The fight with my kippa

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - OBSERVATIO­NS - NATHAN LOPES CAR­DOZO

Ineed to be hon­est. I am con­tem­plat­ing tak­ing off my kippa. Why? you might ask. I no longer want to be ob­ser­vant. Ob­ser­vance, for me and for many young peo­ple, has be­come ir­rel­e­vant. It has been used by large sec­tions of re­li­gious Jews to live in self-as­sured ease. Their reli­gion is part of their con­tent­ment. But who wants to live in con­tent­ment? Re­li­gious ob­ser­vance has be­come a tool to com­fort the trou­bled. But, as Rabbi Louis Jacobs once said: It is time that reli­gion is used to trou­ble the com­fort­able.

And that is my prob­lem.

Sure, liv­ing an ob­ser­vant life, con­duct­ing one­self in a man­ner that is con­sis­tent with Halacha, is cer­tainly a cru­cial com­po­nent of Ju­daism; but it is not what makes me re­li­gious. To be re­li­gious is to al­low God en­try into my thoughts, my deeds, what I see and feel. It is to have a con­stant, in­tense aware­ness of liv­ing in His pres­ence, see­ing His fin­ger­prints ev­ery­where, and liv­ing up to that aware­ness.

Halacha is re­ally a con­stant re­minder, an ap­peal to be at­ten­tive to Him, even in the midst of our day-to-day mun­dane af­fairs. It is meant to teach us that even our triv­i­al­i­ties need to be­come holy and be wor­thy of God, so that our com­mon deeds reach Heaven. But is that still the case to­day? Does it ac­com­plish that goal? Halacha is the ex­ter­nal gar­ment of an in­ner spir­i­tual process that should be stim­u­lated by those very ha­lachic acts. For that to oc­cur, much more has to be ac­com­plished than just ob­serv­ing Halacha. To be­come re­li­gious is to face op­po­si­tion, even from one­self – to dare, to defy, and even to doubt.

The way to reach God is through spir­i­tual war­fare, and all we can hope for is to catch a glimpse of His ex­is­tence. It is an on­go­ing chal­lenge. As the Kotzker Rebbe once said, If you can­not win, you must win. Only a pi­o­neer can be heir to a re­li­gious tra­di­tion. Faith is con­tin­gent on the courage of the be­liever.

This is the task of Halacha. To teach us how to con­front our­selves when stand­ing in the pres­ence of God, and to never give up, even against all odds. To be wor­thy.

But for many ob­ser­vant Jews, in­clud­ing my­self, reli­gion means liv­ing in se­cu­rity and peace of mind. This is the “dull­ness of ob­ser­vance,” a re­li­gious con­di­tion­ing that of­ten turns gen­uine re­li­gios­ity and the ex­pe­ri­ence of God into a farce. Peo­ple are more afraid of Halacha than they are in love with God and Ju­daism. Halacha is a chal­lenge to the soul, not its tran­quil­izer.

I NOW re­al­ize that my kippa is one of the main rea­sons for my fail­ure to be re­li­gious. I want to put my kippa on, but I un­der­stand that to do so I need to take it off. I don’t want to wear it. I want to put it on as a dar­ing re­li­gious act, a dec­la­ra­tion to God that I wish to live in His pres­ence. Not as a spir­i­tual con­di­tion, but as an act of el­e­va­tion, moral grandeur, and bold­ness.

The prob­lem is that my kippa no longer car­ries this mes­sage. Its main pur­pose is to dis­turb and to wake me up, but ev­ery morn­ing when I put it on, it quickly dis­ap­pears into my sub­con­scious. It is al­ways on my head and there­fore never there.

When I first be­came in­ter­ested in Ju­daism and se­ri­ously con­sid­ered giv­ing it a try, I be­gan cov­er­ing my head when I went to syn­a­gogue and when I ate. I even dared to sit with my kippa when hav­ing a snack with my non-Jewish friends from the non-Jewish gym­na­sium, the high school I at­tended in Hol­land. There was no one else there of Jewish de­scent be­sides my dear brother and per­haps one more per­son.

I was very con­scious of my kippa. I needed to take it off so that when­ever I’d put it on again, I’d feel it on my head. This was a ma­jes­tic hap­pen­ing. It made me proud, and I was filled with awe. My kippa re­minded me that there was Some­one above me. Yes, it ex­is­ten­tially unset­tled me. It made me won­der­fully un­easy. What a mag­nif­i­cent and ex­alted feel­ing! Liv­ing in the pres­ence of God! I think I was a bit afraid of it. My hands trem­bled as I would put my kippa on. Not be­cause of what my non-Jewish friends would say (they were most sym­pa­thetic), but be­cause of what I would feel. What a re­spon­si­bil­ity and priv­i­lege!

