So How Does It Feel Not To Wear a Kippah?

So How Does It Feel Not To Wear a Kippah? September 5, 2014

Editor’s Note: Former Rabbi Levin reflects on his life as an observant Jew via his experiences with and without a “Kippah.”   We hope to hear more from him as he continues to adapt to secular life.  He left his congregation earlier this summer.

==========================

thumbn_7620152880A kippah is a head covering worn by Orthodox Jewish males at all times. Kippahs vary by religious sub group. For some, their kippah is a black hat. For others, a circle of fabric held on with clips. When I was a Rabbi I wore larger, embroidered caps I purchased in Jerusalem. Now that I’ve quit the Rabbinate, they’re gathering dust in my dresser drawer.

I grew up in a home that’s Jewishly observant but not strictly Orthodox.  So when I was a teenager, I started wearing a kippah all the time, except when I was in religious school. To wear a kippah all the time was a difficult decision for me to make. It meant standing out from peers and inviting the world to regard me with a range of prejudice and skepticism that I had an inkling of but didn’t yet understand.

How did I feel then, walking around with a conspicuous embroidered disk pinned to my hair? Nervous and uncomfortable. But I was also proud that I had the courage to take such a bold plunge.

My self-consciousness was eased by the praise and encouragement of religious teachers and synagogue youth group leaders. I may even have begun to feel a bit superior to some of my more conformist peers. But the strongest feeling I recall is of feeling exhilaratingly different, in a way that I felt certain was good.

After that I studied six years in yeshiva to receive ordination and then served as a Rabbi for fifteen. While I’m happy for those who find joy in the Orthodox Jewish lifestyle, I’ve come now to realize that it isn’t for me. I think the belief that a God in heaven demands that we meticulously follow numerous, often nitpicking commandments under promise of high reward or threat of harsh punishment is false, misguided and often causes harm.

So back to the question: How does it feel not to wear a kippah? It’s a relief to no longer be claiming, just through my dress, that my lifestyle choices are better than others. I don’t know more than anyone else about good and evil, right and wrong or what happens after we die. I have no extra insights based on faith or revelation. Removing that weight feels good.

The biggest change is to have come full circle from my teenage years. I no longer feel different. Perhaps then I was seeking companionship in a tight knit religious community and omnipresent God. I no longer have that, but now it’s easier for me to connect with the diverse world of people around me. I think that’s a good switch.

==========================

Shlomo-9841Bio:  Shlomo Levin served for 15 years as an orthodox Rabbi, during which time he realized that adherence to Torah and Jewish law often does more harm than good. While he completes his first two novels he is ready to help develop and officiate at humanist life cycle celebrations. He also offers tours of Milwaukee on round, seven seat bikes.

 

 

Photo Credit https://www.flickr.com/photos/zeevveez/7620152880/

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  • ctcss

    It’s a relief to no longer be claiming, just through my dress, that my lifestyle choices are better than others.

    But wouldn’t claiming that something as trivial as wearing a piece of clothing would somehow confer a virtue upon one’s self be rather shallow to begin with? I may be misunderstanding what you are saying here (and I mean no disrespect to you or any other religiously observant Jew), but how would doing something superficial ever alter a person’s underlying character? A person could claim the label of “Christian”, but if they didn’t even bother to try to follow the Christ at all, is the label anything more than a mere appellation, rather than a serious pledge (and hopefully a corresponding effort) to try to alter one’s behavior for the better? So I am assuming that when you wore the kippah in your earlier days, it was more a humble reminder to yourself of what you were trying to accomplish, rather a proud statement to others of how you were better than they were, correct?

    I have no extra insights based on faith or revelation.

    This statement also puzzles me. Why would the devotion of one’s life to trying to draw closer to God not be likely to give one more insight into the nature of God and God’s kingdom? Wouldn’t a naturalist, taking daily walks in nature and quietly observing what is going on around them, be more likely to have a deeper insight into the workings of nature than someone who just goes tramping noisily into the underbrush and then complaining that they saw nothing of note? So why wouldn’t a rabbi (or a minister of any faith) not be more likely to grasp something deeper about God than the average person who does not make such an effort? (Once again, I mean no disrespect here. I may simply not be following what you are trying to imply by your words.)

    One of my ongoing questions here on Linda’s blog is why the religiously trained (of any stripe) seem to have a grounding in the fundamental mechanics of their avocation, but somehow feel that they have never been instructed in how to grow closer to God? I earlier asked whether seminary instruction included instruction in doing this, and I believe that the limited answer given was “No, not really.” Is a typical yeshiva trained rabbi in a similar boat? And if so, is there a reason given for this seeming hole in instruction? Or am I merely being naive as to the purpose of ministerial training (of any stripe)?

