They're called penguins: Observant Jewish men who wear black shoes, black pants, black fedoras, black coats and white shirts. Whenever Reuters or CNN needs a spectacle of the foreign, the "other", the "ultra-"orthodox Jews, they shoot endless reels of them, helplessly flailing about before the greedy cameras - penguins in a barrel. Why do observant Jewish men dress this way, in what is often described as 18th century central-European attire? Why would anyone want to dress this way, particularly in the middle of a summer's heat?
Actually, the reason why the dress is like this, and not like that is besides the point. At some point, it was established that the outfit would be this, and not that. It could have been that, but it was determined that this was more complementary to the communal culture and purpose, so this, and not that became the dress. Of course, I'm oversimplifying, as there is significant variation among the outfits of the different movements which outsiders rarely notice, but that's neither here nor there. The basic, recognizable black garb - black is a sign of piety and humility - is a common feature among observant Jewish communities. This, in all its diversity, will remain the dress until some significant culture shock will transform it into something else, as Jewish communal attire has never been static, though it may persist for generations at a time. What follows is a more interesting (more so than the origins discussion), "inside-baseball" conversation on the role of behavioral conditioning in driving internal change, through the eyes of a Jew in transition.
For people who choose to join and participate in a community, particularly one where members share intellectual or theological beliefs, or seek to share such beliefs, behavioral conformance is crucial to thoroughly internalizing the system of communal belief. To be crude, prolonged behavioral conformance is a method of, in this case voluntary mental conditioning.
Jews in general and Chassidim in particular believe that the soul - the G-dly soul and the animal soul - express themselves through the body in the garments of thought, speech and action. Thought is the most amorphous of the three, the least tangible and physical, and also the most difficult to reign in. It is not a simple thing to control one’s thoughts. Control, in this sense, means not to restrain oneself from acting out a thought, but to prevent an unseemly thought from developing at all. If one could thus control their thoughts (within a Jewish context) they would be a tzadik, a perfectly righteous person. If you never think to sin, you will never speak loshon hora (specifically, gossip, but more generally any forbidden speech) and you will never act out a prohibition. Thoughts are the root from which the rest of ourselves are expressed.
Speech is more tangible than thought. To speak something is to more fully actualize it in the physical world than merely to think it. Yet, once spoken, speech does not generally persist (except in the thoughts of the speaker and listener), although it has a capacity for persisting (in the thoughts, speech and actions of those who heard the speech). Actions have a physical permanence which neither thought nor speech can match. Of the three garments, actions are most rooted in the physical, and most capable of permanently transforming the physical world.
The challenge of an individual who wishes to become more sensitive to and observant of the tenets of our faith is how to transform our thoughts, speech and action for good. There’s a how-to guide, written several hundred years ago, which explains how to do this in a systematic way - called the Tanya - so I won’t get into the particulars. In psychological terms, what this all amounts to is behavioral modification. When a behavior - thought, speech and action - is deemed unwanted, at the time it is initiated there is a conscious recognition, arrest and reversal, until suppressing the behavior becomes routine and passes into the subconscious. I’ll give an example of a hot button issue.
Having sexual partners outside of marriage contradicts the Jewish faith, for reasons I won’t get into here. According to the system of soul-expression outlined previously, the final act of sexual intercourse - which is prohibited - is premised on multiple preceding behaviors, which may not themselves be prohibited. From a man’s perspective, and simplifying, but not by much, first, you see a man or woman that you like. You think to yourself, “they’re attractive”. The seed is planted. You speak to them and discover they’re a good conversationalist (or whatever), which reinforces the original thought. Finally you take some form of action which, if not prohibited itself, is edging towards the abyss, which reinforces the thought and speech. Rinse, repeat and you end up sleeping with them, which is most certainly prohibited.
Suppose you decide to become a baal teshuvah (a "master of repentance" or return) and resolve to end this practice of sleeping with people outside of marriage. Good for you, but how do you do so? Most people fail to translate, through actions, who they wish to be into who they are. The reason for this is that there exists a great gulf between the behavior you act out almost on impulse today, and the behavior you want to adopt. Some people may be capable of bridging the distance with ease, but most of us are not nearly so gifted. Our concentration, enthusiasm and self-confidence rises and falls, and without intermediate steps we fall short of the goal and revert to the behavior we do not want.