Now, more than 50 years later, I am so used to my kippa that I have de­vel­oped a love-hate re­la­tion­ship with it. In fact, I re­al­ize that I lost it many years ago, the mo­ment I de­cided to wear it all the time. It is no longer on my head to re­mind me of Him. It just sits there, a mean­ing­less ob­ject, hav­ing lit­tle to do with my at­tempt to be re­li­gious. It has sim­ply dis­ap­peared from my life.

So I find my­self in the midst of a “re­versed cover-up,” a de­pres­sive sit­u­a­tion. It is most painful, and no rabbi or psy­chol­o­gist can help me. Most don’t even un­der­stand what I am talk­ing about.

DEEP DOWN I know the rem­edy. I need to take it off, to stop wear­ing it and just oc­ca­sion­ally put it on again. Only then would l again rec­og­nize it as my friend. I would feel in­spired, as it would re­mind me once more that Some­one is above me and it is a priv­i­lege to live in His pres­ence. It would help me to be truly re­li­gious and not merely “ob­ser­vant.” If I would take off my kippa, it would once more come to life, as when I tried it in my youth. I would have a re­la­tion­ship with it and would be­gin lov­ing it again. Oh, what a sweet thought!

But, can I do it? Halachi­cally, there is re­ally no prob­lem. There are enough opin­ions to al­low me to walk around bare­headed with­out ever need­ing to put on a kippa.

True, the great Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575) rules in his fa­mous Shul­han Aruch (OH 2:6) that one should not walk more than four amot (about 1.8 me­ters) with his head un­cov­ered. But none other than the Gaon of Vilna (1720-1797) takes is­sue with this rul­ing (Biur HaGra 8:2), bas­ing his view on the fact that

How many among us can claim that a feel­ing of piety grows within us when we wear our kippa all the time?

the only ref­er­ence in the Tal­mud for cov­er­ing one’s head is the per­sonal pi­ous prac­tice of Rav Huna (Kid­dushin 31a), who never walked more than dalet amot (four amot) with his head un­cov­ered. The im­pli­ca­tion is, there­fore, that this was never leg­is­lated as a uni­ver­sal ha­lachic obli­ga­tion. It should be one’s per­sonal spon­ta­neous ex­pres­sion, out of rev­er­ence for God.

This is the rea­son why well-known Ortho­dox rab­bis of the past did not al­ways wear a head cov­er­ing. In the Ortho­dox school in Frank­furt am Main, es­tab­lished by Rabbi Sam­son Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), the stu­dents sat bare­headed when they stud­ied sec­u­lar sub­jects.

When the great Ger­man ha­lachic au­thor­ity Rabbi Dr. David Tzvi Hoff­mann came with a head cov­er­ing to visit Hirsch, the lat­ter told him to re­move it since it would be seen as a sign of dis­re­spect. (In­ter­est­ingly, the Gaon of Vilna was of the opin­ion that one should wear a head cov­er­ing when vis­it­ing a gadol hador (the gen­er­a­tion’s lead­ing To­rah sage). Some main­tain that Hirsch him­self wore a wig and may not al­ways have cov­ered his head with a kippa. For an in­for­ma­tive study, see: Dan Rabi­nowitz, “Yar­mulke: A His­toric Cover-Up?” in Haki­rah: The Flat­bush Jour­nal of Jewish Law and Thought, vol. 4 (Win­ter 2007), pp. 221-238.

The Tal­mu­dic Sages clearly had in mind that our souls be greatly aroused when we don a kippa. After all, that is gen­uine piety. But now that it has be­come an obli­ga­tion, it has be­gun to lose this very qual­ity. And while our fore­fa­thers, who were great soul peo­ple, may have been spir­i­tual enough to gain in­spi­ra­tion from it even when it be­came an im­per­a­tive, most of us no longer feel any such uplift­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. How many among us can claim that a feel­ing of piety grows within us when we wear our kippa all the time?

Alas, in­stead of the kippa as­sist­ing us in be­ing gen­uinely re­li­gious, it has now be­come an ob­sta­cle. It is coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. We need to dis­pose of it so that we can put it on again as a deeply spir­i­tual act.

