Monday, February 6, 2012

Religious Clothing Encounters Ignorance

In Maryland, a teenager wearing a Jewish skullcap (called a yarmulke or kippah) was told by his principal to get proof that he’s Jewish and entitled to wear one or face suspension.

The young man, who was born in Israel, was offended.  So were his parents.  His mother had knitted the kippah for him.  The father said, “I feel singled out in a discriminatory manner. I honestly feel that because he was white and Jewish, he was singled out.”

Actually, the probable reason is ignorance.

The vast majority of Americans know something about their own religion and virtually nothing about anyone else’s.  Most are Christian, a belief that claims to be the only true faith.  That’s not an unusual boast: Islam says the same thing.  On the other hand, the vast majority of Americans are Christian.  Many have never met a Jew or a Muslim in person.

They couldn’t possible know that a kippah was developed in ancient times and has been the accepted norm in Jewish dress for more than two millennia.  In this case, that was clarified by a local rabbi, Rabbi Shlomo Buxbaum, who told the principal, “The kippah demonstrates a sense of pride in who we are and a modesty in humbling one’s self before God.” 

In fact, head coverings go back thousands of years with multiple purposes.  The psalmist wrote about having his head “covered in the day of battle.”  (Psalm 140:7) Jeremiah, who lived in the 6th century B.C.E., said plowmen “covered their heads in shame” when there was no rain (14:4) 

They probably are unaware that a kippah is also worn by the pope.  It's just given a different name:  zucchetto.

Religious teachings also buttress the Muslim niqab, the face veil worn by Islamic women.  The dictum comes from the Muslim holy book, the Koran, which essentially calls for women to be modest.  That has led to the widely accepted requirement that Muslim women are not permitted to show any bodily hair to men whom they are not related to.

Lack of understanding led to the French law banning such veils, also called a burqa.  President Nicolas Sarkozy got the French legislature to approve the law on the basis that it would “increase security and would liberate Muslim women from the oppression of their veil.”

The fact that many Muslim women may choose to wear such clothing had no bearing in that thinking.
In Western ideas, women should want to be unrestrained in their dress.  In Middle Eastern culture, however, that’s not true.  As one French Islamic woman noted:  “It is not up to the government to meddle in my private life and my beliefs.”

Good luck getting any officials to listen.  When any religion predominates, government early proscribes private decisions in the mistaken effort to create a homogenized society. In the U.S., that means it conforms to Christian ideals – whatever they are.  With so many Christian sects, no one actually agrees on anything.

So, zealous figures poke their noses into private bedrooms and any place else that defies their sense of probity.

They would might be less intrusive if they had some sort of religious education background.  Instead, zealots have forced public schools to shy away from teaching about religion.  That has been reserved for parochial schools that continue to isolate members from the realities of alternative faiths.

Even today, some Catholics refuse to enter a Protestant church for fear of some kind of contamination.  The reverse is probably true, too, considering the kind of heated rhetoric spewed about some politician’s religious views.  That was in plain view during the 2008 presidential campaign when the rival Obama and McCain camps attacked each  other over their respective choices of chaplain.

These days,  a debate rages over when Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, a Mormon, is really Christian.  Who cares?  Only people who somehow think his religious views will somehow dictate his actions.  Those are the same ones who decried John Kennedy’s Roman Catholic faith and insisted the pope would dictate to the president. 

A little religious education would go a long way to resolving that absurdity.

By the way, religious fanatics might consult their own book regarding head coverings.  According to the New Testament, “If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head.” (1 Corinthians 11:16)

Then, of course, they would have to stop harassing people of other faiths who are merely doing the same thing.

Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.

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