I am writing here in response to an article “The fight with my kippa” in the magazine section of the Jerusalem Post (11/16/ 18) in which Rabbi Nathan Cardozo speaks of his problem in wearing a kippa (though what I write will be understandable without reading the article). I have a different problem with the kippa than that of Rabbi Cardozo – but, before I explain my problem with the kippa, I want to discuss Rabbi Cardozo’s conception of Judaism and religion that is reflected in his article.
In speaking of his problems in wearing a kippa, Rabbi Cardozo conceives of the essence of Judaism and religion as a spiritual experience of the presence of God (presupposing faith in God) – “to be religious is to allow God entry into my thoughts, my deeds.” He also sees this as the purpose of Halacha (law) including the wearing of a kippa – “to teach us how to confront ourselves when standing in the presence of God.” Rabbi Cardozo’s problem then with the kippa is a problem regarding observance of law and ritual practice in general – “dullness of observance” in which his kippa “just sits there, a meaningless object, having little to do with my attempt to be religious.”
There are two things that are, in my eyes, glaringly absent from Rabbi Cardozo’s discussion. First, regarding the essence of Judaism and religion there is no mention of morality – and, his emphasis is upon faith, spiritual experience, law and ritual. Second, regarding Judaism there is no mention of Jewish peoplehood. Before I elaborate regarding these two things, I want to briefly present my own conception of Judaism.
Although I identify very much with my Orthodox background and lifestyle – I do not identify with an Orthodox conception of Judaism. The term Orthodox (correct belief) is a Latin term reflecting an influence of Christianity implying in relation to Judaism two things – that Judaism demands principles of belief that must be accepted and that the essence of Judaism is faith rather than deeds. In my view, the authentic nature of the Jewish tradition based upon the Bible and Talmud is orthoprax (correct deeds) if we are using Latin terms for some unknown reason – and, not only is there no binding dogma in the Bible or Talmud, but the emphasis is upon deeds rather than faith as the essence of religion. Most important, an Orthodox conception of Judaism leads to fragmentation and division among the Jewish people by delegitimizing those not bound by orthodox dogma and ideology as heretics and outside the fold. An orthoprax conception of Judaism allows for the bridging of gaps between Jews of differing philosophic outlooks and views as well as differing approaches to ritual practice in accordance with a Talmudic teaching “70 faces to Torah (Judaism)” implying a commitment to pluralism in which there is room for many different conceptions and interpretations of Torah (Judaism).
Regarding Rabbi Cardozo’s omission of morality in discussing the essence of religion, if I were to choose one verse that captures the spirit of the biblical conception of religion it would be the verse (Deuteronomy 6, 18) – “and you shall do that which is righteous and good in the eyes of the Lord.” Notice the orthoprax concern with doing and not believing – and doing in a moral rather than legal or ritual sense. Indeed, the previous verse speaks of observance of law and commandments (Deuteronomy 6, 17) – “you shall diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God.” The moral demand to live a life of righteousness and goodness is (as Rashi the great commentator of the 11th century understands) above and beyond a life of law and commandments. In addition, Abraham the spiritual father of the Jewish people is singled out in the Bible by God (Genesis 18, 19) as one who will “keep the way of the Lord to do righteousness and justice.” Again, the orthoprax emphasis here is upon doing in a moral sense of a life of righteousness as the essence of religion.
Regarding the Talmud, not only is there no binding dogma in the talmudic literature, but commandments of Torah as the foundation of Jewish law are, according to the talmudic tradition, commandments only in an orthoprax sense of doing and not doing (mitzvot aseh and lo ta’aseh) – and not of believing or not believing. Moreover, the two greatest talmudic teachers are Hillel and Rabbi Akiva, and when they formulate the essence of Judaism they speak not of faith, not of law or ritual practice, but of simple, moral decency. Hillel formulates the essence of Judaism as the moral teaching “what is hateful unto you do not do unto others”, and Rabbi Akiva cites as the essence of Judaism the biblical verse (Leviticus 19, 18) “love your neighbor as yourself”. I find it astounding that people do not notice how shocking the formulations of Hillel and Rabbi Akiva are – their formulations are not only orthoprax but completely secular and anti-theological in omitting God. Hillel does not even cite a verse from the Bible, and Rabbi Akiva cuts off the continuation of the verse that he cites “I am the Lord”.
Rabbi Cardozo in speaking of his problems with wearing a kippa, whether he is aware or not, has presented a religious conception that is orthodox in nature – assuming that the essence of religion is not deeds but a spiritual experience of the presence of God (presupposing faith in God). I ask – if a Jew believes in God and wears a kippa, or engages in other ritual practice, attaining very uplifting spiritual experiences of the presence of God, but such a person lives an immoral life, are we to consider such a person to be religious? Rabbi Yehuda in the Talmud (Baba Kamma 30a) makes a remarkable statement – “one who wants to be pious should observe the laws of damages”. Usually when people want to judge whether one is religious or pious, the focus is, like Rabbi Cardozo, upon faith, spiritual experience and ritual practice. Not so Rabbi Yehuda – and, he suggests that if we want to be truly religious and pious we need to observe laws of damages in refraining from causing harm to our fellow human being.
