Thursday, February 4, 2016

A kippah, a tallit - external symbols that defy stereotypes - articlefor Temple Beth-El Las Cruces Adelante Newsletter for February 2016

Rony Brauman, a former president of Doctors Without Borders responded to the January 11, 2016 stabbing of a Jewish resident of Marseille, France by claiming that wearing a kippah is now “an affirmation of loyalty to the State of Israel” and “a sign of a kind of allegiance to the policies of the state of Israel.” This was evident, Brauman said, because the boy who committed the attack saw the man wearing a kippah, and identified that aspect of his appearance as a reason to stab his victim.
This is not be the first time that a Jewish religious item has had its meaning reinterpreted by an outside group. In the 1970s and 1980s, as part of a program of oppression against Soviet Jews, the tallit was labeled as a piece of “Zionist propaganda.”
A kippah. A tallit.
Both items, both expressions of our faith, have now been identified as more than religious symbols.
We do know that the Israeli flag, originally the flag of the Zionist movement, used the tallit, with its white background and stripes that were often blue, as a pattern and an inspiration. Still, the tallit is, in itself, a biblically-based item worn during worship.
And well we know that wearing the kippah was, at first, a custom that was followed in some, but not all, communities. It likely took on greater significance when Jews in Europe sought to distinguish their practice from religious groups around them that did not require a head covering for prayer. The kippah/yarmulke became a sign of respect for God as men (and, more recently, women) adopted the practice of wearing it throughout the Jewish world.
When I was growing up, I wore a kippah (and tallit) only when I attended Orthodox and Conservative synagogues. My home congregation, which could have been characterized in the mid-20th century as “Classical Reform,” took its time in warming to the practice of anyone present wearing a kippah and tallit. University of Illinois Hillel changed that for me, as participation in worship there led me to fre- quently wear a kippah and, eventually, to bring my father’s tallit to college with me. The first time I wore a kippah (and tallit) in my home Temple was when I was serving as a rabbinic intern in 1978, and even, then, only on Shabbat morning.
One classic photo of religious leaders marching with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. portrays Rabbi Abraham Josh- ua Heschel wearing a hat (with a kippah underneath), and Reform movement leader Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath carrying a Torah (but not wearing a kippah). Both rabbis represented their heritage in their own way. What they shared in common was their commitment to social justice that led them to join a civil rights march in order to put into practice the message of the prophets of Jewish tradition.
The basis of wearing a kippah today is related to one’s personal approach to recognizing God’s presence, whether at all times or in association with specific activities. I wear a kippah when I pray and when I study, but not usually when I shop or go to secular community events. Other Jews make choices for themselves, and there are Reform Jews I know who regularly wear a kippah in public.
Connecting the kippah solely to the state of Israel, thus making a person wearing a kippah any place in the world a target for a politically-motivated attack, says more about a perpetrator’s penchant for generalization and stereotyping than about the views of a person who could become a victim. People wearing kippot in Israel (yes, men AND women) represent a wide range of views about Israeli politics; the potential for peace; engaging in ongoing dialogue among Jews, Christians and Muslims; and challenging the government’s policies, whether from the left, center, or right.
In fact, there are victims of attacks in Israel (who were wearing head coverings) who have been engaged in creating positive ties with members of neighboring Arab communities. It is unfortunate that such efforts towards a measure of cooperation get lost in a world where appearances mean more than the essence of a person and his/her perspectives and the respectful attitudes that could emerge from his or her faith.
So may we always remember to look beneath the surface, extending our hand in love and understanding when possible, but realizing that it is we alone who have the ultimate right to define what a kippah – or any external symbol – means to each of us. 

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