Jewish bloggers at JTA
This year's visit

Being visible

At CPE on Monday we got to talking about visible signs of vocation: specifically, the clerical collar that many Christian clergy wear. No one in my group wears the collar on Mondays when we are in class together, though it turns out some of my colleagues wear one on-call -- sometimes. Why only sometimes? The collar, they tell me, sends a complicated series of messages (both to insiders and to outsiders), and one can't be sure how those messages will be perceived or received. And there is also a question of whether wearing a symbol that sets one apart is the best way to serve God, and whether the symbol's visibility feeds ego sometimes instead.

(Thanks to the blogosphere, these notions weren't new to me. Desertpastor's post What does a clerical collar say? asks some good questions, and Preston's terrific post More on the clericals explores the dynamics of being a wheelchair-bound priest and how the two signs, wheelchair and clerical collar, send different messages to the hospital community he serves.)

Neither Judaism nor Islam has an analogue to the clerical collar, though my Muslim colleague and I joined the conversation by speaking about his beard and my kippah. In both of our traditions the markers of devoutness are democratic. They're not limited to clergy, but are symbols of piety that are open to everyone. (Well, where "everyone" means "men." We'll come back to that.) Of course, beards can also be fashion statements, so they're not necessarily religious symbols. And being a part of his face, his beard goes with him everywhere. My yarmulke is a little different. Unlike a clerical collar, it's not a sign of ordination; but like my Christian colleagues with their collars, I wrestle with questions of when to wear a kippah, and why, and what it means when I do.

(Editorial note: the Yiddish word yarmulke and the Hebrew word kippah mean the same thing: the small round head-covering that some Jews wear as a sign of respect in God's presence. Most sources agree that the Yiddish word comes from the Aramaic yira malka, which means "awe of the King," e.g. God -- though some claim the word derives from a Tartar term for "skullcap." The Hebrew word means "dome," as in the head. Though the custom was historically a masculine one, these days -- at least in liberal Judaism where I am spiritually at-home -- the kippah is an equal-opportunity phenomenon. Kippot come in a variety of styles, and whether one's kippah is black suede, rainbow-crocheted, or an embroidered pillbox hat speaks volumes. But that's another post for another day; you can read a little bit about the language of kippot here if you're curious.)

I don't wear a kippah all the time. I wear one when I'm explicitly "doing Jewish" -- when I'm in synagogue, when I'm leading services or officiating at a lifecycle event, when I'm teaching Hebrew school, and when I'm doing pastoral care work (visiting congregants to offer counsel, or doing chaplaincy work at the hospital). In other words, I wear one when I want to remind myself that I'm doing God's work. I also wear a kippah when I'm on retreat at Elat Chayyim, or at a conference like the Biennial or Ohalah, when my rabbinic-student identity is at the forefront.

Tractate Kiddushin 31a of the Talmud says that the purpose of wearing a kippah is "to remind us of God, who is the Higher Authority 'above us'." Wearing a kippah makes me mindful, helps me bring blessing to what I'm doing, and reminds me to sanctify the work of my hands. Of course, an argument could be made that I'm always in God's presence, that I ought to bring blessing even to secular activities like folding laundry and buying groceries, and that every moment is worthy of sanctification. So why don't I wear a kippah all the time?

The first reason is, I'm not sure I'm comfortable with the implication that I need a constant symbol on my head to remind me of God's presence in my life. Shouldn't I be striving toward the ability to maintain God-consciousness at all times without a tangible reminder? Besides, I like marking my transitions into Jewish time by donning a kippah. Others have had similar thoughts; this page cites a cantor who "likes the enhanced feeling of specialness that pulling the kippah out of his pocket and putting it on his head gives him." And in her terrific essay "You Wear A Kippah?" writer Emily Wages says, "The moment each Friday evening when I put on my kippah is rich with meaning. It is incredibly personal and private -- a metaphysical instant in which I take a step closer to the divine." (It's a fantastic piece -- alas, not available on the internet, though it's collected in Yentl's Revenge, an anthology I highly recommend.) 

The second reason is, I'm not sure I'm ready to be that visible. Wearing a kippah invites projection and transference: whatever people associate with "observant Jew," they'll put on my shoulders. Emily Wages writes about that too: "People assume that because I wear a kippah I must be politically conservative," she writes. "Others assume that increased religious observance signals the termination of independent thinking. She's wearing a kippah, it seems some think, therefore she must be a nationalistic drone." I'm not sure how I feel about being "out" as an observant Jew all the time, about making this the most obvious thing people notice about me. And people will notice. As the author of A Blessing On Your Head notes,

Indeed, wearing a kippah is a big statement, and obligates the wearer to live up to a certain standard of behavior. A person has to think twice before cutting in line at the bank, or berating an incompetent waiter. Wearing a kippah makes one a Torah ambassador and reflects on all Jews.

