By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear, Rabbi Fried:
I received a question about wearing a yarmulke from a friend based on an essay: (www.jewishideas.org/articles/i-am-taking-my-kippah). Maybe you want to address it for your next article?
Here is my question related to it:
If the yarmulke is for the purpose of spirituality, fine. Each person must decide whether it makes them feel more connected to God. However it seems for me and most people today, it’s about representing yourself to the secular world as a Jew. What is the purpose in making a physical distinction between us and the rest of the world? In my years in religious circles, it seemed so important to make this distinction between “us and them.” My question is, why? Isn’t there enough divisiveness?
I think my No. 1 question during the decade I was ultraorthodox was as follows: How can we claim that we were chosen by God to be his special nation with out saying it’s a racist idea? Conceptually, how is this any different from Hitler saying the Germans are the pure race or any other race or religion claiming they are the “special ones.”
Granted, we are not out there murdering those who don’t believe as we do. However, it seems impossible to claim that we don’t see ourselves as better.
I never felt comfortable with this concept and never got a satisfactory answer.
Good luck, my friend.
You are asking two very important questions: one with regards to the practice of wearing a yarmulke and what it represents; and the second challenging the notion of the Chosen People. Although the two perhaps overlap, we will devote two separate columns in order to do fair bidding to each of these important issues.
The Yiddish word yarmulke is a conjugation of two Aramaic words, Yarei and Malka, meaning “awe” and “king.” The connotation of this is that by covering ones head, it serves as a constant reminder that there is a king watching over one’s actions. This provides a level of awe/fear to not do the wrong thing.
This is borne out by the statement of the “Code of Jewish Law” that one should not walk four cubits without a head covering, out of honor for the Shechinah, or divine presence, which we believe is constantly with us (O.C. 2:6). Also, a statement in the Talmud teaches that a head covering helps one attain the characteristic of humility.
Based on this, the Yiddish word yarmulke is saturated with far more meaning than the modern Hebrew equivalent, kippah, which simply means “covering.”
The article you cited is a brutally honest assessment of wearing a yarmulke by Rabbi Nathan Lopez Cardozo, who is a friend of mine from Israel. In it, he points out the challenge of attaining any spiritual benefit from a kippah — which he practically forgets about after putting it on in the morning — once it has become part of his daily wardrobe. He yearns for the days when he first became religious and donning a yarmulke was so filled with meaning and excitement, to the point he would almost contemplate taking it off to put it on only every so often, so he could return to the ecstasy and joy he first felt wearing it.
The challenge of fusing the wearing of a yarmulke with feeling and meaning despite its lack of spontaneity is, as R’ Cardozo points out, a challenge not only with the yarmulke but with all of observance of daily mitzvot, which can become “regular” and by rote. This is the feeling you expressed concerning the reciting of blessings in the beginning of our correspondence.
The two ideas cited above, the “fear of the king” and humility, are the true reason we wear a kippah, not to show we are different from others. I would agree with you, however, that some Jews have lost the original, spiritual intent and wear it only to stand out and be different.
I would say in defense of those Jews that they, too, are, intentionally or not, also doing a positive thing. The Jewish people, in our role as a “light among the nations,” are to serve as an example for all of mankind that we are living under the banner of the almighty. We are “God’s army” to carry out His will and sanctify the name of God.
Every army in the world is distinguished by its uniform. No one ever challenged a man in uniform for wearing something different from all the civilians, claiming that he is causing diversity and increasing divisiveness in their country. It’s understood that the army needs to dress in a unique way to carry out their purpose. The yarmulke, although not an actual obligation, has become the uniform of the “Jewish army” that teaches the world the message of God. This is a uniform we wear with great pride.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel, Questions can be sent to him at email@example.com.