Sermon – On wearing a Kittel, Erev Rosh Hashanah 5772
Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 27 September 2011
There are two comments that I can guarantee to hear at least once every High Holy Days.
At least once, probably more often, someone on security duty will say as I walk in: ”Oo, he looks suspicious, I’m not sure we should let him in”. At which point, without fail, I will reply, “No, no, you definitely shouldn’t, I’ll be off home, then”. Then we’ll chuckle, shake hands, and in I’ll come. This happens so regularly that it has come to provide me with a different sort of security – a knowledge that all is really well with the world.
The other guaranteed comment is that someone, at some point, will say to me something like: “Gosh Rabbi Josh, I didn’t expect to see you in a nightie!”
Now, the garment I wear on the Yamim Noraim is, of course, not a nightie. It is a kittel – a death-shroud. My one, I acknowledge, is a particularly frilly kittel. But it is also, quite possibly, the garment that I will one day be buried in. On Yom Kippur afternoon I will speak about the association of kittel and Yom Kippur, and the experience of wearing one’s own death-shroud. On Rosh Hashanah, however, the primary function of the kittel is to fulfil the tradition of wearing white.
The exact origin of the association of white and the High Holy Days is unclear, but its symbolism is striking. By asking us to change clothes, it marks out this period as different from the rest of the year. The changing of clothes itself symbolises a change in status and in atmosphere. Look at our Bimah this evening and you know that we are doing something different to that which we do on a normal Shabbat morning.
And whiteness, as every washing powder salesman knows, is itself symbolically important. Whiteness is cleanness. To wear white is a physical symbol of our quest for spiritual purity. Most often the tradition of wearing white at this time is associated with a verse from Isaiah 1, where white is explicitly understood as a metaphor for cleanliness from sin: “Be your sins like crimson, they can turn snow-white; be they red as dyed wool, they can become like fleece.” In wearing white we express our aspiration for this sort of transformation.
Of course, wearing a kittel is not the only way to express these connections. In fact, on the bimah this evening, each of Alyth’s three rabbis expresses the aspiration for renewal for ourselves, and for all of us, in a different way.
And this difference carries its own powerful symbolism for us as a community. Each of us is committed to our tradition, each of us committed to this deeply entrenched piece of High Holy Day symbolism. And yet, we are able to express it in different ways – through kittel, white robes, or white clothing. In another part of the Jewish world this might be impossible. But here in miniature, it is a powerful ideological statement as we enter the High Holy Days. It is a statement of the existence of choice, and of difference; that each of us has responsibility for our own Jewish lives; that each of us is not only able to make our own choices, but has to – even down to what we choose to put on in the morning. As we embark on the challenge of the Yamim Noraim, each of us is responsible for how we express the values and commitments of our Jewish lives, over the next 10 days and in the year ahead.
These three whites also set some parameters in which this can happen – set some boundaries for legitimate difference.
Each of our choices is one that is made with honour and reverence to our religious and cultural inheritance. None is rejectionist – no red ties or shirts, nor real nighties; no white Elvis suits – our clothes do not dismiss the practices and associations of the past as superstitious mumbo jumbo, but honour the traditions we have as powerful and symbolic. Nor are these choices made simply for the sake of ease – it would be easier not to bother. But rather they are made with an eye firmly on our tradition, a deliberate attempt to express the values underlying the practice of Jews for generations.
Each choice expresses commitment, too, to our community – to our shared priorities and values. The ark wears white, the Torah scrolls wear white mantles – and the three rabbis of Alyth wear white also. But this is not mere conforming, not mere appearance, but a deep and abiding respect for the concept of community.
And, at the same time, each choice is one that is made with integrity, also reflecting our own personalities and needs at this moment – recognising that the quality of our Jewish experience is important. Obedience or appearance is not enough – Judaism has to be done in a way that reflects, and enhances the experience of, the individual doing it.
I don’t want to force the point, but in the context of Jewish history something extraordinary happens here – three different but legitimate ways of expressing the same value, the same ideal, coexisting on one bimah, because three different people sit on this bimah. And as the people change, so will the forms of expression.
This is not a nightie, but a kittel. For a kittel reflects who I am, and how I choose to express our tradition’s whiteness, our aspiration for purity at this time of year. It is just one choice among three, and, in fact, one choice among many possible ways of expressing the same idea. It is fundamental to the ideology of our congregation that each of us has the potential to live a different, but meaningful Jewish life. That multiple ways of expressing our shared ideal are not just tolerated but are cherished and nurtured.
It is an awesome possibility – That there are not merely three but three thousand ways to live that Jewish life with integrity and meaning. I am grateful indeed that security still choose to let me in.