Don’t Judge a Man by his (Head) Cover

Originally posted on jewishvaluescenter.org

The other day I was asked if I will wear a kippah for the rest of my life. I immediately answered, “I think so”, and that is the truth.

I feel strongly that Jewish men who are committed to their Judaism should be wearing a kippah. This is not, by any means, my view because of Halachic or ritualistic reasoning. In actuality the kippah’s prominence is a relatively recent phenomenon and many Jewish cultures have never had the custom to wear one. Rabbi Shimon Hirsch, one of the most prolific defenders of Orthodox Judaism, actually forbade the wearing of a kippah when the wearer was not immediately involved in some immediate Jewish activity (try arguing this to your rabbi).

The reason that I value wearing a kippah is that it tags me as a member, representative and advocate for the Jewish community. It means that I am always available, always noticeable, and always on-call. Walking around campus over the past couple of years wearing a kippah, I have been asked thousands of questions ranging from Israeli politics, Jewish rituals, and – my personal favorite – why we refused to accept Jesus.

However, wearing a kippah has had its downsides. Wandering around in my hometown of La Jolla, CA, it was not uncommon for us to encounter some anti-semitic slur shouted out of a car window or a group walking by. What else would you expect from a neighborhood that, just 50 years ago, had in its official charter a line barring Jews from purchasing any property?

Nevertheless, I can take the insults and slurs. They have truly never bothered me that much, so long as it never turned physical (which thank God it has not), I have never seriously considered taking off my kippah due to these interactions.

In actuality, the one thing that does bother me about wearing a kippah is when people make assumptions or generalizations about who I am, due to what I wear.

Just a few weeks ago, I wrote an article about my multifaceted and overall unclear denominational affiliation. One of the things that I have noticed about wearing a kippah is that people constantly make assumptions about who I am and what I believe in. Now, on the one hand, it is very hard to blame people for doing this. The ability to find patterns in the world and make generalizations about certain groups is a crucial part of human intelligence. Everyone does this to some extent, and the ability to categorize is actually directly correlated with overall intelligence. I am not so much upset that people will consistently make certain assumptions about me, rather I am frustrated and often feel like I am sold short because of it.

A few years ago, I was taking a philosophy course on medical ethics at UCLA. The topic of euthanasia came up, and we read an array of opinions and arguments from various philosophers, both ancient and modern. Towards the end of the class, we were presented with a specific case, and subsequently asked to give our own opinion on the subject. As medical ethics is a topic that I have devoted much time and thought to, I was excited to quickly raise my hand to offer an opinion that had not yet been stated. Before calling on me, the professor decided to prompt me with the following introduction.

“Now we will get to hear from a religious perspective. Tell me Daniel, what does Orthodox Judaism say about this topic?”

Needless to say, my answer was not going to conform to the traditional Orthodox perspective. Obliging the teacher however, I began my answer by saying that Orthodox Judaism would say  that euthanasia is unequivocally prohibited in this case. I then wanted to give my personal opinion and explanation of why I thought that it should be permitted, and when I began to switch gears, the professor – along with many of my classmates – looked puzzled.

“You mean your view is not the Orthodox Jewish view?” the professor asked the moment I finished speaking.

While this is usually a conversation I enjoy having, being questioned by a professor this way, in front of 25 other students, is extremely frustrating. Even more so, the content and value of my actual answer was immediately brushed aside and forgotten. I shrugged my shoulders and said something along the lines of: “my views are more complicated than that” and the rest of the class moved on.

While the story above may not seem like such it big deal, it is only one of many examples and anecdotes that I can draw upon throughout my intellectual life. What is even more powerful and worrying is when one considers the hundreds or thousands of other times that people have quietly assumed something about my belief system or worldview without actually bringing it up. This stereotyping even cuts both ways, as there having been many examples where Orthodox Jews have been shocked that I espouse biblical criticism, and blurt out “but you wear a kippah!” – as if it was the biggest inconsistency they have ever seen.

Yet, despite the frustration, I will probably continue to wear a kippah for the rest of my life. I view it as an integral part of my Jewish identity, and a constant connection to my Jewish roots. And if all of this means that I have to dispel some stereotypes along the way – well, that just adds to the fun of it all!

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