    Thanks. (And all the best to you in your new journey.)

  • ctcss

    It’s a relief to no longer be claiming, just through my dress, that my lifestyle choices are better than others.

    But wouldn’t claiming that something as trivial as wearing a piece of clothing would somehow confer a virtue upon one’s self be rather shallow to begin with? I may be misunderstanding what you are saying here (and I mean no disrespect to you or any other religiously observant Jew), but how would doing something superficial ever alter a person’s underlying character? A person could claim the label of “Christian”, but if they didn’t even bother to try to follow the Christ at all, is the label anything more than a mere appellation, rather than a serious pledge (and hopefully a corresponding effort) to try to alter one’s behavior for the better? So I am assuming that when you wore the kippah in your earlier days, it was more a humble reminder to yourself of what you were trying to accomplish, rather a proud statement to others of how you were better than they were, correct?

    I have no extra insights based on faith or revelation.

    This statement also puzzles me. Why would the devotion of one’s life to trying to draw closer to God not be likely to give one more insight into the nature of God and God’s kingdom? Wouldn’t a naturalist, taking daily walks in nature and quietly observing what is going on around them, be more likely to have a deeper insight into the workings of nature than someone who just goes tramping noisily into the underbrush and then complaining that they saw nothing of note? So why wouldn’t a rabbi (or a minister of any faith) not be more likely to grasp something deeper about God than the average person who does not make such an effort? (Once again, I mean no disrespect here. I may simply not be following what you are trying to imply by your words.)

    One of my ongoing questions here on Linda’s blog is why the religiously trained (of any stripe) seem to have a grounding in the fundamental mechanics of their avocation, but somehow feel that they have never been instructed in how to grow closer to God? I earlier asked whether seminary instruction included instruction in doing this, and I believe that the limited answer given was “No, not really.” Is a typical yeshiva trained rabbi in a similar boat? And if so, is there a reason given for this seeming hole in instruction? Or am I merely being naive as to the purpose of ministerial training (of any stripe)?

    Thanks. (And all the best to you in your new journey.)

  • Kent Truesdale

    Thanks for this reflection, Schlomo — and best wishes in your new life!

  • Gordonnn

    Thanks for this reflection, Schlomo — and best wishes in your new life!

  • Kent Truesdale

    Jesus, can you give the proselytizing a rest brother? LOL

  • Gordonnn

    Jesus, can you give the proselytizing a rest brother? LOL

  • ctcss

    Well, they are honest questions that I have. But if this is not the place for them, or if I have offended or hurt anyone by asking them, I am truly sorry.

  • ctcss

    Well, they are honest questions that I have. But if this is not the place for them, or if I have offended or hurt anyone by asking them, I am truly sorry.

  • Linda_LaScola

    ctcss: No need to apologize. This is just the place for such questions and I’m hoping Shlomo Levin or another current/former member of the clergy will address them.

    By the way, Kent — I didn’t see ctcss as proselytizing, but rather framing the issue from his perspective, which is that of a someone who is seeking god and is trying to understand those who have taken a different path.

    Ctcss — tell me if I have that right. I’m trying to understand, not put words in your mouth.

  • Linda_LaScola

    ctcss: No need to apologize. This is just the place for such questions and I’m hoping Shlomo Levin or another current/former member of the clergy will address them.

    By the way, Kent — I didn’t see ctcss as proselytizing, but rather framing the issue from his perspective, which is that of a someone who is seeking god and is trying to understand those who have taken a different path.

    Ctcss — tell me if I have that right. I’m trying to understand, not put words in your mouth.

  • Shlomo

    CTCSS- Thanks for your comments, please allow me to explain.

    Let’s consider diet, starting with vegetarianism then by
    analogy kosher. There are many reasons vegetarians offer for their dietary
    choice: health, the environment, avoiding cruelty to animals, not liking the
    taste of meat, financial savings, and so on. Some of these reasons are
    obviously personal. For example, if someone avoids meat because of high
    cholesterol, that’s saying nothing about others. Folks who don’t have high
    cholesterol wouldn’t be expected to make this same choice.

    Others of these reasons are much more far sweeping. Most
    obvious is the environment. When a vegetarian reaches across the barbeque to take a soy hot dog instead of a real one and explains it’s because raising animals for slaughter consumes a tremendous amount of resources and does great environmental harm, the vegetarian is at least implying that really you ought to take the soy dog also.

