Welcome! I am Rabbi Jonathan Biatch of Madison, Wisconsin. "Pulpit Perspectives: My Observations as a Congregational Rabbi" is published every two weeks to reflect my observations about life in my congregation and with my members. The opinions expressed here are solely my own. I invite you to join the dialogue!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Case of the Missing Kippah

My children’s love of Shakespeare led my daughter this past summer to bring me a souvenir of her performance trip to England: a sweatshirt from London's Globe Theatre with a citation from the play Henry VIII:  “(But all) Hoods make not monks.”

This was an opportune gift, for it was around that time that I had been considering removing my kippah (head covering; sometimes called a yarmulke) which I had worn since I was a child growing up in a Conservative synagogue.

I had thought for a while about making this conscious choice about my own personal Jewish behavior.  Arguably, whether I wear a head covering or not has very little connection to how I lead my community in worship, teach Judaism to my congregants and others, pastor to my congregants’ needs, or reach out to the general community and share Jewish views with non-Jews.  But long-time habits – and long-held expectations – are difficult to change.

Origins of the head-covering: There is a midrash in Talmud Shabbat 156b, which tells of a young boy whose propensity to steal was diminished by the wearing of a hat; it was said to be symbolic of undertaking the "yoke" of God's commandments.  And based on the strength of that extra-legal vignette, certain authorities have spoken about the hat being a sign of recognition that we serve God ‘above,’ and therefore we cover the head in accord with this understanding.  Still, most authorities will acknowledge that there is no halachic (Jewish legal) requirement to wear a head covering. 

My experience: During my student days and through the length of my 22-year rabbinate, I have worn a kippah while leading worship and working as a pastor.  I had occasionally worn it while performing public functions.  But for the three weeks prior to the recent High Holy Days, and throughout the recent holiday season, I have remained bareheaded…and the skies did not open up in downpours, nor was there any lightning from above.

Further, it has been fascinating to hear reactions from congregants who are surprised by what they see.

I treasure my congregants, and I have been especially impressed by those who have approached me to inquire about my new practice.  I know that some of my congregants will never speak to me about it, preferring to speculate privately without making an inquiry.  But to a person, those who have ‘taken the risk’ and come to me have asked in a very sensitive and sincere manner.  They want to know why I have made this decision.  They are curious about how long it has been since I removed the kippah.  And when I ask them about how they feel about it, they are honest about their being surprised, and some have expressed discomfort.  But most have been willing to accept the sanction I possess as an independent, self-actualizing, Reform Jew to select my set of choices when it comes to personal practice.

They have also been willing to hold final judgment and see if they ever become comfortable with this changed custom.

This issue brings up the question of whether in a modern Reform setting the Rabbi needs to serve as an exemplar of religious practices that are not necessarily a “required” part-and-parcel of Reform praxis.  That will be the subject of a long-time personal reflection – and some public listening sessions – in which I will engage in the future.

My bimah partner Cantor Martin wears a kippah; I do not.  Perhaps this pairing of two different worship styles will demonstrate that either is acceptable in our contemporary Reform Jewish setting.  And in the eyes of some, more and more congregants are willing to accept the Bard’s reflection with which I began my blog above, that “all hoods make not monks.”