I need to be honest. I am contemplating taking off my kippah. 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 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. 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 kippah is one of the main reasons for my failure to be religious. I want to put my kippah 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 kippah 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 kippah when having a snack with my non-Jewish friends from the 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 kippah. 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 kippah 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 kippah 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 kippah 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 kippah, 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 kippah.
True, the great Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575) rules in his famous Shulchan Aruch (1) that one should not walk more than four amot (2) with his head uncovered. But none other than the Gaon of Vilna (1720-1797) takes issue with this ruling (3), basing his view on the fact that the only reference in the Talmud for covering one’s head is the personal pious practice of Rav Huna (4), who never walked more than daled amot (four amot) with his head uncovered. The implication is, therefore, that this was never legislated as a universal halachic obligation (5). It should be one’s personal spontaneous expression, out of reverence for God.
The Talmudic Sages clearly had in mind that our souls be greatly aroused when we don a kippah. 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 kippah all the time?
Alas, instead of the kippah assisting us in being genuinely religious, it has now become an obstacle. It is counter-productive. 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 kippah? What will happen to their religiosity? Will they – who have been raised in a deeply observant society, where removing one’s kippah 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 their kippah? 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 kippah when it “bothers” 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 kippah 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”? (6) As Cervantes would say, “Tell me what company thou keepest and I’ll tell thee what thou art” (7).
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 kippah shkufa (a transparent kippah), 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 kippah 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” (8). Was he speaking about his former kippah? A bracha on his head!
(1).Orach Chayim 2:6.
(2). Four amot is the equivalent of about six feet, but it translates most accurately as personal space.
(3). Biur HaGra, Orach Chayim 8:2.
(4). Kiddushin 31a.
(5). It is well known that many Orthodox rabbis of the past did not 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. Rabbi Dr. David Tzvi Hoffmann (1843-1921), the German halachic authority of international repute, told the following story. When he came with a head covering to visit Rabbi Hirsch, the latter told him to remove it since it would be seen as a sign of disrespect. (Interestingly, the Gra was of the opinion that one should wear a head covering when visiting a gadol hador.) Some maintain that Rabbi Hirsch himself wore a wig and may not always have covered his head with a kippah. 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.
(6). Psalms, 1:1.
(7). Miguel De Cervantes, Don Quixote, Part II, chap. 23.
(8). Ethics (1677), last sentence.