By Rabbi Alexandra Wright
Following A machete attack by a Muslim teenager on a Jewish teacher in the city of Marseille last week, the president of the religious community warned its members not to wear a kippah in public. “Not wearing the kippah can save lives and nothing is more important,” said Zvi Ammar.
However, France’s Chief Rabbi has taken the opposite view, telling Jews they should continue to wear their kippot in public to form a ‘united front’.
Furthermore, some French MPs took it upon themselves to wear a kippah to the National Assembly, arguing that removing kippot would be to send a “dangerous message that we are surrendering to terrorism.”
The wearing of a kippah is not a moral issue but an issue of ritual and personal observance. In biblical and rabbinic times – up to the Middle Ages – Jews worshipped bare-headed until Babylonian Jews probably borrowed from their Persian neighbours the custom of covering one’s head.
The practice soon spread and by the 13th century it was usual in Germany and other parts of Europe to do just that – although there was still regular discussion about the matter and Reform Judaism took up the question again in the 19th century.
However, in a democratic society, when one’s own personal freedom and choices are threatened, the issue has become a moral one. Are we giving in to the goals of terrorists when we curb outward expressions of our own religious identity? Indeed, should we need to invoke the principle of pikkuach nefesh – the saving of human life – over the question of whether to wear a kippah in public?
Or should we continue to wear the badges of our Jewish identity with pride and defiance without giving in to the threats and attacks of terrorists?
It is a difficult question. For those individuals for whom covering the head is an important expression of who they are as Jews, removing one’s kippah is the first step of retreat from being part of a free French society and represents a defeatist attitude.
Yet Jews in France feel intensely vulnerable and Ammar’s counsel is a response to that vulnerability and fear. We cannot ignore it.
Even if we remove our kippot as we walk down the street, we must continue to find other ways in which to express our Jewish identity with pride – through our values, our pursuit of dialogue, outreach and peaceful relations.
We can be proud of our Jewish identity whether we choose to wear a kippah or not.
To paraphrase a verse from the Hebrew Bible, it is not our outward appearance that is important to God but our moral intentions, our conduct towards others and what is in our heart.
Alexandra Wright is senior rabbi at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue