I have a serious dilemma. As I am getting older (I am currently 76, thank God), I am becoming more and more afraid of my kippah.
Let me tell you why: I am not sure I have the right to wear a kippah. Although today it is considered an obligation to wear a kippah, it is above all a privilege to do so. (In my earlier days, many rabbis and religious people would not wear a kippah the whole time – only when they were involved in a religious act or when they would be outside under the open sky.)
The problem is that when a Jew covers his head the whole time, he is identified as a religious Jew, hence, the public judges him differently. The same is true of Jewish women who wear a wig or other head coverings. Whether we like it or not, we automatically represent Judaism, a Judaism that will be judged by the way we behave, we speak, and even dress.
My doubt as to whether I have the right to wear a kippah is due to the fact that I constantly wonder whether I am truly religious; I can only claim that I try. But who says I am succeeding? Especially since I believe in a kind of Judaism that is not always acceptable to many other Orthodox Jews – although I believe this Judaism to be completely authentic, while sometimes misunderstood.
No doubt, I sometimes fail – as most religious people do – even by my own reading of Judaism. After all, we are only human and I also have my weaknesses.
We are all aware of people who have left Judaism – not for any intellectual reason, but because they have been disturbed and pained by the way they or others have been treated by somebody with the trappings of a religious Jew: a kippah or a women’s head covering.
Clearly, some anti-religious people use this as a way to justify their rejection of Judaism; however, this is not always very honest. Often there are other psychological reasons that lie at the basis of their thoughts, such as the pursuit for physical pleasure and desiring an easy lifestyle that Judaism cannot always allow. Some people are hesitant or even reluctant to live an irreligious life, hence, they use the mistakes of religious people as justification for their choices. Of course, there are Jews who are extremely honest and reject Judaism or parts of Judaism for intellectual reasons or owing to lack of knowledge or understanding. (Controversial Orthodox thinker Rabbi Professor Eliezer Berkovits used to call people who had left Judaism after their Holocaust experiences “Holy Disbelievers,” although he himself did not agree with this step.)
One should judge Judaism on its own merits and not by what religious Jews do. And, as I said before, even honest religious people will fail sometimes. Still, this cannot justify any religious Jew taking his kippah lightly, especially in matters of Jewish ethics.
We have to realize that even those rabbinic opinions who determine that the kippah, a head covering for a male, is solely a minhag, custom, it is still a sign of commitment that yields tremendous power. When we meet people who wear a head covering we expect the highest ethical standards.
It is particularly how we encounter others that is of utmost importance. As a religious person wearing a head covering, one cannot shout, use undignified language or display one’s temper. Certainly, irreligious people, too, are to behave appropriately and many do. However, religious people should be even more careful – they carry Judaism on their shoulders, which is a tremendous responsibility!
True, sometimes we have to “roar” and rebuke a person who makes a major mistake so as to ensure it will not happen again. This is part of education and keeping society going. But this can only be done in private, and even then must be done in a civilized way; and then, all parties must part ways amicably and smiling. We must never make others the focus of our aggravation. Do we always maintain these standards and ethics? Especially in a marriage this is of the greatest importance. It is the closest relationship one can think of and therefore the greatest challenge of all.
What I realize is that I must never make the claim: “This is the way I am!” I must never argue that I cannot stop myself from getting annoyed, or from showing anger to people who are really innocent, or from entirely disengaging from someone who erred. After all, this is the difference between human beings and animals; humans are capable of restraint, animals are not.
While it is hard to constrain oneself and it may take time to learn, it is the only way to behave and succeed in life.
Furthermore, as the French expression goes: “C’est le tong qui fait le musique,” “It is how something is said (or roared!!), that makes all the difference.” Sure, one can show that one is upset, but one still needs to be good-mannered.
Just waving one’s head or saying a short inhospitable “Yes” or “No,” or making faces behind somebody’s back is a terrible mistake. But it happens all too often. It is a great art to say “Hello,” “Yes,” or “No” in a way that has constructive ramifications and is upbeat. Nodding without saying a word is often showing disrespect to another person unless it is done with a big smile.
And I keep on asking myself whether I behave in this manner. And if I do not, do I have the right to wear a kippah? Or, possibly, I am too hard on myself?
To be continued.