It is important, at least occasionally, to dress up for prayer and for God.
During the recently concluded Jewish High Holiday season, which I celebrated in two synagogues located in different metropolitan areas, I found it interesting that my fellow worshipers were a little more formally dressed than they have been in the past. I wondered if, perhaps, this change signaled a new direction in how Jews dress for worship, or if not that, at least a pause in and rethinking of what has been a decades-long trend toward dressing down for prayer.
When I was growing up in the 1950s and '60s, formal dress was standard for worship at my synagogue -- and virtually all other synagogues as well. As a child, I don't remember ever being in synagogue without a sport jacket and tie, and girls my age wore dresses or skirts. This dress code was consistent with societal patterns of the time. Adults dressed rather formally for the office, teachers for school, and actors for the sitcoms we watched on TV; it was natural, therefore, that Jews dressed for temple and their Christian neighbors dressed for church.
Yet there was also a religious rationale for this style of dressing: We added to the majesty of Shabbat worship and created an air of dignity when we dressed up for God. In doing so, we also respected the biblical teaching in Exodus 28, which states that the holy clothing of the high priests, the bigdei kodesh, was intended to bestow special status and honor both to the priests and to the sacred rituals they performed.
But cultural patterns began to change in the late 1960s, and today, informal dress is acceptable everywhere: in the workplace, at the theater, in fine restaurants and even in the presidential campaign (both candidates make a point of appearing at most campaign stops as if they were going to a barbeque). Inevitably, worshipers also dress informally in synagogue, and as my clergy friends tell me, the same thing happens in houses of worship of other traditions.
Proponents of informal dress at communal prayer also have compelling religious arguments to make. Dressy synagogue clothes, they say, may lead to preening and competitive dressing; emphasis on dress may promote worship as show business; and, they ask, does God really care what outfit we are wearing? They too can cite Scripture to support their position: When Samuel is examining each of Jesse's sons, God tells Samuel to pay no attention to their outer appearance or stature, because "a human being sees only what is visible, but God sees into the heart" (I Samuel 16:7).
The informality of dress, of course, reflects as well the new worship patterns that have won broad acceptance in recent decades. In my part of the Jewish world, and elsewhere in both Jewish and Christian circles, the grand liturgical dramas have given way to prayer that is celebratory and joyous, built around accessible melodies written for the average voice. In a setting where we look for God in the intimacy of community and hope that prayer will make our souls fly free, formal dress seems like an impediment, inappropriate and out of place.
Why then the more "dressy" nature of the High Holiday services this year? I can't be sure. It is undoubtedly connected to the fact that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur have sober themes. On these holidays we look within, plead for forgiveness, declare God's sovereignty over all humankind and recognize that God's judgment of our actions is sealed for the coming year. When the focus is more on repentance than on Shabbat joy and more on a sense of awe than on swaying in the aisles, jeans and polo shirts may not seem right. In a religious service that gives emphasis to God's role as judge, we may resist the temptation to assume a familiarity with God that informal dress implies.
To be sure, these themes are present at the High Holidays each year, but it seems to me that they resonate with particular intensity in the difficult times in which we live.
I doubt that we are witnessing a fundamental change in patterns of dress, and I am not advocating that. I am a supporter of participatory, community-building worship and the comfortable and informal dress that accompanies it. But what I witnessed this year is a reminder that there are limits to the user-friendly, "worship as hootenanny" model. There are times and places when our worship requires a sense of awe and dignity. There are times when we need less "here and now" and more transcendence and beauty. There are times when our prayer must be marked by reverence and earnestness. And at these times, we are better off if we dress the part.