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Skirting the Issue?

Why discussing women, clothing, and religion isn’t a waste of time

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This Sunday, I will be participating in a conference at the Jewish Theological Seminary called “What to Wear: Women, Clothing, Religion“—along with, among others, FIT curator and brilliant social commentator Valerie Steele and the always incisive Jenna Weissman Joselit of George Washington University. Slated sessions will cover everything from the Bible and the concept of modesty to stereotypes and pop culture.

But the Forward’s Debra Nussbaum Cohen is very disappointed in us.

“American Jews are hungry for meaning. Those who identify as Conservative Jews want to know what that means, if it means anything at all outside of a personal level of observance and commitment. The movement is starving for leaders who can provide that,” she writes. “So why are some of the Conservative movement’s most creative and dynamic teachers, including Shuly Rubin Schwartz, Rabbi Amy Kalmanofsky, David Kraemer, Stefanie Siegmund and Rabbi Francine Green Roston, talking about clothing?”

Indeed! Why should Shuly Rubin Schwartz be encouraged to think about anything other than Torah, observance, and the future of the Conservative movement? And David Kraemer clearly mustn’t be permitted to leave his office until he solves the day-school problem. How in the world could I have thought otherwise?

” ‘What to Wear?’ strikes me,” Cohen explains, “as a profound waste of time and effort, a true bitul zman.”

Ah, that’s right. Bitul zman—the phrase used by some of my Orthodox teachers to describe my interest in such obviously pointless things like Picasso and Shakespeare (and yes, Madonna). Which was a shame, really, because not only did this lead me to see these influences as in conflict with religion; I also, for many years, failed to understand that the passionate exploration of culture and society could actually enrich one’s Jewish identity. If God didn’t want us thinking about clothing, why’d He make it so fabulously technicolor?

What to Wear: Women, Clothing, Religion [JTS]

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You say Bitul zman, I say Lululemon.

Alana Newhouse says:

One copy of “A Fine Romance” for the perfect Gershwin-pun-making commenter-of-the-week, please.

A hoarse thank you from my type A influenza riddled throat.

I can’t wait to meet you on Sunday! And I just bought a new dress for the occasion – because I couldn’t decide what to wear to What to Wear…

Alana Newhouse says:

@Roy: I have a sinus infection! I guess you still win….

@Alia: Can’t wait to meet you, too! Introduce yourself!

esthermiriam says:

I’m sorry I can’t be at the conference,
and hope there will be reports after.
The previous such on ‘women and prayer’ was fine, but so will this be — helping to establish that “women’s topics” are not by definition of secondary interest and/or importance.

Though there are public and private actions, there is no “outside of a personal level of observance and commitment”, despite Cohen’s thinking there is.

Very true! I am sick of seeing this fallacious idea that “there are more important things to talk about” means that “this is not important and you should not talk about it”.

We can’t only discuss the most important things all the time — where’s the fun in that?

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Skirting the Issue?

Why discussing women, clothing, and religion isn’t a waste of time

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