Regarding Rabbi Cardozo’s omission of Jewish peoplehood from his discussion, Judaism is a religion in a very different sense than Christianity. Christianity is a religion in an orthodox sense of a faith commitment – faith not just in God but in Jesus as the messiah. In principle, there can be no such thing as a secular Christian who does not believe in God and in Jesus as the messiah. Judaism, by contrast, is a religion in an orthoprax sense of a way of life of the Jewish people. There are Jews who define themselves as religious and those who define themselves as secular. What defines one as a Jew is not a faith commitment or a traditional Jewish life of law and ritual practice but (according to traditional Jewish law) being born of a Jewish mother or having converted. What unites Jews is not a faith commitment or a traditional Jewish life of law and ritual practice but belonging to a people with a shared history, common language of the Jewish people (Hebrew), a national homeland (Israel) and a shared culture and heritage. Thus, there are two elements of Judaism as a religion – Judaism as a way of life and Jewish peoplehood.
In Rabbi Cardozo’s article, there is one sentence and a question that stand out as, in my eyes, especially problematic – “And while our forefathers…may have been spiritual enough to gain inspiration from it (the kippa)…most of us no longer feel any such uplifting experience”. Rabbi Cardozo then asks – “How many among us can claim that a feeling of piety grows within us when we wear our kippa all the time?’’. I ask – who here is the “us” that Rabbi Cardozo is speaking of? Is Rabbi Cardozo only speaking to those Jews who are observant of a traditional lifestyle of law and ritual practice – and, who today represent a minority of the Jewish people?
There is an ancient Talmudic law that it is forbidden to divide the Jewish people into ideological factions, which is an expression of a fundamental religious idea of the Jewish tradition of the unity of the Jewish people – and, in my view, in our contemporary Jewish world we are in violation of this law in the division among the Jewish people into ideological movements and in the division between religious and secular. Rabbi Cardozo in his language and use of “us” assumes (and, I believe that this is without awareness) a monopoly on the part of Jews who believe in God, and are observant of law and ritual, upon spiritual and religious experience. He raises the issue that much observance of law and ritual is not truly an uplifting spiritual and religious experience. But, who then are capable of attaining uplifting spiritual and religious experiences? Implicit in Rabbi Cardozo’s article (again, I believe without awareness) is that only those Jews who believe in God, and are observant of a traditional lifestyle of law and ritual, are capable of attaining such spirituality and religiosity.
If we return to Hillel and Rabbi Akiva, the two greatest Talmudic teachers, two things stand out in their orthoprax formulations of the essence of Judaism as moral decency. First, a Jew who believes in God and is observant of a traditional lifestyle of law and ritual may live an immoral life and thus miss the essence of true spirituality and religiosity – and, conversely, a Jew who is an atheist and not observant of law and ritual, may fulfill the essence of true spirituality and religiosity in living a moral life. Second, in the conceptions of Hillel and Rabbi Akiva, true spirituality and religiosity is available to the entire Jewish people by virtue of living a life of moral decency. The orthoprax formulation of Hillel and Rabbi Akiva has a unifying rather than divisive character regarding the Jewish people. I want to suggest that Hillel and Rabbi Akiva were aware that it is only the commitment to live a moral life that can be a basis for uniting the Jewish people from a religious point of view beyond a common history and culture.
Faith in God is not an element that unites the Jewish people as there are and have been Jews who believe and those who do not believe, as well as differing conceptions of faith and God among those who do believe. Likewise, observance of law and ritual are not elements that unite the Jewish people as there are and have been those who are observant of law, and those who are not, and innumerable approaches and differences of opinion within the realm of Jewish law. What unites the Jewish people from secular to ultra-orthodox, beyond a common history and culture, from a religious point of view, and regarding which there will be no disagreement, is that Judaism requires a life of moral decency as reflected in the teachings of Hillel and Rabbi Akiva.
To me then, the biggest problem with the kippa today is not as Rabbi Cardozo argues that the wearing of a kippa may not always lead to an uplifting spiritual experience. Rather, in my view, the problem is that the wearing of a kippa in our contemporary Jewish world has become on a widespread basis a divisive element – so often serving as an external political sign (like a uniform) of belonging to the “religious” (good guys) faction as opposed to “secular” (bad guys) thus dividing the Jewish people in violation of ancient Talmudic law that it is forbidden to divide the Jewish people into ideological factions.