To Beanie, Or Not To Beanie?

December 14, 2009

What Do You Do When Someone Hands You A Yarmulke?

As the Chanukah season approaches, I’m reminded of my regular moments of discomfort when any Jewish holiday approaches.

I get uncomfortable because invariably someone hands me a yarmulke to wear during the recital of some prayer or during an entire ceremony. I’ve been handed skull caps at weddings, Passover, Purim, Rosh Hashanah, and Shabbat.

Just to allay any fears that I might be converting, I should say that my wife and her lovely family are mostly secular Jews, but they still celebrate Jewish holidays, so I often find myself at Jewish homes on those occasions. As more and more of this extended family learn that I am a secular humanist, this issue comes up less often, but the question remains: What should a secular person do when someone hands him a yarmulke?

My gut has always answered that I don’t want to wear this. Yarmulkes are worn as a sign of reverence to the God of Abraham whom I don’t happen to believe in. Judeo-Christians shouldn’t take offense though. My Godlessness extends to all gods, so it’s nothing personal. (I don’t genuflect in church, or face Mecca 5 times a day either.)

The discomfort I sometime feel comes from what my brain tells me. I’m a guest in their home on a day when people are observing a holiday. Don’t be such a goy, my brain says. What’s the harm of popping the cap on for a while? It’s not like I’m converting…

Gut: Ok, you’re not converting, but it feels wrong…and you are acknowledging the existence of a deity.

Brain: No I’m not. I’m just putting a hat on for a few minutes.

Gut: It’s not just a hat – it’s a religious hat that makes God happy. And God doesn’t exist, remember?

Brain: I know, I know, I taught you that! But wearing this will make the hosts happy. Do it for them. It’s no skin off your teeth.

Gut: I really don’t want to offend these nice people after they were kind enough to invite me to their home, but it feels like I’m selling out. I’m a professional atheist for God’s sake!

Brain: Huh?

Gut: You know what I mean.

Brain: You could wear another kind of hat…Technically, it doesn’t have to be a yarmulke.

Gut: I would consider wearing one of those upside-down flowerpot hats that Devo wore in the 80s… or maybe a miter…

Brain: You want to wear a Pope hat to a Jewish gathering?

Gut: I don’t want to wear any hat!

This interior dialogue went on for years. Most of the time I found ways to skate around being handed the yarmulke – a few times I wore one to avoid causing a scene.

Eventually I asked three people I respect highly what they thought I should do. My father, Eddie Tabash, and Paul Kurtz all gave me the same answer: Don’t feel obligated to wear a yarmulke. I was off the hook. My atheist father married my Catholic mother, so he had some experience with being an outsider in church matters. And two of these three wise men (Kurtz and Tabash) were raised Jewish, so I figured I was free of the beanies.

And so I am. I don’t wear yarmulkes anymore – ever. When offered, I smile and say “No thank you, devout atheist.” If someone feels strongly enough to disinvite me from the gathering because I won’t don the little cloth dome, then so be it. I will graciously excuse myself from the affair and occupy myself elsewhere.

Wearing a piece of clothing to acknowledge or pay respect to something that almost certainly isn’t there is just too far from my view of the universe to stomach. My gut (i.e. my brain) was right after all.

It’s too bad really… I’ve got a growing bald spot that a yarmulke would cover nicely.


#1 Kritikos on Monday December 14, 2009 at 9:00pm

I’m Jewish, though not observant, and I have to say that the practice of giving non-Jews kippot (that’s the Hebrew term, in the plural; “yarmulke” is Yiddish) to wear when they are present at a Jewish religious service has always seemed bizarre and nonsensical to me.

The traditional premise of Jewish religious practice is that it was given to us through our ancestors at Mount Sinai. Be that as it may, it is just supposed to be our practice and not anybody else’s. The kippah is a peculiar case in that it has no basis in Jewish law but is purely a matter of custom. (Even if Jewish so-called law is just a codification of ethnic customs, still there is nothing in the Talmud to say that you have to put a beanie or anything else on your head.) The custom has no ritual significance: it is just a way of marking Jews as such. So why expect someone who is not Jewish to put on a piece of headgear the purpose of which is to indicate that the wearer is Jewish?

I suspect, though I don’t know this for a fact, that the only Jews who would expect a non-Jew to put on a kippah are Jews who do not themselves regularly wear one, such as Reform Jews. I think that non-Orthodox Jews, because they only don the kippah for religious rituals, treat it as if it were itself an appurtenance of the ritual—which is not what it was ever supposed to be.

To sum up: as far as this Jew is concerned, you’re doing the right thing to decline to don a yarmulke.

#2 Rick (Guest) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 at 9:34am

Now, how about removing your baseball cap when you enter a Catholic Church for a funeral?  Ok, you don’t wear a baseball cap to a funeral.  So how about wearing a yarmulke?  What if you are entering a Christian cathedral for sightseeing?  There’s a sign at the door that asks you to remove your hat, and to be quiet.  You don’t have to go in.  If you do go in, aren’t you agreeing to their terms?  If you wear your baseball cap, can you talk in a normal voice, instead of whispering?

#3 Kritikos on Tuesday December 15, 2009 at 11:19am

Rick, I think your comment presupposes a Christian model of religious observance. As I explained in my previous comment, Jewish practices, including the wearing of the kippah, are expressly for Jews only. It may be that, as a matter of fact, some Jews expect gentiles who attend their services to put on kippot (why, I don’t know); in that case, conformity is a simple matter of good manners, just as in the case of a non-believer removing his hat to enter into a church (as you say). But the fact is that they have, at least as far as I know, no basis within their own religion for expecting such a thing.

I must, however, correct some things that I wrote. I said that the practice of wearing the kippah is a custom and that there is nothing in the Talmud that says that Jews have to cover their heads. A trip to Wikipedia showed me that, while what I wrote was not incorrect, there is nonetheless a Talmudic basis for the practice:

>> The sources for wearing a kippah are found in the Talmud. In Shabbat 156b it states: “Cover your head in order that the fear of heaven may be upon you.” In Kiddushin 31a it states, “Rabbi Honah ben Joshua never walked 4 cubits (2 meters) with his head uncovered. He explained: ‘Because the Divine Presence is always over my head.”

As to the obligation of wearing a kippah, halakhic experts agree that it is a minhag (custom). The prevailing view among Rabbinical authorities is that this custom has taken on a kind of force of law (Shulkhan Arukh, Orach Chayim 2:6), because it is an act of Kiddush Hashem. <<

I was entirely wrong, however, in saying that the wearing of a kippah was not a ritual observance:

>> From a strictly Talmudic point of view, however, the only moment when a Jewish man is required to cover his head is during prayer (Mishneh Torah, Ahavah, Hilkhot Tefilah 5:5). <<

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