Both a part and apart

Jewish skullcaps

Male Orthodox Jews usually wear skullcaps called kippot (singular: kippah) while they are awake, both outdoors and indoors. I’ve even met some who wear head coverings while they sleep at night, although this is definitely beyond the norms of mainstream modern halakhah (religious law) and Jewish culture.

In fact, it’s quite interesting that skullcaps are the most obvious outward sign of an Orthodox Jew’s identity as a Jew, but there is no Talmudic basis for forbidding a man to walk around bareheaded, nor for requiring men to cover their heads when praying or reciting Godโ€™s name. The Talmud, mind you, is the text, which most modern halakhah is based upon.

Of course, one wouldn’t know any of this if one wasn’t familiar with halakhah, which I wasn’t when I first started wearing a kippah in public. That was more than two decades ago when I entered college, but such nuances wouldn’t have mattered to me back then because I wasn’t remotely religious; until college, I had self-identified as secular (read: non-religious) all my life.

You see, in those days of youthful self-discovery, I made my decision to wear a kippah around campus for a simple, non-religious reason: I wanted to be identifiable as a Jew.

Fast forward: 2009

In 2009, when I first moved back to Israel as an adult, I was already wearing a kippah in public, and I had no thoughts of removing it. At that time, I self-identified as an Orthodox Jew, and I was moving to Israel to study Torah (in this context, I mean: the totality of Jewish teaching, culture, and practice).

Studying ancient Jewish texts and halakhah (religious law) in particular can be “dangerous” for those who would prefer to be faithful religious adherents because of their potential exposure to the many layers of history and intention behind sundry religious practices, which the holy texts peel away and reveal. Studying Torah complicates one’s thinking by providing access to information.

Whereas before, I’d thought that wearing a kippah was incumbent upon me as a religious Jew, I learned that the reality is more complicated, beginning (as noted above) with the Talmud’s lack of legal basis for obligating men to wear head coverings.

Beyond this, there are multiple nuances that have peppered religious discussions over head coverings throughout the centuries. Is a religious Jew permitted to walk more than four strides with his head uncovered? Is he committing a religious transgression by reciting blessings; praying; studying Torah; entering a synagogue; eating; etc. with his head uncovered? What were the customs and norms of his ancestors?

Nobody in the know would seriously argue that wearing a kippah hasn’t become today’s norm for Orthodox Jews, but – is that due to our customs or religious laws? Once I started drilling down into such questions, I uncovered a world of technical nuances that I’d never been exposed to before.

Still, I continued wearing a kippah.

Fast forward: Today

You may not know this (I kid!), but sometimes it gets quite hot in Israel.

Also, you may not know this, but we don’t own a car, which means that I walk around a lot (and take buses to and from my daughter’s elementary school).

Walking around all day with one’s head covered in a Middle Eastern country is, well… hot. Honestly, I pity those ultra-Orthodox Jews who wear multiple layers of heavy clothing (some of which are woolen) in the scorching Israeli sun, topped with long black coats on the outside. (If you’re wondering, that fashion is much more suitable for an Eastern European climate because that is where it originated. Also: it was originally a non-Jewish style of dress, worn by aristocrats and nobles.)

So, over the years, I eventually took to removing my kippah upon returning home sweaty from my long walk… And this eventually led to my not wearing a kippah at home at all, which eventually led me to not wearing any head covering at my office either.

Still, in public, I continue always keeping my head covered, as I also do whenever I am anywhere where not everyone knows me… For despite my religious skepticism and my breaking with religious norms in private, I don’t want to be perceived as a secular (meaning: non-religious) Jew. (And: having a beard also helps.)

A cap, not a skullcap

But I almost never wear a skull cap publicly these days… rather, I wear a cap with a rim because I don’t want to be associated with any particular stream of religious Judaism. It’s quite unlikely but technically possible that a non-religious Jewish man in Israel could sport a beard and a cap. Therefore, to some extent, this makes my outward appearance more ambiguous.

Having thought about this, I’ve realized that while I don’t want to be perceived as a secular Israeli Jew because I am uncomfortable with certain aspects of that approach to life, I’m also quite uncomfortable with some central cultural and social aspects of what various streams of Orthodox Judaism espouse and accept as normative in discourse and behavior. I’m really neither here nor there… And deeply uncomfortable with both demographic groups for different reasons.

Walking to the Haifa beach

Over the summer, my wife and I took our daughter to the city of Haifa for a week at the beach, which she loves.

Obviously, Israel is a desert country, but Jerusalem, where we live, is slightly less hot than some other major cities because it’s up in the hills; and it’s much less humid than Tel Aviv, Haifa, and other cities on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. I mention this because walking from our vacation rental to the beach would take us some ten or fifteen minutes, and I would always start sweating profusely whenever we exited the apartment. It was, to put it lightly, uncomfortable.

After our first walk to the beach, I spontaneously decided to make the next trek shirtless and without any head covering. This wasn’t for the sake of making a statement – it was entirely a matter of personal comfort. Still, my wife looked at me with surprise. She’d never seen me walking around outside without my head covered.

