Sermon – On Wearing a Kippah

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 13 May 2011

I am not part of the settler movement.  Now, I appreciate that you probably didn’t think that I am. There aren’t that many reasons to think that I am that kind of a religious Zionist. In fact, that I can think of, there is only one – The type of Kippah that I wear.   My kippah of choice is, and has been for a long time, a knitted kippah.  Sometimes black, sometimes grey, occasionally white, sometimes bigger, sometimes smaller.  But knitted. I think it is quietly low key as a fashion statement. More importantly I like the way it grips the head – No need for clips, except on a really windy day at Cheshunt – which, is most days, but there you go.   But, if I were in Israel I may rethink. If I were in Israel this might be misinterpreted as a political statement.  A knitted kippah, or kippah sruga is associated with a particular subsection of Jewish and Israeli society.

If you wear one of these, or more likely, a knitted kippah with a pattern around the edge, it places you within a group: modern Orthodox – a graduate of B’nei Akiva – a religious Zionist – probably, though not always, identified with the settler movement.  Certainly if you are a settler, a kippah sruga is likely to be your kippah of choice.

Like any stereotype, this is slightly dodgy, but the strength of identification is strong – strong enough that an Israeli TV series about the lives of a group of religious Zionist young adults was called ‘Kippah Sruga.’

You can even find academic literature about the social and cultural function of the kippah sruga in these social groupings – the role of these kippot in the construction of gender roles in modern Orthodoxy.  One book on the anthropology of dress and gender has a whole chapter on the cultural role of the kippah sruga. The kippah sruga helps to make the modern orthodox world go round.  According to one academic: “A girl can show a young man her interest (in a socially acceptable way) by crocheting him a kippah. A young man can indicate his interest by asking a girl if she would make him a kippah.  It is an item of exchange in the courtship ritual.”

In part, that the kippa sruga has become the badge of the modern orthodox is as a counterpoint to another strongly held identification of a type of kippah with a group – that of Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities with black velvet kippot.  There are variations in the kind of hat it can be found under, but as we can see in our streets around Golders Green, Haredi men will usually have a black velvet kippah under their hats.  Rather bizarrely for me, a kippah like this one might be worn by a Haredi young man as rebellion. So, the colourful kippah sruga functions as an anti message against this blackness.

And there are other kippah brands too… Bratslav Hasidim, followers of Nachman of Bratslav, are identifiable by their full-head-sized, white crocheted kippah, sometimes with a pom-pom or tassel on top. Some of them, followers of the late Rabbi Yisrael Ber Odesser, and sometimes known as Na Nachs, wear a big white, but with the addition of a mantra crocheted around the edge.  This mantra, Na Nach Nachma Nachman Meuman, has become ubiquitous in Israel, and occasionally seen round here – there used to be a smart car with it on that drove around North West London.  The mantra comes from a letter that Odesser claimed was personally addressed to him by Rabbi Nachman, who had died in Ukraine 112 years earlier. The miraculous letter, which is known to followers as the “Letter from Heaven”, told him how to relieve the world of its suffering. The solution was the mantra “Na Nach Nachma Nachman Meuman” – and now how can you know a na nach?  From his kippah.

Another type of kippah originally associated with a specific group is the Bukhari kippah.  The Bukharan Jews lived mainly what is now Uzbekistan and Tajikistan but emigrated, mainly, to Israel and the US, bringing with them a distinctive kippah design – one which is now found predominantly among school children in progressive Jewish schools and chedarim in the diaspora.  Again, this actually functions as a statement of identity – not being like the others – more cosmopolitan, more open, more ethnic, more colourful.

So a kippah, it turns out, is not merely a kippah. A choice of kippah can also function as a political statement – It says something about who we are, who we identify with – and who we don’t.  And, of course, wearing a kippah at all, especially all the time, has exactly the same function – most jews today do not wear kippah all the time – only approximately 20% of Israel’s male population do.  So wearing kippah all the time says – we are not like them – and the choice of kippah says – we are not like them, them or them.

Now this should not be a surprise to us – because fundamentally it is what kippah has always done.  Those of us who studied together in the shiur this morning discovered that the kippah has no strong religious origin. Head covering is not, as many might think, a long established part of Jewish practice, but relatively recent in Jewish terms – a sign of respect in Babylonian culture adopted by some Babylonian rabbinic authorities in the Talmudic period through extension to respect for God.  Until probably the seventeenth century, wearing kippah, even for prayer, was not universally accepted.

That it became the dominant practice was largely as a statement of identity.  To wear kippah in the late middle ages was to not be part of Christian culture where the hat is removed as a sign of respect.  To wear kippah from the eighteenth century on was to not be part of the reforming movements which questioned the need for kippah, and removed the requirement on head covering in their services.

I have no problem with statements of identity.  But we might want to ask what these statements of identity mean.  It does feel slightly tragic that the wearing of kippah – supposedly a sign of respect – has become loaded with disrespect, so much like a brand statement, like wearing a football shirt.  It is not a surprise that a divided community should find extra ways to show it’s divisions, but it is extraordinarily sad.

There is something wonderful looking out from this Bimah to see the diversity of kippot – velvat and knitted, Bukhari, suede – pink, green, white, even grey.  A recognition that each of us comes as who we are – not representing our politics – as individuals coming together with respect for a shared tradition.

When we put on kippah, it would do us well to remember the midrashic explanation of the word yarmulke – that it comes from the expression Yirei malka – respect for the sovereign – a reminder of the real priorities in our lives, not a sign of division or politics.

And I will continue to wear my kippah.  Sometimes black, sometimes grey.  I do so not as a statement of ‘who I am not’, as me – who I am with my values and priorities, knowing in whose presence I stand.  And I will continue to wear my kippah sruga – not as a political statement, but because it is less likely to blow off on a windy day.