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The Imperfect Jew

There’s so much wrong with this letter to the Ethicist that I think I just need to make a list: I stopped patronizing a mail-order company when it began including editorial content about Jesus in its catalog, finding that inappropriate. … Read More

By / November 27, 2006

There’s so much wrong with this letter to the Ethicist that I think I just need to make a list:

I stopped patronizing a mail-order company when it began including editorial content about Jesus in its catalog, finding that inappropriate. I now plan to visit a camera store owned and staffed by Orthodox Jews. Although I am an observant Jew, I do not regularly wear a yarmulke, but I’m considering doing so in the hope of preferential treatment, maybe even a discount. Hypocritical? Ethical? –R.K., New York

1.) What does the mail-order catalog have to do with the camera store?  Does R.K. think that an individual person wearing a kippah is somehow equivalent to a company advertising its religious affiliation through its catalog?  Or does he see the silent-but-obvious religiosity of the Orthodox Jews as the same thing as the explicitly religious editorials in the catalog?  Either way, isn’t that totally backwards?  Americans always make a distinction between individual religious practice and corporate or institutionalized religion. 

2.) It is, of course, ridiculous to assume that wearing a kippah will get you preferential treatment.  As a rabbi friend said when he read this column, “It’s like an old Eddie Murphy Saturday Night Live sketch: ‘When Jews are alone, they give each other things!’”  

3.) Neither the writer nor Randy Cohen, the Ethicist himself, mention that kippot are basically optional for observant Jews.  Wearing one is a custom but not a mitzvah; it's not  specifically commanded by Jewish law. The writer must know this if he’s really observant.  But while Jews aren’t religiously bound to wear yarmulkes, wearing one does immediately show the outside world that you’re Jewish.  (Our Perfect Jew started with one in his column for just that reason).   To secular Jews, and to non-Jews in the know, a kippah says “I can’t hide my religious affiliation.”  This might explain why the letter writer thinks he can get a discount just by wearing one—because it shows he’s part of the club.  But that seems to be a particularly secular way of thinking, so why does he claim to be observant?

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