    Consider now why observant Jews keep kosher. This question is debated in the Rabbinic literature, and the Rabbis express various levels of tolerance towards keeping kosher to fit in with community, because one does not like the taste of bacon, or because keeping kosher may guard against some risk to health. But all agree that none of those reasons should be the primary impetus for keeping kosher. An observant Jew should keep kosher out of a sense of commandment and obligation, a belief that God in his inscrutable wisdom commands the Jewish people to follow his dietary laws without question and to submit humbly to his will.

    This rationale for keeping kosher, which is the same for all
    other Jewish observance, always carries with it an implicit accusation. When an
    Orthodox Jew purchases the kosher brand of cream cheese, he cannot merely say to his Jewish friend who bought the treif brand that we made different
    purchasing decisions based on personal preferences for taste, quality, or
    price. I bought what’s best for me and you bought what’s best for you. Instead,
    he’s saying that I’m doing what’s right and what every Jew is required to do.
    By purchasing that cream cheese you’ve done wrong, you’re sinning, and by the
    way now I can’t eat at your house. . .

    My point, therefore, is that genuine Jewish religious
    observance invariably carries with it an aspect of judgment. I understand of
    course that many observant Jews conduct themselves with tact and humility
    (while some others don’t. . .), but nevertheless the belief that we the
    Orthodox are acting right and all others are wrong is integral to Orthodox
    Jewish thought.

    I wrote “It’s a relief to no longer be claiming, just
    through my dress, that my lifestyle choices are better than others.” What I was
    trying to express is that by wearing a kippah I was affiliating with Orthodoxy and
    therefore aligning myself with this attitude. I was saying that my choices, not
    only to wear a kippah, but also to observe Shabbat, kashrut, and so forth, were
    not just personal choices I made for me. I was saying that every other Jew is
    really required by God to make these same choices and is wrong not to.

    I don’t believe that anymore. If someone feels that observing
    the Shabbat, holidays, or other rituals of the Jewish faith enriches their
    lives or gives them pleasure, then great! I wish them joy and happiness in doing
    it. But if someone feels that Jewish observance isn’t for them and they’d
    prefer to live without it, that’s their choice and I have no problem with that
    decision. I believe this attitude is incompatible with the faith community
    identified by its male members wearing a kippah.

    You made several other important comments as well, but for
    the sake of space allow me to stop here for now.

  • Shlomo

    CTCSS- Thanks for your comments, please allow me to explain.

    Let’s consider diet, starting with vegetarianism then by
    analogy kosher. There are many reasons vegetarians offer for their dietary
    choice: health, the environment, avoiding cruelty to animals, not liking the
    taste of meat, financial savings, and so on. Some of these reasons are
    obviously personal. For example, if someone avoids meat because of high
    cholesterol, that’s saying nothing about others. Folks who don’t have high
    cholesterol wouldn’t be expected to make this same choice.

    Others of these reasons are much more far sweeping. Most
    obvious is the environment. When a vegetarian reaches across the barbeque to take a soy hot dog instead of a real one and explains it’s because raising animals for slaughter consumes a tremendous amount of resources and does great environmental harm, the vegetarian is at least implying that really you ought to take the soy dog also.

    Consider now why observant Jews keep kosher. This question is debated in the Rabbinic literature, and the Rabbis express various levels of tolerance towards keeping kosher to fit in with community, because one does not like the taste of bacon, or because keeping kosher may guard against some risk to health. But all agree that none of those reasons should be the primary impetus for keeping kosher. An observant Jew should keep kosher out of a sense of commandment and obligation, a belief that God in his inscrutable wisdom commands the Jewish people to follow his dietary laws without question and to submit humbly to his will.

    This rationale for keeping kosher, which is the same for all
    other Jewish observance, always carries with it an implicit accusation. When an
    Orthodox Jew purchases the kosher brand of cream cheese, he cannot merely say to his Jewish friend who bought the treif brand that we made different
    purchasing decisions based on personal preferences for taste, quality, or
    price. I bought what’s best for me and you bought what’s best for you. Instead,
    he’s saying that I’m doing what’s right and what every Jew is required to do.
    By purchasing that cream cheese you’ve done wrong, you’re sinning, and by the
    way now I can’t eat at your house. . .

    My point, therefore, is that genuine Jewish religious
    observance invariably carries with it an aspect of judgment. I understand of
    course that many observant Jews conduct themselves with tact and humility
    (while some others don’t. . .), but nevertheless the belief that we the
    Orthodox are acting right and all others are wrong is integral to Orthodox
    Jewish thought.