Returning back to our example, when you see an attractive man or woman, your thoughts are conditioned for a specific response. In other words, you WILL think, “they’re attractive”, whether you want to or not. You can't help having such thoughts; they're normal and natural. However, you can recognize and arrest the thought once you’ve had it, preventing yourself from realizing it further through speech or action. Let’s say you can’t do this and you end up speaking about this thought. Let’s say you don’t even speak to the person you saw, but to a friend, about this person who you found attractive. You’ve taken the thought and implanted it more firmly into the physical world. Maybe they'll talk you into pursuing the matter further, or mention it to someone else, and so on. You’ve made the negative outcome (negative in the way you've defined it) more real than it was previously; you’ve brought it closer to fruition. If you recognize, arrest and reverse yourself at the point of speech, you can contain the situation there. Alternatively, you can take actions which further realize the negative outcome you seek to avoid.
Of the three, physical action is the most important - in that the act itself is prohibited, not the thought or maybe even the speech - and also most vulnerable to modification, so it becomes the focal point of a baal teshuvah’s efforts. You can’t just stop yourself from thinking unwanted thoughts. Maybe it’s even difficult for you to prevent speaking in such a way that brings closer an unwanted outcome, although you can work on this. You have TOTAL control, however, of your physical actions. You can zip your pants back up and leave, so to speak, before you commit an unwanted act, no matter what negative behaviors you participated in which led you to that situation.
How does any of this relate to communal standards? In an inverse way. If the physical act is the most crucial, and the most vulnerable to modification, then an individual who wishes to adopt a system of belief - in a pnimius, fully internalized way - should start by accepting external behaviors which contribute to that internal outcome. In other words, you express on the outside what you wish to become on the inside. If that seems forced and not genuine, that's right, it is fake! Guess what, you're not born perfect, and working to become something you're not requires some honest self-deceit. If you're a thief, and you want to stop being a thief, you can start by not acting like a thief, even if you still really want to be a thief on the inside. Or, as Chabad Chassidim say - fake it till you make it! It may be counter-intuitive, but by first changing your actions and behavior, your speech and thoughts will follow.
Changing yourself internally is very difficult. Changing yourself externally is relatively easy, and will contribute to the process of internal change, like a bridging step to help you cross that vast gulf. If a community which believes certain things dresses a certain way, and you wish to internalize the belief system in that community, then you can begin by dressing as they do, adopting the customs they keep, speaking as they do (and not speaking they way they don’t), etc. With great effort, of which behavioral conformance is just a small part, you will condition yourself to think and believe as they do, which was your voluntary intent all along. Why you would want to condition yourself in this way is beyond the subject of this post.
For anyone appalled that someone should choose to brainwash themselves in such a manner - and that’s what behavioral conditioning is, in colloquial terms, brainwashing - consider that you are no less behaviorally conditioned to act and speak and think as you do right now. Back to our example, if the values of a society dictate that having sex with individuals outside of marriage is perfectly normal, then you have been conditioned to think, speak and act according to those norms. The same goes for how you dress, what customs you keep, what products you purchase, etc. We are all behaviorally conditioned in one manner or another. Should an individual choose another system of belief, such as that in Judaism, they have to undo some of their previous conditioning which is incompatible with the new end goal, and replace it with alternative conditioning. Some place a value system on certain types of conditioning and call it morality, or a morality system.
This answers why individuals would choose to behave as other members of their community, specifically in how they dress. Absent the spiritual dimension present within a Chassidic (and maybe other) Jewish communities that I’m familiar with, where individuals really do invest themselves in external conformity in an attempt to reach an internal sensitivity, a spiritual ideal, I admit this process can be misconstrued in negative terms. The main point is that we are all conforming to something. The key is to make a conscious decision as to what we wish to conform to, not be dragged along by the social current of our time.
The process of coercing conformance within a community is completely separate from individual efforts at behavioral modification I outlined above. One of the reasons I think Chabad is so successful is that it doesn’t generally seek to impose conformance. Once a value and belief system is presented and seen as attractive to an individual, they will drive their internal change with a rigor and earnestness that no external coercion can impose. However, there are some Jewish communities which believe in coercing conformance, at times quite bluntly, even punitively. My only guess at why they do so is fear, by which I don't mean fear of G-d, and I see such methods as counter-productive in the short and long term.