Why a Kippah Reminds Me that Rationality Should Not Be Our Only Imago Dei By Ivy Helman


Neil Gilman in his book Sacred Fragments writes, “Since our faculty of reason is G-d-given, since it is the quality that distinguishes us from the rest of creation, and since all human beings share that same innate faculty, what better way to establish the veracity of a religious tradition than by demonstrating its inherent rationality?”  To be fair, Gilman is not the only and definitely not the first to support this position.  Many theologians, especially those influenced by various Greek philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, have said the same thing.  In the Roman Catholic tradition, Thomas Aquinas is adamant that rationality is humanity’s imago dei, how we are made in the image of God – what the beginning of Bereshit (Genesis) suggests.  Descartes argues, “I think therefore I am.

Patriarchy emphasizes rationality as divinely given over and above other attributes that humans share with non-human life – like instinct, growth and maturity, life and death, memory, caring, empathy, dependence, interconnectedness, relationality, and communication (in all its forms, not just speech).  As a feminist, I believe these should all be equally valued because they connect humanity with plants, animals and the environment itself.  As a Jew, I believe that G-d created all of it, so all of these traits are divine gifts and should be valued equally.  In fact, if we follow another strain of Jewish thought already mentioned by me in a previous post, if our imago dei is our creativity, we share that as well with much of the animal and plant world.  As a feminist and a Jew, I do not support patriarchy’s privileged place for rationality over other divinely given traits and abilities because we are separating humanity from the world around us, from the world we CANNOT live without.

There are also many human beings whose capacity to reason is questionable at best, non-existent at worse.  They are no less human and made no less in the image of the divine as other human beings are if we are to share the premise that Adonai created us and the world around us.  Likewise, the theory that only humans are rational creatures has been debunked as of late as has the idea that humans are the only beings self-conscious of their own existence.  I recently read a study that argued that dogs understand to a certain extent that they are alive.  The idea that elephants and other animals mourn the loss of one of their own also shows that they too understand that there is existence and there is death – a big component of our self-consciousness.  Likewise, there are studies that demonstrate how trees communicate with other trees and gather information from the environment surrounding them.  All animal and plant life depend on complicated ecosystems for survival even though many species of animal and plant life can also alter their environments sometimes for their benefit and often to their own and others’ destruction.

Many humans do not want to see themselves as part of the world, at least not to the extent that they really are linked in the cycles of life and death as the rest of the earth and the universe is.  The world is interconnected, inter-meshed, tangled and often messy; nevertheless it is the place in which we live.  It is also an exciting, renewing and sustaining environment if we were all to give it more credit for what it is and how it was created by the Holy One to live, to sustain life and most importantly to flourish – to live well.

Another effect of patriarchy’s over-valuing of our rational capacity is the devaluation our bodies and other material things like plant and animal life that also inhabit the earth.  This has had detrimental effects: attempts to control the world rationally have destroyed many species and environments.  Humans, in our rational, heady selves, often become greedy, domineering, selfish, ignorant, materialistic and misogynistic because we value what is related to the mind over what is related to the body.  The patriarchal mind-body split of the Western philosophical tradition continues to thrive when we equate rationality with divinity over and above our other G-d-given characteristics.  We have bodies too because Adonai created them.  They are as much divinely given as our rational capacity.  Therefore, when we can move out of our heads and live more fully with our whole bodies – as embodied beings – life is better.  We can see our interconnections more, value the contributions of all life to the beauty and wonder of creation and understand that we, while significantly responsible for our use of the world around us, are only one part of an extremely complex, beautiful and self-sufficient world.

Society is not there yet however and there is a lot of pressure from patriarchy to continue this over-valuation of rationality.  I have been thinking of ways in my Jewish spiritual practice to keep the feminist concepts of embodiedness and connection on the forefront of my thoughts and actions.  With this in mind, I have begun to understand wearing a kippah, or yarmulke, in a different way.  I cover my head in the more traditional sense to remind me that my entire life involves my relationship with and service to G-d, yet the kippah for me as  feminist practice is also a daily reminder of the need to be an embodied creature in the presence of G-d’s creation as well.  I am a part of creation, not above it, not separate from it.  I hope that wearing a kippah reminds me of importance of right, just and loving behavior toward creation and dedicated service to G-d, the One who birthed the world into being, the Creator, Mother of all creation who is immanently present in creation as the Shekhinah.

