Why I Wear a Covering by Rabbi Daniel Chorny
If you picture a typical Shabbat morning—pre-COVID19— you notice the role that putting on a kippah plays in entering the synagogue building. You may absently feel about your pockets, search your tallit bag, or rummage through your glove compartment in search of your favorite head covering. You may exhale with relief when you encounter the ever present, ever growing basket of yarmulkes at the synagogue entrance, or blush when the gabbai offers you a kippah while inviting you to open the ark or take an aliyah. When we enter a synagogue, we understand that wearing a head covering is just something we do because in those spaces, that is what Jews do. It is a part of the uniform; proper attire where what matters above all else is one’s membership in the Jewish People. Have you ever considered why we take kippah-wearing in synagogue so seriously? How about Jews who wear a kippah all the time? Why do they wear it?
There are many answers to these question that can largely be divided into two broad categories which I will summarize as (1) “I wear it for G-d” and (2) “I wear it for other people”.
The second of these categories describes how the placement of a cloth circle on the top of one’s head signals to others something about one’s identity, beliefs, and practices. On its most superficial level, kippot (plural of “kippah”) express that a person is somehow attached to the Jewish People, with variations of material, color, weave and pattern adding more texture to what that attachment means. A knit kippah indicates a conservative-Conservative to liberal-Orthodox—mostly Zionist—kind of Jew, so black velvet kippah wearing types will not push too hard about practice and theology or speak Yiddish to them, while non-kippah wearing Jews can be weary of entering certain conversations about religion and truth, and remain at the same time comfortable talking about progressive politics and social action. This in turn reinforces the hierarchical view of these groups, no matter how much the “lady doth protest” that we Jews are all one family.
Under this paradigm, Judaism is an identity that always passes in the majority culture as long as individual Jews exercise their privilege in choosing to pass. In the synagogue, where Jewish identity is (or ought to be) primary over national, racial or class association, one must choose wearing a kippah in order to claim the privileges of that space and shed the burdens of fitting within the hierarchy of the world at large. To wear a kippah out in the streets, in contrast, is an active denial of the physical homogeneity that Jews enjoy with the dominant populations of the lands where we dwell (putting aside the unique challenges of Jews of color, who never can pass in the white-dominant culture of American, but may pass among black Gentiles). A Nazi or Al-Shabab member might say to their grandchildren: “a Jew looks much like you or me, but will wear a funny hat on his head”. And so, so many Jewish legal opinions have been written to understand the degree to which a Jew ought to put a literal target on their head in order to remain visibly Jewish and distinct in times of oppression and danger.
The first category, which I called “I do it for G-d” takes a completely religious outlook. Notice that I didn't say “because the Torah says so” or “because it’s a mitzvah”. Neither of these formulations, though believed by many, are based in Jewish legal fact, but in mythical and mystical thinking. There is no halakhic requirement to cover one’s head, but the pious do so to always be mindful of their Parent in Heaven, and to instill the humility of being a limited creature always in the presence of an All-Powerful-Creator. There is something positive about wearing a kippah, like wearing sunscreen, cleansing breaths, and mindfulness, which some people use and practice everywhere and at all the times, while others designate specific places and moments to reap their benefits (like the beach or the gym).
Illustrating this point, the most direct conversation in the Talmud about head covering concerns a sage whose mother had been given the prediction that he would grow up to be a thief if he ever had his head uncovered. Indeed, later in his life, when the hood of his coat slipped off, uncovering his eyes, he became seized by the uncontrollable urge to steal dates off a tree belonging to someone else (Shabbat 156b). Kippah offers a reminder that the world actually belongs to something greater than ourselves, and that we should behave in a way that honors “the True Sovereign” to the exclusion of earthy monarchs and other powerful elites. In this view, self-identification is not a choice, but an outgrowth of aligning one’s priorities with what one perceives to be G-d’s transcendent will. For this sage, the benefits of head covering warranted perpetual use, like drinking enough water or taking aspirin for cardiovascular health. For others, the rewards for kippah wearing are needed less often.
A little piece of fabric can mean so much…
It should not come to us as a surprise, therefore, that there is so much controversy and disagreement about the wearing of face masks in response to the COVID-19 epidemic. In reality, a person’s position on whether or not to wear one can also be distilled into two parallel motivations.
Like kippah-wearing Jewish individuals, the choice to wear a mask—and what material it’s made of, and how it’s decorated and how one wears it—speaks volumes to one’s identity and concern for other people. The delivery person who came to my house wearing their mask as a chinstrap communicates without a single word that they would not wear it if they had the choice. They wear it incorrectly in their daily lives because there are only some settings where someone will ask them to wear it properly, even offering them a fresh mask at the entrance. Only in certain places, like supermarkets and restaurants, will such a person get the message that the mask is part of the human uniform, a required garment for participating in society. The problem is that when there are space where we are explicit about social norm to wear a mask, there is the implication that mask-wearing is not as important, even optional, in every other place. They wear their masks to garner cachet with other people, and only if they feel they cannot pass unless they wear them.
There is nothing morally wrong with this approach. It is only the natural response to subtle incentives that the current framework and social contract set up. Like the importance of calling out racism, even though it is uncomfortable, to end the incentives that perpetuate the behaviors that maintain the current system, we also must counter the subtle motivations to not wear masks by kindly reminding people, even when it is uncomfortable, that mask-wearing at all times and places is a prerequisite.
At the same time, we must continue to extol the benefits of masking as not only valuable, but vitally necessary for a healthful life. Sure, there are settings where the risk is actually lower—just as there are settings where people do not anticipate the need to have their head covered to recite blessings or engage in prayer or Torah study—but there is a real and distinct freedom that a person who is always prepared enjoys in any of the high-risk settings and the unexpected moments in between. Having a constant reminder that reality is bigger than our subjective experiences better primes us to avoid harmful behaviors like face touching, and to engage with healthy ones like proper hand washing and social distancing. We must communicate and really believe that masking is not just pro-social behavior, but that it makes us better people for doing it.
Please, strive to be a Jewish human who always wears their mask properly in public, not just in synagogue, the store, or the bar. Actively thank people for wearing their masks properly, and kindly remind those who do not, that they should. Do it for G-d. Do it for others. Do it for yourself.