I don't feel much concern about cutting in line at the bank, or tipping my waitstaff poorly. I like to think I act ethically and kindly in most circumstances even without a kippah. But what if I want to go out dancing? I see no personal disjunction between wearing a yarmulke and putting on my dancing duds, but others might, and I'm not sure I want to get embroiled in explanations.

Part of my discomfort with the notion of wearing one all the time arises from the way the kippah would set me apart from others in my community. In his essay In Defense of Wearing a Yarmulke in Court, Baruch C. Cohen, Esq., writes, "I proudly wear my Yarmulke in my legal practice, even though it separates me from others. My identity as an observant Jew requires a certain separateness." I respect his point of view, but I'm not sure I share it. My Jewishness is built on a foundation of connection and inclusivity. Any practice which marks me as obviously different from my friends, neighbors, and loved ones is a practice I want to consider carefully before I leap.

And I don't want to run the risk of substituting outward piety for the inner work I know I need to do. Those who know me, know how important my Jewishness is to me. They see it in the work I choose to do, in the way I involve myself with my shul, in my blog. I'd like my sense of connection with God and my alignment with my tradition to come across to those who don't know me, too -- but I'd rather have them come to discover those things through the small actions and interactions that make up my days. Wearing something that shouts, "Hey! Great Big Jew over here!" feels like drawing attention to the externals, when what really matters to me is how and whether my Judaism manifests from the inside.

There are several reasons why I don't wear a kippah all the time. Gender isn't one of them, though. Unlike Sheree Curry, who wrote about her kippah envy, I've never felt barred from observance because I'm a woman. I've always belonged to congregations and communities where I could count toward a minyan, read from Torah, and choose to take on practices like tallit, tefillin, and kippah. I probably wouldn't wear a kippah (or don tallit or tefillin -- or, for that matter, shorts and a tank top) in an ultra-Orthodox context. I wouldn't want to flaunt my observance or to make others uncomfortable. But the fact that wearing a kippah isn't traditionally a woman's observance doesn't deter me from wearing one in appropriate settings...nor from choosing when and where I think the kippah is appropriate to wear.

While working on this post, I read several musings on this subject, wanting to know how others had experienced these questions. Rabbi Mark Hurvitz explores his outwardly-visible Jewish practices in this essay, explaining why he chooses to wear tzitzit (ritual fringes) but not a kippah. Tzitzit, he points out, have Biblical basis; the kippah is purely custom, and would offer inaccurate clues about what he believes. (He says more about that in Why Avigail's father does not wear a kippah.)

Of all the essays I unearthed while writing this, my favorite is Rabbi Hershel Matt's Covering my Jewish Head. He begins by citing some excellent reasons for expanding his kippah-wearing practice from times when he's "doing Jewish" to all the moments of his life. But then he points out some of the practice's pitfalls:

[How] dangerous is the possibility that wearing a head covering may become so routine and automatic that I become almost oblivious to its intended meaning, thus allowing what is meant to be an act of piety to become utterly ineffective, and allowing what are meant to be moments of holiness to lose their force and even their frequency. Wearing a kippah constantly, I run the risk of reducing the distinction between the holy and the profane--and not by raising the latter to the former.

In addition to the peril of routine, there is the peril of self-righteous display: of always appearing to say, "Look at me: how pious I am!" It is true, of course, that peril lies also with the onlooker, who may be rationalizing his own lack of piety by projecting it on to the kippah-covered Jew; I dare not deny, however, the reality of this peril which accompanies me when I publicly wear a kippah. The effort to cultivate consciousness of God's presence, worthy and indeed crucial as this is, is no guarantee against self-consciousness, and self-consciousness runs the risk of becoming self-righteousness and self-display.

Worn every day, the kippah runs the risk of becoming mundane, thereby diminishing the special God-consciousness the practice is meant to inculcate. And, like any practice that puts one in the spotlight, wearing a kippah all the time can feed the ego, turning a practice meant to be "all about God" into one that's "all about me."

It's possible that some day I'll change my mind on this. If I do, you can expect another long kippah-centric blogpost explaining my shift in thinking! Until then, I'll just keep collecting them in lots of pretty patterns and colors. (Hey, even if I don't wear one all the time, I want to be able to color-coordinate.) And I'd love to hear from those of you who have navigated this question, or similar ones -- where are you at? How has your practice shifted over time? What does wearing (or not-wearing) a kippah, or tzitzit, or a clerical collar, or monastic's habit, mean to you?

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