A Response to Those Who Would Ask Bareheaded Students to Wear Kippot
The Commentator’s most recent editorial, titled “How Bare Heads Are More Than Just Bare Heads, and Why It Matters for YU”, ends with a question: “Is kippah noncompliance an isolated issue, or is it indicative of something much more alarming about the state of Yeshiva University’s undergraduate community today?” Before we sound our communal alarm, however, we should take time to meditate on the state of kippah noncompliance in YU. Specifically, we should ask if it is beneficial for us to not only accept, but also appreciate the community of bare-headers within our larger YU community.
Regardless of their halakhic significance (or lack thereof), kippot have become symbolic of obedience to Orthodox Jewish norms. Students who do wear kippot on campus conform, either intentionally or unintentionally, to YU’s norm of what an Orthodox student should look like.
Our kippah-less community, though, subverts the narrative that all our students ascribe importance to YU’s Orthodox image. Some YU students, like the author, might therefore suggest that kippah-less students should don kippot. But the kippah-touting YU community cannot claim sovereignty over the ability of other students to express dissatisfaction with our school and its religious values. As with other mediums of free speech, such as this newspaper, kippah-wearing is an important venue of expression of opinion and can only serve to further discourse about the future of the YU community. When done in a respectful manner, no critique of our community’s values should be silenced for the sake of disingenuous conformity.
Whether kippah-wearing is culturally imposed on students, like the author suggests, or administratively enforced, our community would be overreaching into the personal religious values of bareheaded students. Kippah-less students may value their own religious self-expression more than they value homage to their university’s Orthodox values. But the author’s vision of YU is one of superficial obedience to Orthodox norms, which would do nothing to solve the ideological rifts that divide our community. If kippot symbolize Orthodoxy, then insincere kippah-wearing symbolizes insincere commitment to Orthodoxy. We should want our community’s image to be one of intellectual daring, passion and expressivity, not mindless Orthodox adherence.
To project an image of a daring, passionate and expressive student body, we should not only begrudgingly accept, but also celebrate the bareheaded students on campus. What else would be a more powerful reminder that we think about our Judaism critically and have the passion to crystallize our intellectual convictions into real-world actions? If all male YU undergraduates thought carefully about our own religious convictions, surely not all of us would conclude that we should continue to wear kippot. The presence of students on campus who do not wear kippot shows that we, as a community, think critically about our religious decisions, and a lack of bare heads would imply the opposite.
The author asks us to “think for a moment about any other Orthodox institution… Would it not seem highly unusual in any of these institutions to find a population of men or boys who do not cover their heads?” This syllogism seems, at first, airtight. All members of Orthodox institutions should cover their heads. YU is an Orthodox institution. Therefore, all members of YU should cover their heads.
But YU is not comparable to any other Orthodox institution. As an institution of higher learning, we should prize the freedom of intellectual inquiry and the diversity of opinions and actions that inevitably result from that. At high schools and summer camps, no one seriously engages in questions of religious identity and expression in the same way that some students do in YU. To represent our special status as the intellectual epicenter of Modern Orthodoxy, we should, unlike any other Orthodox institution, both tolerate and welcome our community of bare-headed bochrim. Their existence may be “alarming,” yes, but they alarm us only to the fact that every student on our campus is free to make his or her own religious decisions.
I do not want to paint a uniform picture of the bareheaded YU undergraduate community, and I acknowledge that many kippah-less students have not done the sort of intellectual inquiry that I describe. However, to the extent that those students have not rejected YU ideals, their lack of kippot should not be considered an offense to our institution’s Orthodox image. Kippot can only stand as a symbol of Orthodoxy for students who culturally associate the two with each other; to ask Orthodox students with different minhagim regarding kippot to conform to the community for conformity’s sake would be to deny their culture’s definition of Orthodoxy.
As for those students who willfully reject YU ideals — they shall remain one subculture of our alarmingly diverse community.
Photo Caption: "Kippot have become symbolic of obedience to Orthodox Jewish norms."
Photo Credit: CBS NY