BUT WHAT will my grand­chil­dren and great-grand­chil­dren say when I will have stopped wear­ing my kippa? What will hap­pen to their re­li­gios­ity? Will they – who have been raised in a deeply ob­ser­vant so­ci­ety, where re­mov­ing one’s kippa is an act of heresy and a sign of bla­tant sec­u­lar­ism – ever un­der­stand what I had in mind? Will they be­come more re­li­gious when they see my head bare and only oc­ca­sion­ally cov­ered? Or will they con­clude that I no longer take Ju­daism so se­ri­ously, and they can fol­low suit? It scares the life out of me to think of the con­se­quences. They may see my act as one of re­bel­lion against what I love most: Ju­daism. Will it help when I tell them my rea­sons? Will they ever un­der­stand the no­tion of be­com­ing more re­li­gious by tak­ing off one’s kippa? I shud­der at the thought.

But I worry not only about my grand­chil­dren. My stu­dents and friends might also mis­un­der­stand my de­ci­sion and as a re­sult may adopt le­niency in their com­mit­ment to Ju­daism.

Will they use my de­ci­sion to jus­tify tak­ing off their own kip­pot when “both­ered” by them, or when it’s more pleas­ant to walk bare­headed, or when they don’t want to be known as too Jewish? Will they un­der­stand that the dif­fer­ence be­tween us is that they want to take it off while I want to put it on?

The story does not end here. To­day, the kippa is a pow­er­ful sym­bol of Jewish iden­tity, not to be un­der­es­ti­mated. It is a state­ment of Jewish pride, courage, and com­mit­ment to liv­ing with a mis­sion. And if there’s any­thing I want, it’s to be a proud Jew! So, shall I leave it on de­spite my ob­jec­tions?

How dif­fi­cult my choice is, es­pe­cially now that it has be­come cus­tom­ary for Is­raeli crim­i­nals to wear kip­pot while stand­ing trial, so as to make a good im­pres­sion on the judges. Do I want to “walk in the path of sin­ners” and “sit in the com­pany of scorners” (Psalms 1:1)? As Cer­vantes would say, “Tell me what com­pany thou keep­est and I’ll tell thee what thou art” (Don Quixote, Part II, chap. 23).

I still re­call, with af­fec­tion, the days when those wear­ing kip­pot were known to be up­right peo­ple.

So what shall I do? I don’t know. Per­haps the so­lu­tion is to wear a kippa shk­ufa (a trans­par­ent kippa), which no one but the Lord of the Uni­verse can see. But would that help me in my search for re­li­gios­ity?

I need to be bare­headed while wear­ing it all the time. Who would have thought that some­thing as sim­ple as a kippa would be­come a re­li­gious prob­lem of con­sid­er­able mag­ni­tude?

None other than Baruch Spinoza said that “all no­ble things are as dif­fi­cult as they are rare” (Ethics, last sen­tence). Was he speak­ing about his for­mer kippa? A bracha (bless­ing) on his head!

Ques­tions to pon­der from the David Car­dozo Think Tank

1. Is there re­ally a dif­fer­ence be­tween be­ing ha­lachicly ob­ser­vant and be­ing re­li­gious? What dif­fer­ences might there be? Which is more im­por­tant?

2. A ha­lachicly ob­ser­vant life may not al­ways stim­u­late us to find ho­li­ness within the ev­ery­day triv­i­al­i­ties. But how likely is it that act­ing in a bolder, more spon­ta­neous way will help us to achieve this? And even if it does, to what ex­tent can such bold­ness be main­tained over time? Can it en­sure the trans­mis­sion of Jewish tra­di­tion from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion?

3. The ar­ti­cle sug­gests reach­ing God through “spir­i­tual war­fare.” But is it pos­si­ble to al­ways live one’s life like that? Should we be con­stantly en­gaged in such war­fare? Or might it be enough to en­gage in this from time to time?

4. What is the dif­fer­ence be­tween don­ning a kippa and wear­ing tefillin? Should the last one also de­pend on a mo­ment of re­li­gious spon­tane­ity?

(Wiki­me­dia Com­mons)

WORLD WAR I trench war­fare: ‘The way to reach God is through spir­i­tual war­fare, and all we can hope for is to catch a glimpse of His ex­is­tence.’

(Marc Is­rael Sellem)

‘I WANT to put my kippa on, but I un­der­stand that to do so I need to take it off.’

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