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The kipah of the religious Jew versus the head-covering of the utilitarianist philosopher

The Man in the Glass Case

The Man in the Glass Case

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You can learn more about a person from his unguarded moments than from watching him when he knows that he is the center of your attention. Similarly, we can learn more about a culture or a society from its off-hand customs than we can from its established philosophy.

I propose to call attention to a few off-hand customs in Western society and comment on them in a manner that is significant when one compares these with the Jewish attitude to the same things. If I am not mistaken, one can find a fundamental difference between the value systems of the Western World and that of the Torah way of life.

In Western society, removal of the hat is a sign of respect. One enters a home, a place of worship, or comes before the Queen bareheaded. The reverse is so with the Jew. Covering the head is a sign of respect. Thus it is forbidden to mention G-d's name with one's head uncovered. The Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) states that it is the mark of a pious man that he keeps his head covered at all times. In our day, the wearing of the kipah has become the sine qua non of the religious Jew. If you wish, it has become his uniform. This difference of practice is a symptom of a more deep-seated divergence in values.

The covering of the head is meant as a constant reminder that there is a power higher than human reason or understanding. Even though man's reason is what renders him pre-eminent among other creatures, the Torah nonetheless proclaims that this is not man's greatest or most valuable capacity and, Aristotle notwithstanding, man's reason is not what makes him divine. The highest power in man is the recognition of the Creator as a Being who utterly transcends reason -- whom we call G-d -- and before whom man is duty-bound to make his reason subservient and to humble himself.

This is the ultimate truth of man's situation in the world. It is not only a metaphysical truth, it is a moral one as well. It is a fallacy to suppose that the morality and well-being of man advances with the progress of science or the advancement of knowledge. This fallacy is a legacy from Plato who proclaimed that knowledge itself is virtue and thus the highest form of knowledge leads to the highest virtue. For Plato the highest form of knowledge was geometry and it would seem to follow that geometers are the most virtuous of men. The falsity of this requires no comment. Nor is this fallacy alleviated by replacing geometry with nuclear physics or even philosophy. In fact the word "virtue" has almost disappeared from the vocabulary of moral philosophy. One need only peruse publishers' advertisements of books on moral philosophy to see that the latest fashion in moral philosophy is to argue for the acceptance not only of abortion (which is already accepted tradition) but homosexuality, incest, infanticide and euthanasia.

If I were speaking to a philosophical audience I could not assume that they would be shocked by such advertisements and all that they imply. I would have to present an argument that could rationally demonstrate why adultery, sodomy and even incest are morally evil, and frankly, I know of no such argument. If your ethical consciousness is shocked by such an advertisement, the reason is that whether or not you keep Shabbat or don tefillin every day, you are still close enough to your heritage as a Jew to feel within your bones the moral repugnance of such acts, which controvert the Torah's definition of the sanctity of the Jewish People.

The general philosophical position that lies behind most moral thinking today goes under the rubric of "utilitarianism." Utilitarianism is unquestionably the most popular and forceful ethical theory today. It is so taken for granted that any attempt to challenge it is greeted with ridicule and scorn by most philosophers. In simple terms the theory says that what is morally good gives pleasure and moral evil is what causes pain or misery. This is what is really behind arguments that defend abortion, sodomy, incest, infanticide and euthanasia.

When Jeremy Bentham first propounded his theory of utilitarianism in the early part of the nineteenth century, he had no idea that his theory would be used to defend the kinds of acts mentioned above which he would have considered truly evil. Himself a British M.P., Bentham originally intended his theory as a guide to legislators in fashioning laws that should try to make everyone as happy as possible rather than catering to a select few. No doubt this is a worthy motivation, but it renders the reason of man subservient to desire.

Notice that utilitarianism so defines what is good as to exclude the possibility of there being such a thing as an evil pleasure or desire, for the good is stipulated to be whatever gives one pleasure, as long as one's pleasures do not cause pain and misery to others. Thus, according to utilitarianism, there is no such thing as pursuing a pleasure that is bad. The falsity of this position is attested to by anyone who has ever felt himself drawn to desires that he knows at the time are bad. Certainly I have experienced this and I would assume that many of you have, too. Sometimes we have the power to overcome them and sometimes we do not. Giving in to such desires creates disharmony and disturbance within ourselves and between ourselves and others. This in itself is a sign of evil -- the creation of disharmony.

