London Fashion Week Sermon
In February this year, part of the Jewish world was plunged into chaos. The problem, as reported by 3 different laboratories which deal exclusively with these questions was that UGG boots, the comfortable if aesthetically challenged footwear of choice of many in the winter months, were found to be unkosher. The news website Yeshiva World reported that slightly unprepared customer service advisors at UGG fielded upwards of 500 questions on the issue on the day the news broke alone, probably the first time many in UGG HQ had ever been asked to adjudicate or advise on matters of halachic importance.
What was the problem with the shoes?
In a report from the desk of the Gateshead Shatnez Laboratory – R’ Binyomin Benjamin explained that a pair of Woolen Ugg boots was brought to the Gateshead Shatnez Laboratory because its owner was concerned that bottom rim by the sole was a Linen blend.
This is a problem because according to the Torah- in a verse contained within this morning’s portion- it is forbidden to wear garments that are comprised of both wool and linen.
These garments are described as Shatnez. In the tractate of mishnah that deals with all different kinds of problematic mixing, it is suggested that it is an acronym of shua, which refers to combing raw fiber; tauvi, the process of spinning fiber into thread; and nuz, the weaving of thread into cloth. More likely, it is a word of Egyptian or Arabic origin meaning a mixed cloth, but the truth is the Torah doesn’t really give us much of a clue as to what Shatnez means, or why this seemingly odd law exists. It’s what our rabbis call a chok- a law with no explanation. The chukkim demand our observance even if at the time we encounter the law, we can’t understand it.
That doesn’t mean people haven’t tried and for the law of Shatnez many find a clue in its context. In today’s Torah portion there’s a whole list of things that can’t be mixed: for instance an ox and a donkey can’t plow a field together and you can’t plant two different types of seed in a field of vineyard. The most popular way of explaining Shatnez therefore is that this is all about the idea of separation. It’s symbolic, it’s about systems of control and creating a sense of order in a chaotic world. There are just some things that can’t mix, and following the arbitrary laws is meant to create a sense of order in the universe, and reinforce the idea that there are things that are beyond our capacity for understanding.
To prevent people accidentally mixing fabrics, around the Jewish world there are Shatnez laboratories, just like the one in Gateshead that found the problematic UGG boots, that test the composition of fabrics; and there are many traditional Jews who pay meticulous attention to what makes up the clothes that they wear.
If paying meticulous attention to the clothes that you wear is something you enjoy, then this week is a good week for you because Yesterday was the start of London Fashion Week, a phenomenal celebration of design talent and innovation. It draws people from all over the world to view new collections, and to set the agenda for what we will be seeing in shops in the coming seasons.
Yesterday was also the start of a weekend of activism by climate protesters who have chosen London Fashion Week as a venue to draw our attention to the impact of the clothing industry on our natural environment.
One of the key understandings at the heart of the protests is that most of us don’t really know quite how vast the footprint of the garments we wear and buy is. Since the mid-200s, public awareness in this country around what might lay behind the ‘made in..’ line on a clothes label has centered around the question of sweatshops and child labour. But there’s much more to learn from what’s written on the tags of our clothes…
Apparel and footwear production currently accounts for 8.1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, or as much as the total climate impact of the entire European Union. The average water footprint for a kilo of cotton (equivalent to pair of jeans and a shirt) is 10,000-20,000 litres. Dyeing and finishing processes are responsible for major water pollution, and every time we wash a synthetic garment about 1,900 microfibers are released into the water system.
In 2004, the Central Conference of American Rabbis released a new commentary on its ideological platform- a manifesto for living a Reform Jewish life. Harriet introduced to us a really helpful designation that comes from such a declaration; that some mitzvot are timeless and some are time bound. In this document they also introduce another category. Those commandments which were once deemed ridiculous or irrational but in our era demand renewed attention. On that list, the mitzvah of Shatnez- complete with its laboratories and UGG inspectors.
They explain, “studying the mitzvah of Shaatnez, calling us to examine garments for a forbidden linen and wool mixture, can lead us to examine labels for firms practicing oshek through sweatshop labor or payments of a sub-minimum wage.”
In other words, Shatnez to them is about making sure we understand what goes into a product- but in a much more expansive sense than the original biblical law. The prohibition in Torah is specifically about mixing, because nothing about the fabrics themselves is an issue. It’s completely ok to wear a wool jumper and linen trousers, the issue arises when suddenly we don’t know what something is made of and then things get mixed. The by-product of this law is that Jews have to know what is in the things that they wear. Shatnez thus has the potential to be a vehicle for a different kind of ethical consciousness, one which expects of us a heightened awareness of the systems that we partake in through the choices we make.
And if we know, if we really know, then we are also called to understand the moral obligation that derives from that knowledge.
The easy answer is to leave Shatnez in the pile of mitzvot that appear unfit for purpose in our modern age, the mitzvah version of a pile of rejected outfits strewn across the floor. Perhaps a more demanding question is to ask ourselves what the consequences would be in our lives if we were to undertake such a mitzvah. How would our choices be different if we were forced to confront what goes in to the things that we own?
In this shul we often talk about living our values, but the mitzvah of Shatnez also invites us to wear our values. To think about the way that we engage with the world, and to make sure the fabric that stands at the interface does not separate us from understanding our place in the wider ecosystem.