Men's Head Covering in Synagogue: Reform Judaism's Views

Changing ideas about whether men should wear a kippah (skullcap) during prayer reflect development and maturation of American Reform attitudes toward tradition.

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What Price Custom?

From all of this, Lauterbach concluded that the custom of praying with covered head "is merely a matter of social propriety and decorum"' since in our own culture it is considered "good manners" to remove the hat as a sign of respect, there can be no objection to praying bareheaded. He writes: "Although in the last century the question of 'hat on or hat off' was the subject of heated disputes…we should know better now and be more tolerant and more liberal towards one another. We should realize that this matter is but a detail of custom and should not be made the issue between Orthodox and Reform. It is a detail that is not worth fighting about. It should not separate Jew from Jew."

One may quibble over Lauterbach's interpretation of a number of his sources. Some of them do not say precisely what he tells us that they say, and this tends to weaken his argument somewhat. His central point is certainly correct: Jewish law makes no absolute requirement that one cover the head to pray, to study Torah, or to participate in other religious acts. On the other hand, his conclusion -- that covering the head "is merely a custom, a minhag"; "merely a matter of social propriety" -- hardly reflects what is at stake in this issue, for surely he was aware that there is no such thing as "mere" custom in Judaism.

Much of Jewish ritual practice is based upon custom rather than upon Toraitic commandment or rabbinic decree, yet the tradition does not regard it as unimportant or irrelevant for that. As the old Ashkenazic saying puts it, "the custom of our ancestors is Torah." Jews have always related to their customs with intensity and seriousness. Fierce debates in Jewish religious life are as likely to take place over matters of "mere" custom as they are over issues of Torah law and theological doctrine.

Hats and Reform Identity

This is no less true of Reform Judaism. Debates over this particular custom at times took center stage in a number of synagogues. This was because it was widely held that bareheaded worship was an essential sign of Reform identity; just as traditionalists asserted that one was not a "good Jew" if one prayed bareheaded, many liberal believed that one could not be a "good Reform Jew" and wear a hat or kippah during prayer. Lauterbach may be right in pleading that the kippah is "not worth fighting about," but the fact is that Reform Jews did fight about it, raucously, for many years. Many congregations went so far as to prohibit the wearing of headcovering during worship. Were the issue as marginal and unimportant as Lauterbach described it, such rules would never have been made.

Looking and Feeling Jewish

Nor does Lauterbach's argument speak to the religious concerns of many contemporary Reform Jews, who no longer find spiritual meaning in worship conducted in accordance with a certain notion of decorum and solemnity, that is, a style that conforms to Western standards of propriety and "good manners." This is not to say that these Reform Jews are indifferent to "good manners" or that they have turned their backs on modern culture. It is rather that they are apt to discover a more profound sort of meaning in precisely the kind of traditional worship experience which previous generations rejected. These Jews have come full circle; they want a religious service that "looks" and "feels" Jewish, one that draws deeply upon traditional forms of worship and religious life. It is no surprise that the kippah has reemerged in the Reform synagogue. Though it may not be an absolute requirement of Jewish law, it can serve those who wear it as an unmistakable sign of the tradition with which they seek to identify.

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Rabbi Mark Washofsky

Rabbi Mark Washofsky, Ph.D., is associate professor of rabbinics at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio, and serves as chair of the Responsa Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.