A Token Kippah

You can tell a lot about a person from the kippah they wear.  There is the 4-panel suede kippah.  It’s fairly inexpensive and comes in a wide variety of colors, so it’s commonly given out at a Bar or Bat Mitzvah celebration and used by institutions that put their name and logo on it.  There’s the black velvet kippah worn mostly by the ultra-Orthodox.  There’s the black satin-like kippah (white on the High Holidays), given out by synagogues and funeral homes to people who probably didn’t bring their own to a religious service.  I like to wear a kippah s’ruga, a crocheted kippah made with thin yarn and small stiches.  The kippah s’ruga is worn by modern religious Jews.  In Israel, it’s worn by religious Zionists who are proud to be Israelis, are interested in being religiously observant, and want to engage in politics, academics, science, technology or business.

While in Israel last week, I stopped to buy a new kippah at one of the shops on Ben Yehudah in Jerusalem.  The store has every color and design of kippah imaginable.  There are kippot with personal names, names of sports teams, colleges, television shows, cities and more.  I was looking through piles and piles of kippot for just the right color and shape when another customer entered the store and began looking for a kippah.  “Yesh l’cha kippah asimon?” he inquired.  He was asking the vendor if he had a “kippah asimon,” an especially small kippah about the size of a silver dollar pancake, perhaps two or three inches in diameter, barely bigger than the clip needed to hold it in place.  The kippah gets its name- asimon- from the Hebrew word for token (before everyone had a cell phone, Israelis had to put “asimonim,” tokens, in pay phones because the cost of a making a call fluctuated so frequently and the price of an asimon could be changed more easily than recalibrating the phone to take more coins).  The man next to me chose a dark green kippah asimon, paid his 20 shekels and left.

The kippah asimon doesn’t meet the minimum size requirement according to Jewish law for a kippah (one quarter of the circumference must be as long as the span of three knuckles on the upper part of your hand).   So why would someone wear something so small?  It turns out that the kippah asimon is a message kippah, an item worn to send a message about being both religious and a Zionist.  Someone who wears a kippah asimon is saying that they reject some of the principles espoused by religious Zionists in Israel today.  They’re just about ready to distance themselves from that segment of Israeli society, found among many religious Zionists, that embraces religious values but also includes a particular view of Zionism.  They want to wear a kippah, in keeping with religious values and practice, but they want to send a message that they are not aligned with some of the positions and actions taken by religious Zionists, so they wear a kippah asimon.

Being a Zionist means actively supporting the right of the Jewish people to live in the Land of Israel in safety and security.  Zionism, especially when nested in Jewish religious values, also means espousing compassion and justice, not only for Jews but for all humanity.  Yet some of the statements and positions of some religious Zionists reveal a different view of Zionism, one that is unyielding in its nearly exclusive emphasis on the rights and needs of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel.  When I was in Jerusalem last week, one event that made headlines was a protest against the Kerry peace initiative held at the Western Wall and attended by numerous people who identify as religious Zionists, including Knesset members.  It’s one thing to have reservations about some of the proposals and ideas in Secretary of State Kerry’s framework for a peace deal.  But it’s something else altogether to portray Zionism as unconcerned with the dignity, rights and future of an entire people.  The heads of certain Yeshivot, who spend their days teaching Torah to their students, simultaneously hold views that do not take into account any moral concerns about occupying another people.  I wonder about religious leaders who love the people of Israel and the land of Israel but whose Zionist views limit that love exclusively to Jews.  If religious leaders won’t stand up for justice, who will?

I am a proud Zionist who loves the land of Israel and the State of Israel.  I recognize that Israel faces some genuine threats from those who wish to undermine or destroy her, and I am concerned.  The BDS movement and initiatives to delegitimize Israel are gaining momentum.  Anti-Israel campaigns on college campuses are getting stronger and more popular.  There is no doubt that Israel must be cautious in the current negotiations.  But the occupation of the Palestinians who live in the West Bank is itself a threat to the future stability of the State of Israel, and every government of the State of Israel for the past 20 years has said as much.  Shouldn’t it be that religious leaders say so as well, not only because it serves our needs but because it is right?  If they don’t, it may be time to switch to a different kippah.

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Planting the Seeds of Jewish Identity

Shortly into the story of Abraham, we encounter Judaism’s great patriarch as a military hero.  A war broke out when an alliance of four kings invaded the lands of five kings, and in the skirmish took as prisoner Lot, the nephew of Abraham.  When Abraham hears that his nephew has been taken prisoner, he marshals his troops and attacks at night, defeating the four kings, winning Lot’s release and, in the process, seizing the invaders’ possessions and taking additional prisoners.  Abraham returns home and delivers all that he had taken to the five kings.  The king of Sodom says to him, “Give me the prisoners and take the possessions for yourself.”  But Abraham refuses, saying that he doesn’t want to give the wrong impression that he grew wealthy because of the generosity of Sodom’s king rather than the beneficence of God.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, my mentor and teacher, understood the King of Sodom’s offer to Abraham as being similar to the unspoken offer made to America’s Jews: “Ten li ha-nefesh, v’har’chush kach lach…give me the souls and take the material goods for yourself.”  Jews came to this country accompanied not only by Jewish tradition and strong memories, but also with ambition, with the yearning to fit in, and with the desire for success measured not only in contentment but also in material wealth.  America offered Jews a bargain- give up your soul, your identity, your passionate commitment to a particular way of life, in exchange for acceptance and for the opportunity to live the American way of life.  To a great degree, we accepted the bargain.  We changed our names, and sometimes our appearances, gave up the ways of life that made us distinct and sometimes required us to be different from everyone else.

The Pew Research Center’s recently published survey of the state of American Jews is quite disturbing, revealing a population that is shrinking and less connected to organized religion.  One in five Jews considers themselves to have no religion at all.  Perhaps the most alarming results for our own movement are the statistics that show a continued decline in affiliation and identification with Conservative Judaism.  The study gives us much to ponder and analyze, and leaves questions for us to answer.  What might explain the drop in engagement with Judaism?  What are the factors that have led to disaffiliation from organized religion?  Could it be that we have accepted America’s bargain?  Perhaps the most important question is, what exactly is it that inspires and sustains engagement with Judaism and nurtures a strong Jewish identity?

A few chapters after the story about Abraham’s rescue of Lot, we read about the Covenant of Circumcision.  God requires Abraham, and all his male descendants, to bear a permanent, physical symbol of belonging to the covenant.  Abraham was circumcised at the age of 99, but future males who enter the covenant with God were to be circumcised at the age of eight days.  Clearly, the Torah promotes the idea that Jewish identity must be ingrained into a child beginning in infancy.  Conversion to Judaism has always been possible, but children are not supposed to have a choice in identity development.  An argument can be made that the best way to nurture any values system is to teach and model values starting at the beginning of life.  That does not mean that a person cannot begin to embrace a Jewish way of life past childhood.  But there is at least some wisdom in the Proverbs, where we read: “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he gets older he will not depart from it.”

Yet beginning to develop identity and commitment to particular values even in childhood does not guarantee a lifetime of engagement with Judaism.  The seeds of Jewish identity may be planted in childhood but don’t always germinate or take root.  So the question of what promotes ongoing engagement with Judaism, and what factors encourage and sustain a strong Jewish identity, and a lifestyle that reflects an embrace of that identity, remains front and center.  Certainly, education and Jewish experiences in childhood, including experiences in the Land of Israel, must be considered as crucial to identity development.

The American Jewish community is facing a strong challenge.  Our response to that challenge must begin with dialogue and the exchange of ideas, and I invite your comments.