At the same time, I also wear a kippah as a transgressive, subversive and queer feminist practice hoping to destabilize some of the very gendered Jewish practices.  Since I believe gender identity to be fluid and myself as transgender in many ways,  for me, it is important to wear not claiming the kippah as part of women’s clothing even though many other feminists do.  I would rather we, as a community, did more work around strict gender roles in family life, dress and religious practice.   (a topic for a subsequent post)

To conclude, as physical beings, I suggest we also need physical, material reminders of our position in creation and duty to it and to G-d.  When one is conscience of G-d’s role in creation and all the ways in which humans are part of that creation rather than separate or distinct from it, working at a soup kitchen, planting a tree or petting a cat has added significance.  We need to live more embodied lives because by doing so we will create a better world.  We will be more compassionate, just, loving and humane when we interact with the world around us as if we were always interacting with G-d as well.  As the prophet Micah says, “…what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d.”  The kippah is my feminist and subversive reminder to do just that.

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Categories: Activism, animals, Bible, Feminism, Feminist Theology, God-talk, Judaism, LGBTQ, Relationality, Social Justice

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5 replies

  1. Post a photo so we can see you wearing your kippah. Do you think that nuns who wear habits with headpieces and veils wear them for the same reason you wear your kippah? How about Muslim women who wear scarves? I’m wondering if head-covering isn’t sometimes protection from gods or men, or at least from gods and men who can’t stand the sight of a woman’s hair. What do you think?

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  2. How about protecting you from getting sunburn. As long as men aren’t dictating some stupid program to control women, cover them or control them, wear whatever you like. If women get stoned or ostracized for not doing something like wearing a veil or a scarf, it definitely isn’t feminist.

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  3. Why Do Jews Wear Kippot?
    Wearing a kippah is not a religious commandment. Rather it is a Jewish custom that over time has come to be associated with Jewish identity and showing respect for God. In Orthodox and Conservative circles covering one’s head is seen as a sign of yirat Shamayim, which means “reverence for God” in Hebrew. This concept comes from the Talmud, where wearing a head covering is associated with showing respect for God and for men of higher social status. Some scholars also cite the Middle Age custom of covering one’s head in the presence of royalty. Since God is the “King of Kings” it made sense to also cover one’s head during prayer or religious services, when one hopes to approach the Divine through worship.

    I looked this up because Barbara’s question caused me to ask why men wear a headcovering.

    I suspected I would find something to do with “bowing one’s head” in the presence of a God Almighty who is to be held in awe if not fear.

    I presume you are trying to deconstruct this meaning.

    At least for me a God who is to be feared and bowed down to is not my God. The Goddess I know is superior to me in that She is infinite and I am finite; however, as far as I can tell she does not want me to wear special clothing as a sign of submission or obedience: She wants me standing tall and proud and open to the joys and cries of the world, this for me is what it means to be in Her image.

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  4. I am never quite sure about what rationality means. I am sure that it is often used in a very limited sense, and that if someone says “Be rational” he (deliberate choice of pronoun) really means “Agree with me” but is trying to hide it.

    This view comes partly from my training as a mathematician. My work required me to argue logically, to derive conclusions from premises. But there is no possible logical way to choose the premises, they are chosen because they seem interesting or because they lead to results that I find beautiful.

    In the wider world, if so-called rational thinking leads to conclusions and actions that we don’t like, then we need to question what the hidden assumptions are.

    For instance, I once read an article where the author said that “reason alone would make a chicken farmer keep his chickens in battery cages”, using that as an argument against reason. My response was that the reality was that reason alone would make a chicken farmer, IF HIS MAIN AIM WAS TO MAXIMISE HIS PROFIT, would keep his chickens in battery cages. And that it is the assumptions that are hidden or taken for granted that need to be reconsidered.

    But sometimes I take a more general view of rationality. When I do, I look at it as an integrative factor, that brings together emotions, logical thinking, bodily sensations and many other aspects of life, certainly not as a way of privileging logic over emotion.

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    • Daniel – this is really, really helpful! The way you bring out the fact that reason and rationality do not exist ‘as such’ but are born of particular commitments that are unsaid but embedded. And I also like the way you offer a constructive understanding of rationality as well. Your mathematical mind has enlightened mine. Thank you!

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