At this point the Torah steps into the picture and bids that we humble not only our minds but also our power of desire before G-d, and this in turn brings an inner harmony into the life of the person. The oneness of G-d attests to the oneness of the world and also of man. The essence of man, the world and G-d is oneness and the cement of this unity is love. The contradiction to this is the ego of man and its desires, which man's reason struggles to control.

There is a story told in the Talmud that before the famous sage Rabbi Nachman was born, a fortune-teller told his mother that her unborn child would grow up to be a thief. The distraught woman went to the study hall to inquire of the Rabbis what she should do. They advised her that from the moment her child was born, she should be scrupulous to see that his head was constantly covered. So she did and her son became the Rabbi instead of a thief. One day, the story continues, Rabbi Nachman was walking in the street and the wind blew his headgear off his head. Immediately, he was seized by a desire to steal which persisted until he replaced it.

The power of the recognition of G-d and our subservience to Him can neutralize the instinctive desires that one might consider uncontrollable. This is the power that the kipah gives the Jew. The covering of the head is thus a fitting symbol that distinguishes the Jew in a society where acting on desire and pursuit of pleasure defines the meaning and value of life.

This story of Rabbi Nachman can instructively be compared with one about Jeremy Bentham, l'havdil, the founder of utilitarianism. Bentham endowed the University of London on the condition that his portly body be embalmed and hung in a glass case over the entrance to the University and there you can see it today. Bentham thought this would ensure eternal gratitude and respect. What it has earned him is derision, I think.

I recently heard a radio program in which the successor to the Ripley's Believe-It-Or-Not stories was asked which of all the weird and unbelievable stories he had collected from his travels over the world had he found the strangest and most unbelievable. He answered that there was some man (he didn't mention his name or that he was the founder of the most predominant school of moral philosophy today) in England who endowed the University of London on the condition that his embalmed body be placed over the entrance. This radio interview revealed an aspect of the story which I had not previously known. The benefactor's body had to be present at all board meetings and deference paid to it by a salute of some sort at the beginning of each meeting.

The radio announcer's comment was that the story is revolting, and indeed it is. However, it is not much more revolting than some of the things now being defended by philosophers on the basis of utilitarianism as an ethical theory -- things which Bentham in his day would have considered just as revolting. Nonetheless, there is a consistent line of development from a game of pushpin (a game mentioned by Bentham) being good because it is pleasurable and sodomy being good because it is pleasurable. In either case the "head is uncovered" -- the ego reigns supreme.

So it is a fitting memorial to this system of values that it is crowned with Bentham's portly body hovering over the heads of those who conduct the daily business of the pursuit of knowledge and understanding at one of England's most prestigious universities. All this acquisition of knowledge, when it is distilled into a way of life that is lived and defended by its practitioners, is far from what one would call a life of moral virtue or goodness.

How different from the image we have of the talmid chacham (Torah scholar) where wisdom and understanding is traditionally associated with humility. The ultimate exemplar is Moses our Teacher who, though the greatest mortal who ever lived ("There arose no prophet ever again in Israel like Moses whom G-d knew face to face"Deuteronomy 34:10), was also the humblest of men: "And the man Moses was very humble, more than any other man on the face of the earth" (Numbers 12:3). How are these contradictions merged into a harmony -- greatness on the one hand and humility on the other! The answer to this question is that a Jew covers his head.

There are two more customs I would like to note here. In the world of Western fashion, men button their garments left over right. The origin of this custom, I am told, was to make access to weapons easier. When you meet a stranger be on guard and have your weapon ready. To ensure that you bear no malice stretch forth your right hand and shake to show you conceal no weapon.

Jews have no fear of this. Our garments are traditionally buttoned right over left because we bear no weapons and when we meet we need not show that our hands are empty. Instead, we say: "Shalom" ("Peace!") The Kabbalah says that the right side of a person should always take precedence over the left, for the right side of man signifies kindness while the left signifies sternness, justice and retribution. Just as G-d created the world primarily out of love and kindness, so love and kindness should predominate in men's dealings with one another. Therefore one buttons the right over the left even though this may hamper the drawing of a weapon.