    I wrote “It’s a relief to no longer be claiming, just
    through my dress, that my lifestyle choices are better than others.” What I was
    trying to express is that by wearing a kippah I was affiliating with Orthodoxy and
    therefore aligning myself with this attitude. I was saying that my choices, not
    only to wear a kippah, but also to observe Shabbat, kashrut, and so forth, were
    not just personal choices I made for me. I was saying that every other Jew is
    really required by God to make these same choices and is wrong not to.

    I don’t believe that anymore. If someone feels that observing
    the Shabbat, holidays, or other rituals of the Jewish faith enriches their
    lives or gives them pleasure, then great! I wish them joy and happiness in doing
    it. But if someone feels that Jewish observance isn’t for them and they’d
    prefer to live without it, that’s their choice and I have no problem with that
    decision. I believe this attitude is incompatible with the faith community
    identified by its male members wearing a kippah.

    You made several other important comments as well, but for
    the sake of space allow me to stop here for now.

  • ctcss

    Thanks Linda, for understanding. Yes, I think you have a rather helpful and gracious sense of what I am trying to do.

    And Kent, if I am coming across as proselytizing, I do apologize. My group is not evangelical, and I do try hard not to fall into that trap. I really am trying to grasp what the people here have thought and what their reasons are for seeking a home here.

    Oh, and thanks for that passage by C. S. Lewis. Very interesting indeed. I’ve never actually read anything by him except for his sci-fi trilogy.

  • ctcss

    Thanks Linda, for understanding. Yes, I think you have a rather helpful and gracious sense of what I am trying to do.

    And Kent, if I am coming across as proselytizing, I do apologize. My group is not evangelical, and I do try hard not to fall into that trap. I really am trying to grasp what the people here have thought and what their reasons are for seeking a home here.

    Oh, and thanks for that passage by C. S. Lewis. Very interesting indeed. I’ve never actually read anything by him except for his sci-fi trilogy.

  • ctcss

    Shlomo

    Thanks, that was a very helpful way to see things through your eyes, at least as far as that particular point goes. I’m looking forward to any other answers you might give to the points I brought up, assuming you have the time and inclination to do so.

  • ctcss

    Shlomo

    Thanks, that was a very helpful way to see things through your eyes, at least as far as that particular point goes. I’m looking forward to any other answers you might give to the points I brought up, assuming you have the time and inclination to do so.

  • Kent Truesdale

    OK, my bad! (for what it’s worth, I did add the ‘LOL’ to show I wasn’t being too serious;) Sure, let’s get all the honest questions on the table. And ctcss, I’m betting Lewis’ masterpiece “Mere Christianity” is right up your alley — check it out!

  • Gordonnn

    OK, my bad! (for what it’s worth, I did add the ‘LOL’ to show I wasn’t being too serious;) Sure, let’s get all the honest questions on the table. And ctcss, I’m betting Lewis’ masterpiece “Mere Christianity” is right up your alley — check it out!

  • Sherm

    The kippah was originally intended to serve as a physical aid to being fearful of heaven (in other words god). This is from the Talmud which is the “basis” for most of what today would be considered Orthodox Judaism as well as other denominations as well (conservative and less so reformed Judaism). The idea that a small piece of fabric might cause one feel superior in any way is more a function of the wearer not of the obligation itself as it was intended.

    In Yeshiva we are absolutely trained on how to grow closer to god. There are thousands of books on this topic that are studied on a daily basis (at least in the Yeshivas that I attended throughout my life). Some are extremely old texts that have attained a high status in Jewish philosophical literature (Duties of the Heart for example by Rabbi Bachya Ibn Pakuda).

    These are books that range from strictly philosophical to practical guides and everything in between.

    That being said, in Orthodox Judaism, there is a very strong emphasis on Jewish law in rabbinical school because it so all encompassing in Jewish life. The emphasis placed on Jewish law (and Talmud even when not very practical) does, perhaps, leave the less intellectually taxing endeavors (coming close to god) on the back burner. This is not a new problem and one of the most famous books dealing with both the practical and the philosophical underpinnings of “closeness to god” opens with exactly your complaint and his book was written in the 1730s. This work was not written for rabbinical students only and the problem is more far-reaching than just in seminaries. However this was my personal experience in a few different Yeshivas. There are yeshivas who spend a great deal of time on “closeness to god”.

