Emor: Would You Wear a Yarmulke in Public?

I read with interest this week’s Reform Movement “Ten Minutes of Torah,” entitled, “How to Decide About Wearing a Yarmulke.”  The article, written by Rabbi P. J. Schwartz, appears to refer to wearing a yarmulke in public.   

I grew up as a Reform Jew and, until my first day of rabbinical school, never wore a yarmulke except during religious services.  Since that day, though, I have worn one full-time.  So, I was interested to compare my reasons to those in the article.   

In concert with Reform Judaism’s fundamental principles, Rabbi Schwartz argues that the decision is a matter of individual choice.  He explains that the custom emerged “to show reverence for God” and as “a crucial reminder of the commandments to which we, as Jews, are bound.” 

In deciding, Rabbi Schwartz suggests that it is appropriate to ask ourselves: “Is wearing a yarmulke a custom that is meaningful to me? Does it remind me of God’s awe-fullness?”  “For some,” he notes further, “wearing a yarmulke does fulfill its original purpose.  For others, wearing a yarmulke may have the exact opposite effect – creating a barrier between an individual and God.”

I agree that wearing a yarmulke is a matter of individual choice, but I am troubled that all of the suggested questions are inward-looking. Shouldn’t our choices be guided, at least in part, and often determined, by how they will affect others?

Rabbi Schwartz references “the commandments to which we, as Jews, are bound.”  One of them, contained in this week’s Torah portion (Emor), is: “Neither shall you profane My holy name, but I will be hallowed among the children of Israel.” (Leviticus 22:32).

This commandment refers to our behavior, both bad and good, toward others, and how our behavior is perceived. The crucial question is whether we, who as Jews are presumed to have been taught Jewish laws and values, bring credit or discredit to G-d and Judaism through our behavior. 

And perceived not only, nor even primarily, by others Jews.  Discussing this verse, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin notes:

Despite the verse's emphasis on "being hallowed among the children of Israel," Kiddush Hashem has long been associated with sanctifying God's Name among non-Jews as well; thus, when a Jew acts among the Gentiles in a manner that reflects well on Judaism, Jews will say, “That was a real Kiddush Hashem.”  (A Code of Jewish Ethics: You Shall Be Holy, Bell Tower 2006, Vol 1., 457.)

I wear a yarmulke full-time to remind myself that I am obliged to try and conduct myself properly.  Of course, I also know that, by wearing a yarmulke in public, I am also conspicuously "inviting" others to judge all Jews and Judaism by my conduct.  It’s likely, though, that every Jew’s behavior affects others’ perception of Jews and Judaism, yarmulke or no yarmulke.  Hence the Yiddish phrase: “Schande vor de goyim.”  

It's vital that we all constantly strive to model our behavior as Kiddush Hashem, whether or not we wear a yarmulke in public.  Wearing it just may help us remember to do so.  Perhaps you might consider giving it a try.  

During the “Kidushah” (“Holiness”) section of the morning and afternoon prayer service (part of the Amidah), we sing “nekadesh et shimcha ba-olam.”  This means: “We shall sanctify Your Name in the world.”   Do we think about doing so once we leave the sanctuary? 

May we strive to fulfill our promise/obligation.  May we conduct ourselves in ways that do not profane G-d or Judaism, but rather that bring credit upon both, as well as upon ourselves, our parents, our children, our teachers, and our fellow Jews.

Shabbat shalom!

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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3