So I’ve been getting bugged for a while to follow up on my offer to blog about the hat. THE hat. That’s right... THAT one. Whatsit all about? Why wear one? Does it symbolize anything? Am I a bad jew for not wearing one?
Firstly, who wears hats? For the most part, the hat belongs to the orthodox. The ultraorthodox to be specific. the yeshiva boys and the fathers of said yeshiva boys. This alone should be enough to convince most that the hat is unnecessary and something that has been forced on the right wing for reasons that they cannot comprehend.
Halachically, the reason one might want to have a hat around is for tefillah. You should have a double covering on your head when praying and so, the hat is convenient in that aspect at least. Of course, a baseball cap or a lined velvet kippa is just as effective, but a borsalino works well too.
The reason though, if you were to ask a yeshiva guy or a yeshiva-specific rabbi, is because it is a dress code. To wear a hat is to state that you are in the service of HaShem, seemingly implying that if you don’t wear a hat, you are not. It helps one stand out as part of the right wing community of orthodox Jewry.
Why is a dress code necessary? To answer that, we go back to the late 50's and early 60's.
Christian America, particularly with its large percentage of protestant faithful, is a dangerous place for Judaism. In times of glaring hatred and anti-Semitism, the two religions would never see eye-to-eye and assimilation was low. Christianity today holds no such outstanding grudges and has even renounced certain theological differences with Judaism such as "replacement theology," wherein Christians replaced the Jews in G-D's plan for the world. In times of such acceptance, liberal Jews can have a hard time differentiating their religion from that of liberal Protestant Christianity with its weltanschauung of good living and hard work. They no longer view themselves as distinct from their neighbors and choose not to identify themselves as different either.
As this assimilation occurred, a counter-assimilation movement took shape in the underground of Jewish activity. As culture was lost in tandem with this loss of Jewish identity, small groups or individuals performed "reculturation" where outrageous exaggeration or even brand new concepts of Judaism were practiced. Small technicalities became central tenets of the religion and mystical or existential ideology became the outward face of that particular sect. What inevitably happened was the confusion of "standard" Judaism with these private practices, those not authenticated by the Rabbis, leading to a further befuddling of what is or isn’t Jewish.
More recently, Kabbalah has been dummied down for celebrities and those who wish to attain spirituality overnight, and has lost all its meaning and purpose in the process. This has not stopped it, however, from becoming a major part of visible Jewish culture which in turn drives another nail into the coffin lid of American Judaic culture.
To deal with this spreading of "false Judaism," the different major branches of Jewish pluralism adopted different methods. Conservatism, the traditional middle-of-the-road sect, has done little to address the change in public opinion of the last 40 years save for making its positions on matters of Jewish law more flexible than Orthodoxy without breaking recognizable continuity with traditional understandings. The Conservative movement has stayed in the middle without picking a side, hoping blindly that people will return to them, despite the obvious trends.
The Reform movement since the early 60's, has taken a much more open-minded approach, attempting to attract those who have strayed, by allowing all who identify with Judaism to fall under the Reform umbrella of Judaism. This opening of the floodgates has done its own damage to Jewish culture by being non-discriminatory in what it envelopes. As privatized forms of Judaism are accepted, the definition of Judaism is forever in fluctuation. By accepting all believers as Jewish, the Reform movement has destroyed the old standards of belief and custom and has watered down the culture of Judaism by accepting all.
If the Reform movement has been accused of being too accepting, then the exact opposite can be said of the right-wing ultraOrthodox. In every instance where the Reform have chosen to be open-minded the RWUOrthodox have drawn their borders tighter, becoming more and more severe in their control over their schools, summer camps and other organizations. Where once there was moderate leniency, there is now absolutism in what is and is not acceptable according to Jewish law. In direct contrast to the consequences of the Reform’s actions, the raising of the RWUOrthodoxy’s ramparts around their culture has done its own harm, keeping out those who once would have belonged. The severity of RWUOrthodoxy, as a result of its insecurity in these modern times, has alienated many former believers and has even created hurt feelings and class "wars" in Jewish communities.
In the years since the beginning of this war RWUorthodoxy has transformed. Where once there was a legitimate branch of Judaism, the staunch rightness of the group has turned it into a paranoid bunch of old men with beards, frightened of the future, and so, returning to the past. Once there was open-mindedness about issues of gender, the workplace and individual minhagim. Now we face daily publications of chumras that have no basis in halacha. Instead of facing the modern world head-on, with faith in Gd as our backbone, we have decided to turn tail and flee, using strict adherence to halacha and the torah as an excuse. We have decided to lock ourselves in the bait medrash and abstractly study non-applicable gemaras while we remain ignorant of basic Nach and halacha. If we do not ask questions, we don’t need to come up with answers. Its unimportant if we only keep the Torah, but ignore the Avoda and Gemilas ChaSodim aspects of our religion. After all, heaven is just one big Beit Midrash so you’d better enjoy learning. Ahavas HaShem? Whats that? I have some Yiras HaShem though if thats what you meant.
The black fedora is an embodiment of this concept. No one is quite sure why they wear it or if it has any halachic basis. Why a fedora came to represent RWUorthodoxy is anyones guess. They do know, however,as they were taught, that if you do NOT wear it, you are not a good jew and will probably go to hell. It transcends being a part of the dress code. It is actually fully symbolic of everything RWUO has been doing for the last fifty or so years.
So why do I wear one? Makes my dad happy :)