Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Keeping It Covered

Another great post from Leon: "You Can Leave Your Hat On". He describes his struggles with wearing a kippah in public. My hat's off to him (sorry) because I only made it a week when I tried. The constant "Nice hat!" remarks wore me down quickly. Ironically, this was at a job where I was supposed to model religious commitment for children and their families.

Now I work in an environment where it would be accepted, even welcomed. I'm spending a lot more time in Temple, especially during the run-up to the Holy Days. I've spent several Friday nights at local assisted living facilities, leading services for the residents. But I find I'm more concerned about the message inherent in starting to wear a kippah than I am about actually wearing it.

Why am I concerned? As Leon points out, it's not an actual commandment. As such, the perceived obligation to keep our heads covered represents what is, to me, a stringent type of "Tradition As Law", in which the views of a particular rabbi (or group of rabbis) become as binding as the word of God. There is a specific mentality that takes tradition, turns it into law, applies it universally, and condemns - explicitly or implicitly - everyone that does not fall in line. Given the tendency for extreme religious observance to gradually become the norm, I feel almost obligated to resist just to maintain the middle ground.

There is also a statement made by adopting a new observance. What would you assume about a 30-something single guy [it should be noted my girlfriend objects to this description] that suddenly picks up a new, highly visible, religious habit? The "born again" or "baal teshuvah" implications are stronger than I'm comfortable with.

Is "being Jewish" now such a large part of my identity that I want to visibly distinguish myself at all times? Wearing a full-time kippah makes as much a statement at my temple as it does in at the grocery store, the bank, or the airport. I do not object to this marking, although I have equal reluctance to brand myself in general; I avoid wearing sword-shaped pendants despite my interest in fencing, I do not have cat pictures on my desk at work despite being a cat lover, and I do not put BSA logos on my car despite being a Boy Scout. No one of these defines my identity, and I don't want people to think of me as "the Jewish guy".

I also object to allowing ultraobservant "traditionalists" to define what qualifies as a symbol of Jewish identity. If I allow arcane rabbinic interpretations to define the expression of my Jewish identity, how can I object to their interpretations of dietary laws or conversion? I was thinking about this during Rosh Hashana, and was struck by how much the rabbi and cantor were falling over themselves to look Orthodox, even as the service was filmed and projected onto multiple screens, and a piano, violin, and cello accompanied the music.

There is an uncomfortable tension between these two ideas. Granted, Reform does not need to be a total rejection of Orthodoxy, but the "pick & choose" mentality, I think, really weakens Reform Judaism's theological arguments. Yes, a kippah has tradition behind it; it's what our ancestors wore, after all. But argument from tradition is a weak justification. There is a long history of distinctive Jewish clothing, most of them from traditions we'd rather not revisit.

I respect Leon for his courage and perseverance. I respect him even more for his thoughtfulness and consideration in making the decision. This ability to wrestle with God within your own life, to find the personal intersection between tradition and modernity, is to me the best attribute of modern Judaism. The process is more important than the result. It is how he and I remain friends not in spite of our different observances, but because of them.

1 comment:

  1. I've been enjoying Leon's writing, his links, and now your writing and links on this topic. I'm also occasionally conflicted on what I can and cannot, or more accurately should or should not do with my own outward expressions... first, because I happen to be still in the middle of my conversion process, and second, because I'm female. So there's two issues at work -- the notion of "are you a Jew yet?" and who defines that and how that works out in my personal expression [and the sticky notion that you "never remind someone they are a convert" even though I don't shy away from saying "I'm in the middle of my conversion process"].

    Also, what's appropriate for women in a mixed Reform/Conservative synagogue? The rabbi's wife always wears a kippah in synagogue. Several older women always wear these lace or metal-openwork "headcoverings" (which don't really seem to cover the head, but that's just my inexperience talking). Women who go up to the bima always add a tallit, but not very many wear a tallit in the pews.

    A friend wants to gift me with a tallit when I've completed my conversion process. I appreciate his affection in our friendship, and will gladly accept the gift. And in our synagogue, if I were called to the bima, I would wear my tallit. But do I wear it just to pray in shul? Do I learn about the tradition of the prayers, kissing the hem, etc?

    I'd love to make kippot for friends because I'm a textiles artisan. Do I have to learn any rules about them or just do what moves me? I'd love to spin and weave a tallit, but are there even stricter rules? I'd love to learn about the tzitzit knots and traditions, and I *know* there are much stricter rules about those. Am I "allowed" to spin and weave a tallit?

    Such things to ponder.