In Reform Judaism, both men and women can choose to wear or not to wear a kippah (or yarmulke). Our personal choice depends on the meaning each of us attaches to this familiar custom. One of our guest contributors, Kyle Stidham, writes a very thoughtful and thought-provoking piece about why he stopped wearing a kippah. He looks into Classical Reform history, Jewish ethnicity, his own reasoning, and into his soul to make his decision. We hope you enjoy this excellent piece on the subject.
The Kippah (and why it’s staying off)
by Kyle Stidham
I post regularly on a Facebook forum dedicated to the discussion of issues relevant to the Society for Classical Reform Judaism. If you don’t already know about the Society, in short, it’s an organization aiming to not just preserve the best that Classical Reform Jewish heritage has to offer, but also to revive those aspects of Classical Reform that many in our larger community have let fall by the wayside. For more information, you can check out the Society’s website.
In late March, I made a post about my struggle with outward expressions of Jewish identity – specifically, my struggle with the timeless Reform question: to Kippah, or not to Kippah? Before I continue, here’s what I posted:
“So, as I study and involve myself more with our Classical Reform heritage, I find that I have a deeper connection to my Judaism, and to God. That in and of itself is deserving of a different, longer post. What I want to ask is a side-effect of that development.
For the last year, I’ve worn a kippah regularly, inside the temple and out. But as I develop more of a relationship with the minhag that I have embraced, I find that my wearing of the kippah has less to do with my faith, and more to do with my culture and ethnicity. But even this isn’t a very clear-cut factor
– I’m a product of an interfaith marriage, and my mother’s mother was a convert to Reform Judaism, and remained faithful and practicing long after her and my grandfather’s divorce. And so, I am hardly a product of traditional Ashkenazi culture or of traditional Ashkenazi ethnicity. In fact, this may have contributed to my great attraction to Classical Reform, as I was free of inherent Old World Yidishkeyt nostalgia. But my donning of the kippah a year ago may have been a semi-conscious attempt to assert a connection to that Yiddishkeyt, in absence of an alternative – as I was at that point ignorant of a viable Classical Reform option.
So my dilemma is thus – I’ve come to the conclusion that I place no religious value on my kippah. It is entirely an ethnic/cultural trapping – but even if it doesn’t tell the whole story of my ethnicity/culture, a part of me worries that taking off my kippah will be in a sense denying something about myself. I’m leaning toward not wearing it anymore, but would like some input from a CR perspective. Most especially, I wonder – is it ethical to wear a kippah for purely ethnic/cultural reasons when one denies it any religious value?”
So that’s where I was a few months ago. Where am I now? A lot closer to Pittsburgh, if you catch my Reform geek meaning. If not, let me explain.
In November of 1885, under the leadership of Kaufmann Kohler and Isaac Mayer Wise, American Reform rabbis met in Pittsburgh and adopted what’s now known as the Pittsburgh Platform – the first real statement of principles for American Reform Jews, and still a key document in the modern Classical Reform movement.
I’ll quote here the crucial third and fourth articles:
“3. We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its mission during its national life in Palestine, and today we accept as binding only its moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.
4. We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.“
I’ve been thinking a lot about these two articles over the past few months. I’ve thought long and hard about what really does “elevate and sanctify” my life, what obstructs that elevation, and what will impress me with a “spirit of priestly holiness”.
The issue here is not halakha, Jewish religious law, as 1) halakha is not a religious category for the Classical Reform Jew’s daily life, and 2) from what I understand, the wearing of kippot is not even a halakhic matter; it is, rather, a question of minhag, or custom. Even some Orthodox Jews have decided not to wear a kippah, and find it entirely halakhically permissible.
Instead of donning a kippah simply because I had some vague notion that it would make me “more Jewish” to do so, I decided to rethink some of my basic assumptions when it comes to Jewish practice. If halakha was not a part of my practice, than the core of my practice needed to be the elevation and sanctification of my life – anything that obstructed that needed to be reevaluated, and possibly rejected.
Ultimately, this is what happened with my kippot. I was honest with myself, and intellectual honesty is one of my favorite things about the Classical Reform tradition. Why was I doing it? Could I answer that question without pretensions, without justifying my choice of dress with another person’s apologetics? The answer was no. It became no different than a Star of David necklace – except, for some, the wearing of the kippah has ritual significance. For me to wear a skullcap that meant something for some, but not for me – it began to obstruct my own spiritual development, and I felt like I was dressing up as someone I essentially wasn’t.
In the end, it’s about spiritual self-respect, and religious dignity. I’m not anybody else’s Jew; and I’m without anybody else’s standards of Jewish membership but those of my own community, and my own tradition. I am a Jew because of my relationship with God, and with the Jewish community I’ve affiliated with – not because I used to wear a particular kind of hat. And I’m not afraid to say that I’m better off this way, more freely participating in a minhag that’s right for me.
So, after living without the kippah for a few months – it’s staying off.