,” Jewish law places great emphasis on the intrinsic value of attire, both in the discharge of religious duty and also in one’s general presentation. If a Kohein (Jewish priest) were to officiate in the Temple without his robes of office—mandated by the Torah to bestow “honor and glory”—his divine service would be rendered unfit. If one is at prayer in a synagogue and is wearing clothes inside-out or is otherwise inappropriately dressed, he must correct his attire immediately and only thereafter resume his prayers. And, as stated in the Talmud with great rhetorical flourish, if a Torah scholar’s attire is undignified, he warrants the death penalty.
All hyperbole aside, the underlying ethic is clear: a leader of men, a representative of our ethical ideals, must dress according to the dignity of his office. Anyone—officeholder, leader, and layman alike—must dress with great dignity when executing actions of moral importance. In short: Jewish law is worried that the undignified dress of mitzvah-doers and Torah scholars would bring ill repute on Torah and G-d Himself. And, while the capitol’s great legislative chambers cannot be classified as holy in a technical Jewish-legal sense, special and splendorous indeed they are.
I remember the awe—truly, the awe—that I felt walking onto the floor of the United States House of Representatives in 2017 when I was invited to serve as Guest Chaplain at the invitation of my good friend and now majority whip, Tom Emmer of Minnesota. Assuming the rostrum of the People’s House, standing where presidents and foreign heads of state and government have stood to address joint sessions of Congress, I could not help but be gobsmacked by the importance of the space and its purpose.
Delivering a prayer for the welfare and success of the representatives while seeing the chamber’s marble relief portraits of humanity’s great lawgivers, from Moses to Maimonides to England’s Edward I, one understands why each sitting of the U.S. House and Senate begins with a prayer. The debates, deliberations, and votes within these chambers represent the strivings and greatest needs of our society. Our 535 elected lawmakers—and we—need every measure of divine assistance in their work.
But the maintenance of this feeling of awe requires beauty, nobility, and majesty. As a boy in the 1990s, I remember the thrill of seeing Prime Minister’s Questions for the first time. The weekly passionate exchange between the British Prime Ministers and members of the loyal opposition is often heated and dramatic. What struck me then about those proceedings—in addition to the actual debate, which was enthralling—was the dignity of the presiding officer of the House of Commons, Speaker Bernard Weatherill.
Speaker Weatherill, whose speakership ended in 1992, was the last Speaker of the House of Commons to wear full court dress—including a full-bottom wig—when presiding over the House. To my adolescent American eyes, his attire was unique and captivating, it was antiquated and magisterial, and from his chair, it was plainly clear that he was not just another politician. The robes of his office conveyed a seriousness and reverence for the proceedings that he chaired—a governmental “for honor and splendor” semi-analogue to the spiritual clothing of the Kohein.
Following his speakership, the Commons saw a series of impressive firsts in their election of the subsequent three speakers. Betty Boothroyd was the United Kingdom’s first female speaker, Michael Martin was the first Catholic speaker since the Reformation, and John Bercow was Westminster’s first Jewish speaker. But while the election of these speakers represented important social achievements, each of these speakers did away with elements of their office’s haberdashery.
Boothroyd was the first speaker to preside without a wig; Martin discontinued wearing the traditional stockings, breeches, and court shoes; and Bercow opted to preside in a Western-style business suit rather than in a sleeved court coat and matching waistcoat and he cast away his office’s jabot and bands in favor of unsubtle and loud neckties. While none of these speakers’ dress could be described as disrespectful per se—after all, their manner of dress was still superior to standard business attire—the lessening of the sartorial formality of their office contributed to the erosion of governmental dignity that so defines our times.
No action occurs in isolation. Perhaps when a speaker in London removes her wig, a sense of entitlement is given to a senator in Washington to preside wearing his gym clothes.
Senator John Fetterman—whom I do not know personally—has been candid and public about his deep struggles with mental illness. It is entirely possible that wearing respectable clothing is a trigger for him, for reasons that only he would know. While I wish him well in his battle for mental health, I would say that the greater social good of dignified senatorial comportment is far more important than his individual prerogative to serve as a senator. If he is incapable of discharging his duties in the decorous manner that his office demands, one may argue that he should resign his office. We simply cannot decouple the obligations of his office and the manner in which he chooses to observe them.
But, I think perhaps the most disquieting emotion that this national disgrace engenders is rooted in something deeper still: the feeling of a covenant being torn asunder.
Our times are hallmarked by hyper-partisanship and transactional politics. Today’s Washington can hardly be called a “shining city on a hill” as President Reagan encouraged us to build. Today’s Washington is more known for scandal and backroom dealing than it is for noble societal architecture. Very few people look to the seat of our federal government with reverence, precisely because its behavior so rarely warrants it.
President Lincoln described Americans as “the almost-chosen people.” What made this champion of the American ideal speak so eloquently about our national purpose, identity, and destiny?
Perhaps the answer is articulated best by the late Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Lord Jonathan Sacks. In his 2017 acceptance speech for the American Enterprise Institute’s Irving Kristol Award, Lord Sacks decries what he perceived as our time’s “politics of anger” and “post-truth” reasoning. He reminds us that people are vested with a choice. They can create utilitarian Hobbesian governments premised on social contracts—taxes in exchange for defense, personal obligations to safeguard against barbarism—or they can coalesce around something far greater and nobler: covenant. As Lord Sacks so eloquently notes:
A covenant . . . is more like a marriage than an exchange. In a covenant, two or more parties that each respect the dignity and integrity of the other come together in a bond of loyalty and trust to do together what neither can do alone. A covenant isn’t about me, it’s about us. A covenant isn’t about interests, it’s about identity . . . A covenant is about “We the People.” The market is about the creation and distribution of wealth, the state is about the creation and distribution of power. But the covenant is about neither wealth nor power, but about the bonds of belonging and of collective responsibility . . . The social contract creates a state but the social covenant creates a society.
Lincoln understood this. He understood that Americans entered into a fraternal bond of shared purpose and responsibility. And this holiness of purpose created an “almost-chosen” status in the eyes of the Almighty.
If, as Americans, we feel called to build “a shining city on a hill,” if we feel called to manifest our national character as “an almost chosen people,” then we must create and nurture a national covenant. We must look to the symbols and apparatuses of that covenant with reverence and respect. And for precisely those reasons, it must be unacceptable for our lawmakers to act in ways that do anything less.
Rights to the featured image were purchased on 10/19/2023.