Right to Be Jewish on Your Own Terms


Last month I wrote a post about my decision (actually, a decision made by both Ryan and me) to return pork and other forms of treyf (unpermitted foods)ย to our diets. Though most Reform Jews don’t follow kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws, anyway, and though we’d never gone fully kosher, those weren’t our reasons for making the change. We realized kashrut was starting to distance us from other important people in our lives, and came to the conclusion that a practice that built a wall between us and other people did not make us feel particularly closer to God.

A few days ago, ย a commenter from Belgium, Bart-Jehoeda, asked this question (read the whole comment here):

“…do you think it is appropriate to eat pork while wearing a kippah? The yarmulke is a very visible form for Jews to exclude themselves from non-Jews. Our rabbi considers it as bringing shame to the Jewish people if you violate a mitzvah while wearing a kippah. I can only agree with him.”

The great thing about Judaism is that, besides that fact that every Jew has at least one opinion about everything, no single Jew–or single Jewish movement–gets to define what constitutes a “good” Jew, or “good” Jewish behavior. I respect Bart-Jehoeda’s take on things. I told him I’d respond in a blog post–so here’s my take on things…

Bart-Jehoeda, just comparing the reasons for my decision to eat pork again with your comment, it’s obvious we’re approaching the idea differently. I reject the idea that God wants Jews to wall themselves off from non-Jews. I also reject the idea that I am responsible for the opinions or feelings of other people. I believe have a right to live my Jewish life as I see fit, no matter what other people, Jewish or not, think about me or my Jewishness. I don’t believe anyone has a right to expect anyone else to abide by their personal comfort zone just to make them feel better.

We do have something in common, though. Both of our rabbis would probably prefer that I not wear a kippah and eat treyf in public. My rabbi’s practice is to remove his kippah (if he’s wearing one outside of synagogue, which is rare) if he’s eating something or doing something non-halachic (i.e. against Jewish law.) He feels wearing a kippah at those moments might signal to Jews of more traditional backgrounds that what he’s doing–or eating–is kosher, and lead them into situations that might challenge their own, more stringent, religious beliefs.

I think thinking like that just adds strength to the incredibly wrong but common assumption that traditional forms of Judaism are somehow better, more authentic, or more “correct” than liberal forms of Judasim. As a Reform Jew, I could not care less about leading, for example, an Orthodox Jew astray. Because we are all responsible for our own actions, and because I see no reason why I should lead my life in accordance with a Jewish movement of which I am not a part.

Those are my main reasons for disagreeing, but I have two more that I don’t want to leave out. First, I hold to the Jewish school of thought that believes following a mitzvah (a commandment) has worth in and of itself that cannot be canceled, and that it is better to follow some mitzvot than none at all. Observance grows and changes, and since half of the commandments cannot be performed in the (2,000-year-long) absence of the Second Temple, no one is capable of being perfectly observant, anyway. So I see nothing wrong with eating pork and wearing a kippah. In fact, since it’s my minhag (practice) to wear my kippah at all times, to my mind removing it would remove evidence of a Jew in the world, and that’s a chillul Hashem (a shame on the name of God) for which I don’t want to be responsible.

I don’t know your brand of Judaism, Bart-Jehoeda, but it’s worth noting that I adopted the beliefs about following mitzvot I shared above from the teachings/writings of Conservative and Orthodox rabbis, and that my practice of wearing a full-time kippah is highly unusual in Reform Judaism. So just because someone is a liberal Jew doesn’t mean they don’t find worth–sometimes great worth–in traditional practices and teachings.

Second, and finally, and not to kick the legs out of this whole discussion, but there’s one important thing that’s been left out so far. Wearing a kippah is not a mitzvah. There’s simply no commandment concerning Jewish head covering. It’s a longstanding traditional practice that in Orthodox Judaism has achieved the force of common law (for men, at least.) But when you get right down to it, you neither fulfill a commandment by wearing a kippah nor break a commandment by not wearing one. So in terms of observance, when wearing a kippah while eating pork, it’s likely the only important thing to God is the pork (if it’s important to God at all), not the kippah.

I think God cares that I go through the world as an unhidden Jew. But I don’t think God cares that I had a ham and cheese sandwich at my desk for lunch today while wearing a kippah. Does that make sense?

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What do you think?