  • Sherm

    The kippah was originally intended to serve as a physical aid to being fearful of heaven (in other words god). This is from the Talmud which is the “basis” for most of what today would be considered Orthodox Judaism as well as other denominations as well (conservative and less so reformed Judaism). The idea that a small piece of fabric might cause one feel superior in any way is more a function of the wearer not of the obligation itself as it was intended.

    In Yeshiva we are absolutely trained on how to grow closer to god. There are thousands of books on this topic that are studied on a daily basis (at least in the Yeshivas that I attended throughout my life). Some are extremely old texts that have attained a high status in Jewish philosophical literature (Duties of the Heart for example by Rabbi Bachya Ibn Pakuda).

    These are books that range from strictly philosophical to practical guides and everything in between.

    That being said, in Orthodox Judaism, there is a very strong emphasis on Jewish law in rabbinical school because it so all encompassing in Jewish life. The emphasis placed on Jewish law (and Talmud even when not very practical) does, perhaps, leave the less intellectually taxing endeavors (coming close to god) on the back burner. This is not a new problem and one of the most famous books dealing with both the practical and the philosophical underpinnings of “closeness to god” opens with exactly your complaint and his book was written in the 1730s. This work was not written for rabbinical students only and the problem is more far-reaching than just in seminaries. However this was my personal experience in a few different Yeshivas. There are yeshivas who spend a great deal of time on “closeness to god”.

  • Linda_LaScola

    Sherm – how does wearing a hat serve as a physical aid in being fearful of god?

  • Linda_LaScola

    Sherm – how does wearing a hat serve as a physical aid in being fearful of god?

  • Sherm

    The Talmud does not specify how this works. Presumably it is a reminder that there is always something above you.

  • Sherm

    The Talmud does not specify how this works. Presumably it is a reminder that there is always something above you.

  • Simcha

    The Maharshal had a responsum about wearing of kippot. He said that in his time, people were beginning to adopt the kippah, and that the custom was adopted by ignorant Jews who imitated Christian monks thinking the skullcap was a sign of piety, and were now expecting their rabbis to wear them. He ruled that Jews, including rabbis, now were required to wear them lest the ignorant Jews think they were not pious.

  • disqus_6uthkgo5CJ

    But any way of life implies beliefs about superiority, as long as the person living the life and making his/her choices has moral views. If you have a view, you have it because you think it’s better than others. If you believe that being religiously observant or not are equally valid and specifically take happiness and relief in having giving up the alternate view, then it means you are down-judging the latter. But this is natural and necessary, so I don’t see the problem. There’s nothing wrong, from within the frame of the Orthodox Jew (and others, as this isn’t only an Orthodox issue), with believing that it is better to keep kosher and other Jews ought to do the same.

  • Shlomo

    Shiva- Here’s a thought regarding what you wrote.

    One of the challenges I faced as a Rabbi went something like
    this: If you believe you’re right, then you must believe the others are wrong.So even leaving aside other faiths, as an Orthodox Rabbi you must condemn all non-Orthodox Judaism. If you believe that the Talmud and Halacha are true, then non-Halachic Judaism encourages sin and is an enemy of Torah. Pluralism is not an option.

    But as a Rabbi I tried to advocate that non-Orthodox clergy and congregations be treated with respect, not scorn. So the response I’d try to give is that while Orthodox Judaism is right for me, other beliefs or lifestyles may be right for others. So while as a Rabbi I rejected non-Orthodox Judaism as wrong, that was supposed to be only for me. Non-Orthodoxy might still be right for at least some of the folks who choose to practice it. If
    they are choosing what’s right for them then we can respect it. I don’t know of any other way out.

    I always had trouble delivering this answer with much conviction because I don’t think it works. To believe in Orthodoxy does in fact mean to believe that non-Orthodoxy is wrong, straying from the truth, and a betrayal of Torah. As an Orthodox Rabbi you can’t escape making this judgment: Orthodoxy is true and non-Orthodoxy is false, pluralism may be appealing but it is an intellectually bankrupt mirage. Non-Orthodox Judaism is a betrayal of Torah and must be condemned in the strongest terms.

    That is the type of judgment that always disturbed me and I
    wish to escape. Now, no longer a Rabbi, I am not committed to defending or promoting any particular religious lifestyle over another. Whatever lifestyle I now choose for myself, I choose only because I believe it’s right for me. Others make the choices that are right for them, whether religious or secular. Only
    by severing my allegiance to Orthodoxy can I cease to claim that one belief or lifestyle is right to the exclusion of others. Now I just say that people are different and different strokes for different folks.