Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Things I don't hate but probably should: Yarmulkas

Read this post first.

What follows is not a satire. Its all true. If you don't like it blame S.

As he wrote: Why don't you go all out and critique the yarmulke, any yarmulke, which is an Orthodox group identity and not mandated by halacha? The Vilna Gaon says you can even make brachos bareheaded as, according to him, even wearing one during davening is but middas chassidus.

From your mouth to DovBear's ears. See it after the jump.

I don't have a thing against Jews who wear yarmulkas. I count them as friends, family, and valued confidants. I wear one myself. This post is not about the people who wear them, but about the yarmulkas themselves, the way they are regarded and how, to my mind, they represent everything that is rotten in Judaism.

There is no Torah or rabbinic requirement to wear a yarmulka. None. No halachic authority says you should wear one to work or to a wedding, funeral, siyum, shul meeting, school event, or any of the other places I've seen them. A (bad) case can be made that you're required to wear them during davening, but this obligation (if it exists) can certainly be discharged with a baseball cap.

So why do we Orthodox Jews make a fetish out of the yarmulka? Fear and insecurity, mostly: Fear of neighbors, fear of change, fear of being different, fear of sticking out, fear of seeming "less frum", fear of making (or of being seen to have made) an unauthorized break from the so-called grand and so-called glorious past. Put on a yarmulka, and all those fears are instantly mitigated. With the yarmulka on your head, you're suddenly in uniform, part of the crowd, and in intimate fellowship with history and community; even better, you can tell yourself the sweet, sweet, reassuring lie that you've just done something authentically and legitimately Jewish. What an easy way to please God! What an easy way to broadcast your frum bonafides to the neighbors! What an easy way to fit in!

Of course, the man in the yarmulka is to some extent fooling himself, but the real problem is that to a large extent he's not. God (I hope) doesn't care what you put on your head, but the Orthodox community really is more accepting of men who wear yarmulkas. Yarmulka wearing men extend a certain chumminess to each other, and tend to feel more comfortable socially with other men who wear yarmulkas. Those of you familiar with old-style WASP country club rituals will recognize this: Newbies who showed up in the right blazer, and the right set of slacks could expect a better welcome than those who did not.

We can agree, I hope, that putting a slice of fabric t on your head doesn't elevate you in any way. With a yarmulka or without it, you're still the same tzadik or rasha. Unfortunately, the slow and stupid of Israel don't see it this way. Boys who wear yarmulkas are thought to make better husbands, and better students. Yarmulka wearing Rabbis tend to confer more respect and extend greater deference to yarmulka-wearing congregants. For the slow and the stupid the presence of a yarmulka is a handy shortcut. If you have one on your head you're in; if you don't you're something else, and often something less.

To use clothing this way is human nature, of course, but aren't Orthodox Jews supposed to be better than human nature? Aren't we called upon to transcend or to defeat the worst part of ourselves -- and don't we, sometimes, point with a little too much glee at how other communities fall short? So why does the Orthodox Jewish community, as a whole, accept and reinforce the yarmulka sham? Is it expecting too much to insist that we judge people something more tangible than headgear? Or are Orthodox Jews just kidding themselves when they look down at other communities?

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