When Soul and Sole Come Together

by Rabbi Elisa F. Koppel

I’m not ashamed to admit it: I like shoes.

I’m not quite obsessive about them, but I probably have more pairs of shoes than I need, and I’m always finding new ones – you know, the ones that would be perfect with that one outfit.

More than one might expect, my love of shoes and my rabbinate come together. First of all, I must mention that the first temple president I worked with as a rabbi was in the shoe business, so I became quite aware of what was on my feet each time I was on the bimah early in my career. It’s always a challenge to find shoes that work from a fashionable standpoint, and are also comfortable enough to stand in for long periods of time.  It’s always a balance.

There is, of course, the hunt for Biennial Shoes every other year. And the absolute need for rain boots at camp each summer. And the opportunity, every now and then, to pull out my flowered Doc Marten boots (usually because they’ll go perfectly with my Purim costume)!

But the time at which my thoughts of spiritual matters and spirit-shoe-al matters (pardon the bad pun) some together most meaningfully is each year on Yom Kippur.

One of the traditions of Yom Kippur is to not wear leather shoes. It’s one of the “afflictions” that the rabbis outlined for the day. For me, this has been a meaningful aspect of the holiday. I’ll admit, wearing Chucks or Crocs in some years has also been the more comfortable choice, but to me that’s somewhat of a side benefit; it’s really about the symbolic meaning of the gesture.

Others, by the way, have argued that because affliction was the purpose, one should wear the most uncomfortable heels possible. I applaud that choice for them – and love that Reform Judaism gives us the ability to interpret things in different ways. But that answer doesn’t work for me.

To me, the affliction is not about discomfort; it’s about not using things that not everyone has. Leather is a sign of luxury. By not wearing leather, I’m reminded of the fact that many people can’t afford leather shoes (or really nice heels, for that matter). In addition, as tradition tells us that all souls are equal on Yom Kippur, it doesn’t feel right to wear something that’s made out of one of God’s creations, on that of all days.

Yom Kippur, as I see it, is sort of the great equalizer. It’s the day where we all go without food and without luxury. Wearing non-leather feels right to me and helps me to be more aware of what the purpose of the day is. It also allows me to do something different than what I do every other day. It sets the day apart from the rest of the calendar.

To me, all of that makes it a powerful act.

This year, by the way, I’m going to be wearing Tom’s. They’re a little bit nicer than sneakers, I can get vegan ones, and a pair of shoes goes to someone who wouldn’t have them otherwise. Seems only appropriate.

So… what shoes are you wearing for Yom Kippur?

Rabbi Elisa F. Koppel is the Acting Associate Rabbi at Temple Beth-El in San Antonio, TX.  She blogs personally at Off the REKord.  Having recently moved to San Antonio, she has begun to wonder how long it will take before she adds a few pairs of cowboy boots to her shoe collection.

Originally posted at Kol Isha: The Blog of the Women’s Rabbinic Network

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6 Responses to “When Soul and Sole Come Together”

  1. avatar

    Ah…my white Keds or white crocs (sandal style).

  2. avatar

    As a Cantorial Soloist who is constantly on my feet during the holidays, I can truly relate to this post. This year I have vowed to be comfortable. As much as I love shoes, they do not always love me. Even flats and flip flops have recently given me cause for grief. Call it age or just frustration with a size 4 1/2 foot and ill-fitting shoes. This year, I announced first to my choir and then publicly to the congregation that there may be times throughout the holidays when they most probably will see me barefoot. Unorthodox to be certain, but it was a “devil may care” attitude that was almost 20 years in the making. I seem to sing better when both feet are firmly planted on the ground and I am comfortable. Strangely enough, nobody in the congregation has seemed to care. Several members of the choir are now doffing their shoes as well. The liberation we all have felt has been astounding and has brought us closer to the music we sing to deliver our prayers.

  3. avatar

    One is permitted to wear a leather belt or shirt for that matter on Yom Kippur, which is made from an animal. Do you propose that not be allowed?

  4. avatar

    Great points about bima shoes and Yom Kippur shoes and how we think about our Jewish selves with regard to our work, our obligations and our observance.

  5. avatar

    How interesting to read this from a rabbi at one of the last bastions of Southern Classical Reform Judaism!

    I am usually severely allergic to any practice that smacks of neo-traditionalism or neo-legalism. However, I think there is real value in practicing conscious abstention from excessive luxury as a spiritual practice on Yom Kippur. My weakness is wristwatches–I collect them and enjoy them as art objects that express my personality. I stopped wearing them to Yom Kippur services a few years ago, and recently stopped wearing them to Rosh Hashana as well because I’m the piano accompanist and they get in the way of relaxed wrist movement!

    Actually, what I love most about Rabbi Koppel’s post has nothing to do with the main topic. She wrote: “…as tradition tells us that all souls are equal on Yom Kippur, it doesn’t feel right to wear something that’s made out of one of God’s creations, on that of all days.”

    This seems to proceed from the assumption that animals have souls too. This is something that Jewish theologians in all the major movements have, for whatever reason, tended to deny and resist. I feel very strongly that this impulse is misguided. I believe with every fiber of my being that animals have souls, if not in the same sense as humans, and the astonishing certainty and bluntness with which the authors of American Reform responsa have condemned this belief is deeply hurtful.

  6. avatar

    I apologize for taking 2 years to respond! Thank you all for writing. And thanks to Jordan Friedman for the thoughtful comments. And I do think that animals have souls on some level, especially during the High Holy Days–I think it’s hard not to read that message into Unetaneh Tokef.

    Wishing everyone g’mar chatimah tovah!

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