A third and final custom: in Western society, when men drink together and toast one another, they clink their glasses. This is a throwback to the time when men, suspicious of one another, would not drink unless they poured some from each glass into every other for fear of poisoning. Jews have no fear of this when they drink together. They simply say: "L'chaim" ("To life!")

There is a connection between all these practices. The pride and egoism of man is that which sets the hand of one man or nation against another. It is the root of violence and destruction. It is what brings divisiveness to the life of man and destruction to the world.

One needs no philosophical argument to show that this is bad. Deep down everyone knows that harmony and unity are good. The ultimate source of harmony and unity is G-d, whom we Jews were the first to proclaim as truly One, in number and in the sense that everything ultimately is one and unified with G-d. Man, the world and G-d compose a harmonious unity that transcends the external divisiveness of these three things. The goal of Torah is to reveal this hidden unity. This is the ultimate good and the cement of this unity is love: love of our fellow, love for the world and love of G-d.

This ideal is the end of a long and arduous journey, which began when G-d supplied all the Jewish people with one enormous kipah. As the Talmud relates, G-d picked up Mount Sinai and held it over their heads to compel them to receive His Torah. All the other nations excused themselves when it was offered them. It did not seem rational to accept a commitment before one knew what one was committing oneself to. Indeed, it is not rational, and yet this is what G-d demanded -- the surrender of one's will. He demanded that Jews cover their heads.

How our ancestors summoned up the ultimate trust in G-d required for this kind of commitment -- I do not know. But, we, standing more than thirty-three hundred years down the road from that great event, have it distilled into our bones by that many years of a history forged with sacrifice and faith. The struggle continues in modern terms with which we are all familiar and which each of us in our own way could document from our personal lives, whether we be university professors, businessmen or just plain Jews. For me, however, the essence of this struggle is captured by the now-familiar figure of the soldier at the Wall praying -- his head covered.

Excerpted from an article by Dr. Yitzchak Block; from To Touch the Divine: a Jewish Mysticism Primer (Kehot 1989)
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Discussion (5)
November 10, 2013
The explanation for the clinking of glasses as part of a toast, or that men's clothing is fastened left over right to facilitate the drawing of weapons, is very interesting as an extension of Jewish morality.

It can be argued that Jews, because of their centuries of persecution, have a greater need for left over right clothing than gentiles, since they have a greater need to defend themselves. Of course they abdicated that most basic of rights until the Warsaw ghetto uprising, when Jews learned anew that defending (their) life often meant taking (an enemy's) life. Is it moral to refuse to defend one's self, one's family, one's religion? Or similarly, if the reason for the custom of clinking a glass in a toast, a reminder that the drink is not poisoned, is completely lost, is there a reason why a Jew CANNOT clink in a toast?

Are Jews prohibited from a toast with a clink, or from wearing clothing which fastens from left over right, or from carrying a weapon for self-defense?
Menachem
Colorado
November 20, 2007
What a GREAT article!
You have spoken the truth so wisely.
~Ann
Richmond, VA
December 31, 2004
Comment to Jonathan
I believe Dr. Block pointed out in the article that there's no solid logical explanation for why homosexuality is immoral. But the Torah deems it as such nevertheless. The argument that people are born with certain tendencies doesn't change that. This is an obvious area where the Torah and Western Society head in opposite directions. As far as abortion and euthanasia, it can't be argued that since they're neccessary in certain cases, they are therefore moral in all cases. Dr. Block is very eloquent and to the point.
Anonymous
December 29, 2004
Morality
You see to eqaute abortion, homosexuality, and euthanasia with incest, infanticide, adultery, and sodomy. I disagree. I often wonder why so many consider homosexuality a moral sin... it is part of a person's emotional strcuture... As for abortion, that also depends on a point of view, but many is the time when aborting a baby is necessary to save the life of the mother. Euthanasia is usually used on animals who are dangerous to society, or people who have ended the life of others... Incest, infanticide, adultery, sodomy -- these are things which hurt innocent people.
Jonathan
Scarsdale, NY
December 29, 2004
Comment
Very enlightening article. among the bests ones I have read from Chabad
Manuel
Buenos Aires, Argentina