And, while it’s true that I wasn’t deliberately making a religious statement by removing my head covering during our Haifa vacation, this would have been unthinkable for me only several years ago. From the perspective of a traditionalist, my commitment to Jewish religious law and religious culture has plummeted in the last few years…

Reflecting upon this, I must admit to myself that while I remain very uncomfortable with the idea of living a non-religious Jewish life, I have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the prospect of being an Orthodox Jew… Even with the prospect of belonging to a modern, intellectually-oriented, accepting, and relatively open-minded Orthodox community, which is what I have most closely identified with for many, many years.

Both a part & apart

More than ever before, I am realizing that while I feel myself inseparably part of the Jewish people, I also find myself standing very much apart from its sundry subgroups.

From a spiritual perspective, I find myself deeply mired in viscous disquiet; and there seems to be no available way to pull myself out.

50 thoughts on “Both a part and apart”

  1. David, I read this post with great interest. As a young person finding a way of thinking separate from my family’s religious beliefs, I tried to keep the ethics, the music, and the poetry and wisdom of the Bible without swallowing the doctrines and nonsensical aspects of the religion I grew up with.

    For many years I split hairs and tied myself in knots until I finally got over the guilt trip! I am the “black sheep” of my family. Even my three children are religious. I was honest about my beliefs and also exposed them to religion,…They made their choices freely.

    My journey has many things in common with yours, although we are going in opposite directions! I respect your point of view, your honesty, and especially your empathy! โค Have a great day!

  2. I think it’s impossible not to feel at least somewhat uncomfortable about doctrine if you examine it closely. The question is–how far to compromise? And how flexible is it? Ideally every group contains a spectrum of belief and practice, but in reality, much is always frowned upon, if not forbidden. (K)

      1. It’s a subject I think about a lot as well, even though I’m not at all religious. Maybe because religious belief is used so often in this country to justify political ends.

  3. Kippah,, in an American sentence

    The opposite of a monk’s tonsorial would keep holy light in.

    “The more you try to pin a word down, the more you realize that it has its own cape, sword and little hat.” Roy Blount, Jr.

      1. Just realized that I thanked you, David, for your judgment of Roy Bount, Jr.’s sentence. While I agree that it is “terrific” and “well formulated,” even brilliant, I can’t take a bow for that, even if my old bones would let me. For bringing it to your attention, though, you are welcome; I knew you would appreciate it. ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. I have two questions. Whether kippah is different from Muslim skull cap; and whether ladies are also required to cover their heads for entering a religious place.

    1. 1) it’s a different style of skullcap than the Muslim skullcap (although there tend to be different styles even among different Jewish communities);
      2) traditionally, no; women’s hair coverings have to do with their marital statuses in traditional Judaism

  5. I feel like this a bit. Lately I’ve spent time wondering about my kippah options. Sometimes I wear suede, sometimes crochet, sometimes big white (RZ) crochet. My choices have been driven primarily by convenience (crochet is easier to wash) than religious/political choices, but I worry about what image I’m projecting, and I have started wearing suede for shul partially to fit in more.

  6. As always, an interesting and informative piece. As an atheist (raised Catholic—a terrible thing to do to a child), I’ve only had two instances to wear a skullcap. One was at the Jewish cemetery in Prague (I went to see Kafka’s grave and spent a couple hours there—different story). The curator at the museum chased after me and asked me to put one on. Of course I did, out of respect. That’s why, until reading your piece, I just assumed it was Jewish “law.” The second time was when I went to synagogue on a Passover Friday night. My composer friend had written that night’s musical passages and asked J and me to attend. In the hall before entering the temple proper, was a basket of skullcaps, so again out of respect, I took one and put it on. What I found most amazing about that night was how similar a Jewish service was to a Catholic one. Call and response prayers, standing and sitting at proper times, etc. Again, thanks for sharing David. Very interesting.

  7. As a convert to Catholicism I can very much relate to this whole post. There are still portions of this religion that cause me to pause and ask why. I suppose my religious background and exposure to alternative practices has made it both easier and harder to reconcile religion and my internal moral compass. To all appearances I am a “good” Catholic. I sometimes have doubts about certain aspects – many of them traditions instead of dogma! Your line “I find myself deeply mired in viscous disquiet” resonates with me!!

  8. I enjoyed reading this reflection.
    Not the same, but I’m reminded of when I decided to keep Shabbat while working at my first job in my industry. I started dressing super modestly because I got it in my head that if I showed my collarbone or something, my coworkers/bosses would doubt my religious sincerity and not approve my request to leave earlier on Friday during the winter. Later, I switched to sleeveless dress + sweater combo that any woman would wear for work, and later to pants/jeans and long-sleeved top on occasion. I also changed jobs and community affiliations over time too, which was not necessarily correlated.
    I don’t care for all the judgment and assumptions based on externals with little to no halachic basis.

    1. Thanks, Judy. It gets incredibly technical, as do most traditional religious Jewish practices… I tried to provide a taste of that without really getting into it.


  9. As someone who is in the process of converting, I find myself asking “why???” a lot. I didn’t grow up with various traditions. EVERYthing is new and nothing is taken as “it is just done this way.” It is also in my nature to ask a lot of questions anyway. There is the push-pull between the book learning and the heart of the spiritual, and as you say, that leads to disquiet.

  10. From a spiritual perspective, I find myself deeply mired in viscous disquiet; and there seems to be no available way to pull myself out.

    A perfect description of being a part while not being a part

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