As Jews, we put our hearts, souls, and minds into the rituals and customs our tradition values. It’s important that we know the origins of these traditions, how they evolved over time, and what they look like today. Only then can we make informed choices about what meaning, if any, they have for us today.
One such custom, wearing a yarmulke (kippah), is not mandated by Jewish law, but rather is a widespread custom that, for some, is practiced in the same way as traditions that are dictated by Jewish law. The Talmud includes references to wearing a head covering and there are discussions that allude to the notion that wearing a kippah extends upon the reasons Jews are commanded to wear a tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries). Each item serves as a crucial reminder of the commandments to which we, as Jews, are bound.
However, as Jews increasingly integrated themselves into the modern world, practices such as wearing a kippah regularly became taboo. Even as the desire to maintain a Jewish identity remained important, Jews did not want to do anything that would draw attention to themselves. This was particularly true among classical Reform Jews in Germany (and later in America) in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Praying in the vernacular and working on Saturdays are other examples of Jewish integration during this period.
Nonetheless, wearing a kippah is not an obligation – nor is it prohibited in classical Reform (or other) congregations; it is a choice made by individuals and the custom to wear or not wear one varies from community to community. Unlike when donning a tallit, however, we do not recite a blessing when putting on a kippah. There is no traditional blessing that praises God for the opportunity to draw closer to the Eternal through the ritual of wearing a kippah.
Just as many of us choose to wear various symbols – a chai, a hamsa, or a Star of David – as an identity marker, an affirmation of our identity as Jews, the yarmulke serves a similar purpose. Because it emerged as a custom to show reverence for God, it is reasonable to ask: “Is wearing a yarmulke a custom that is meaningful to me? Does it remind me of God’s awe-fullness?” For some, 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.
In Reform Judaism, we understand this concept of participating in traditions and rituals that are meaningful to us and by-passing on others as “informed choice.” Wearing a yarmulke is one example of how informed choice can guide our Jewish identity and bring meaning to our lives. Other aspects of informed choice in Reform tradition focus on such things as kashrut (laws and customs around food), Shabbat and worship practices, and even our understanding of God and Torah. These choices are personal, which is one of the beautiful aspects of Reform Judaism – it offers each of us an endless variety of ways to connect with Judaism, and challenges each of us to find meaning in our individual practices.
Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam (Praise to You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe) who enables us to celebrate our autonomy, embrace our history, and journey together, making meaningful choices that enhance our own Jewish identity and shape our tradition today.