“If you feel your value lies in being merely decorative, I fear that someday you might find yourself believing that’s all you really are.”
– Mrs. March (Little Women)
A few days ago, fashion blogger “J” of J’s Everyday Fashion published a controversial article, “Fashion and Faith: Can They Coexist?” “J” tells how years ago she was shopping for jeans on a tight budget and found the style she had wanted at a deeply discounted price. She saw a tag in the jeans that read, “God loves you”, and she broke into tears. “It mattered to Him. It really, truly mattered, because my heart matters. All of it. All of the tiny little things that make up my heart, including the creativity and joy in style… He rejoices in what your heart rejoices in…”
This article has churned up controversy among readers across diverse faith traditions. It raises questions about whether it is valid and respectful to turn shopping into what “J” calls “a God encounter”. Readers wonder if we can put words in God’s mouth, and accept His assumed approval for our consumerism or even vanity. Do we believe that God orchestrates our lives down to details of what clothes we find on sale? Does a tag on a pair of jeans prove that God is into this? What does God think of the conditions in the factories abroad that produce so much of our low-cost clothing today? And most of all, does God rejoice when we buy things that make us happy?
These are questions about Divine providence that reach to the very roots of faith. Some of us believe that not a leaf falls without God willing it, while others think that God focuses on large events and leaves the trivialities up to us. Still others believe in an absent God, or in no God at all. Today I offer my perspective as an Orthodox Jewish woman.
Every Friday night before the traditional Shabbat meal, Orthodox Jews gather around the table and sing “Eishet Chayil”, the chapter from Proverbs that praise the women of our community and faith tradition. This poetic song describes her many accomplishments both at home and in business. Three of its verses speak to our dilemma of balancing faith and beauty:
שֵׁשׁ וְאַרְגָּמָן לְבוּשָׁהּ
“Her clothing is fine linen and purple”
עוֹז וְהָדָר לְבוּשָׁהּ
“Strength and dignity are her clothing”
שֶֽׁקֶר הַחֵן וְהֶֽבֶל הַיֹּֽפִי, אִשָּׁה יִרְאַת ה׳ הִיא תִתְהַלָּל
“Grace is deceitful, and beauty is for naught;
but a woman that fears the Lord, she shall be praised.”
All three of these elements coexist in a single song of praise. The “woman of valor” is admired for her fine clothing, for their quality and regal color. She is clothed in strength and dignity; those are her adornments. And as a reminder of what we value most of all, of what truly defines a person, we praise her faith in God.
“J” writes that she believes that her entire heart matters to God, and that He rejoices with her in all of her interests. In a way, I think this is true. After all, doesn’t one love what his beloved loves? Didn’t God create us as human beings, with a need for interests and pleasures and small joys?
But I don’t believe that God rejoices in every part of our hearts in equal measure. When I feel the happiness of buying a new pair of shoes, does God rejoice in that as much as when I organize a community event, or cook a meal for a local family in need? While both are expressions of my identity, I can’t imagine they bring God equal happiness. Buying shoes is not an intrinsically holy act.
Part of our identity as women is in the way we choose to carry ourselves into the world. How we outwardly express our faith, how we project our inner grace. But this is not the most important part of who we are. And if we see this as our one beauty, we may forget, to paraphrase the words of Louisa May Alcott, that there is more to us than our outer selves.
In Judaism, outer beauty is treasured as a reflection of inner beauty. We learn that the matriarchs were beautiful to look at because of the beauty that glowed within. The values we cherish are displayed on the outside- as a kippah, a headcovering, modestly draped clothing, and even tephillin. Like a wedding ring symbolizes an intimate commitment, our outer selves must reflect our core values. There is room for this in Judaism, it is even required of us, but it can never be mistaken for the core of our faith.
And this is where I think “J” has lost her way. While I’m sure God is reasonably happy when I am happy, I don’t think that’s enough for Him. He didn’t put us in this world for pleasure or personal satisfaction or even creative fulfillment. I believe He put us here as vessels for a holy spark, and rejoices with us when we give that spark voice in our actions, thoughts, and yes! even our dress.
So does this mean that any modest clothing will do? That spending time and money expressing oneself through style is a waste of resources better spent on actual mitzvot? I don’t think so. As long as we don’t forget that God has a greater plan for us. That we are not only modern women, who wear blazers and incredible shoes, but also a generation of change makers, and the keepers of our diverse traditions. We are daughters, friends, wives, and mothers. We are funny, kind, and courageous. THAT’S what needs to show.
“If you feel your value lies in being merely decorative, I fear that someday you might find yourself believing that’s all that you really are. Time erodes all such beauty, but what it cannot diminish is the wonderful workings of your mind: Your humor, your kindness, and your moral courage.”
– Mrs. March (Little Women)
So find clothing that brings you joy. Spend time on life’s small pleasures. And live a more beautiful life each and every day, so that God will rejoice with you.