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January 21, 2016 10:30 am

Bernard-Henri Lévy: The Metaphysics of the Yarmulke

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Prince Charles celebrating the induction of the UK's new chief rabbi, on September 1, 2013. Photo: Screenshot.

Britain’s Prince Charles wearing a yarmulke. Photo: Screenshot.

What a strange debate has been going on in France.

A cacaphony, really — about the yarmulke!

There are the good doctors, notably Rony Brauman, founder of Doctors Without Borders, who perceive in the yarmulke a sign of “allegiance” to the policy of diabolized Israel.

There are the cynics who, as in 2012 when Marine Le Pen wanted to scoop up in the nets of a single law the fanatics of the veil and the partisans of the yarmulke, have jumped in to insinuate that the yarmulke is an “ostentatious” symbol, no different from a chador or niqab.

There is the very embarrassing moment when all of France was riveted by a quarrel as old as Jewish life itself, as old as the rabbis of Lithuania, Galicia, and elsewhere who constantly had to arbitrate between the relatively recent commandment to cover the head and the much older imperative (as old as Noah) to uncover and thus spare one’s own head whenever the pogromists pulled out their knives.

There has been the agitation, for the most part well-intentioned and accompanied by some noble gestures (the president deeming it “intolerable” that French citizens should have to conceal themselves; the prime minister vowing to protect, all across France, citizens targeted by Islamic extremism; a group of supporters responding to the appeal of France’s chief rabbi; a writer who, upon exposure to the ignorance of the henchmen of the new barbarism, flourishes his Levinas and his yarmulke on television) — an entire psychodrama about a piece of cloth promoted to the rank of transitional object or symbol of a republic grown tired of itself (the yarmulke is France; we are all Jews wearing yarmulkes; the flurry of virtuous hashtags that disappeared from the Web as fast as they had appeared; and even skullcaps done up in the colors of the Olympique de Marseille football team or in the image of Batman).

And we obviously cannot forget (because this is what triggered the current debate) that there are the copycats of the gang of barbarians, the emulators of Mohamed Merah (who killed children at a Jewish school in Toulouse in March 2012) and of the men who carried out the killings at the kosher market in Paris last January, for whom wearing a yarmulke, a real one, is now as good as a license to kill.

I cannot help wondering about the likely reaction to all this uproar of some of the prominent wearers of the yarmulke — including Benny Lévy, André Neher, Léon Ashkenazi and others of my acquaintance — were they still living. But I will have to content myself with recalling a few truths of history and thought.

For example, that for those who wear it (and I am not one of them) the yarmulke is not a sign of submission but one of separation.

That the yarmulke separates the body of the wearer from the sky that he cannot reach and from the earth that he continues to inhabit only by dint of infinite precautions.

That the wearing of the yarmulke — because it is the sign of that separation and of that boundary, because it is one of the expressions of that interruption without rupture, of that delimitation of the self, that is at the center of the spirit of Judaism; because it says, in essence, that the world is not an amorphous mass in which the things of this earth, the names of the Most High, and the self who contemplates them coexist in lazy unity — is not a sacred act but, in the true sense, a holy one.

That especially holy is the affiliation of those who attach great significance to the yarmulke not with the places of this earth but with the long, long stretch of the centuries from which they draw inspiration and strength; not with the space explored ad nauseam by our tireless webcams and about which there is less and less to say; but with time, that other time inhabited by those still capable of musing on Pascal’s theory of the two infinities, on Proust’s heady discovery of a form of time and duration that is man’s true home, or (and this amounts to the same thing!) on a page of the Talmud where we wonder, as in times immemorial, why Rabbi Akiva refers to two drops of milk falling on a piece of meat while Rabbi Eliezer says three.

And finally I want to emphasize that all of this constitutes a singular adventure proper to each of us, an odyssey of the spirit as well as of the body, a quest about which the agents of the modern execution of time no longer have the faintest idea.

Let those who choose to wear the yarmulke live in peace.

Yes, their civil rights should be protected. Yes, their friends should defend them. But mostly we should leave them in peace to experience, as they have learned to do over the slow course of the centuries, their interaction with the worlds of matter and spirit.

We are dealing with a bit of fabric, a particle that I am tempted to interpret in two senses of the word, the material and the historico-linguistic, the one meaning a small part, a minuscule part, scarcely visible; the other, the nobiliary particle, signifying distinction and nobility.

In this latter sense, the secret of that particle, its unique contribution to the beautification of a world that Baudelaire believed was already falling into the splenetic indifferentiation of a humanity deprived of the Other, the intensity of what that particle adds to the economy of being and of nations — these are things far too precious to be thrown to the wolves of an Opinion that conflates everything.

Can we not allow those who wear it, those who have chosen to walk the free path of life in the light shadow of a yarmulke, to build — peacefully and patiently through time — their piece of the coming world?

Bernard-Henri Lévy is one of France’s most famed philosophers, a journalist, and a bestselling writer. He is considered a founder of the New Philosophy movement and is a leading thinker on religious issues, genocide, and international affairs. His 2013 book, Les Aventures de la vérité—Peinture et philosophie: un récit, explores the historical interplay of philosophy and art. His new play, “Hotel Europe,” which premiered in Sarajevo on June 27, 2014, and in Paris on September 9, is a cry of alarm about the crisis facing the European project and the dream behind it.

This article was translated from the French by Steven B. Kennedy.

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  • Why do the popes wear a yarmulke?

  • tby

    I read somewhere that an Israeli company will tailor “hair yarmulkes” to match each wearer’s hair, so that the yarmulke is effectively invisible. If this doesn’t convey the true (and pitiful) state of the yarmulke (vs. the keffiyeh), I don’t know what does.

    As for Brauman’s turning the yarmulke into a political symbol, does he not recall that it is his own camp who insists that any conflating of “Zionist” and “Jew” is supposed to be a cynical ploy? (“Anti-Zionism is NOT anti-Semitism!!”) Is the fig leaf at least now dropped?

  • I am left wondering what does not fit into this picture.
    Is it the absence of appropriate punctuation?
    The infinitely superior excellence of the author’s philosophical thought?
    Poor translation (as in not translating the punctuation together with the text?)
    The need to elevate the thought obscure enough, so the it be considered brilliant?

    Or perhaps I am plain dumb – a distinct possibility.
    How about you?

  • Robert Davis

    Art : It is about 50 years antisémites do not know what lies to tell that could be efficient to destroy Israel the worse of all being the “diplomatic” rant to stop the war. Israeli “leaders” have still not been able to oppose this LIE since diplomacy is, precisely what does not and will never stop the war. Fortunately apart from that oslo trash accepted by the Israeli communists and the gaza imbecile departure as well as sinai, nothing else has been given up otherwise Israel would have 10 moslem armies at its doors now.However the 2.5 millions jordanians antisemites call “palestinians” are a scourge worse than 10 moslem armies…

  • Glenda Urmacher

    After 6 decades of the world”s B S, Israel should understand that if they continue to believe the world powers, they are doomed.
    No land for peace, because the arabs will never consider peace, when they are supported and encouraged to war.
    If all the funding to the arabs disappeared and the arabs had to work to support themselves or starve, peace would come of its own volition.
    It would be that or die.

  • ART

    I remember after Desert storm and the Madrid Conference we were told that since Israel “behaved” anti semitism would cease and boycotts end. I remember after Oslo since Israel “behaved” anti semitism would cease and boycotts end. After the withdrawal from Southern Lebanon since Israel “behaved” anti semitism would cease and boycotts end and hizzbouleh would lose its raison d’etre. After the evacuation from Gaza since Israel “behaved” anti semitism would cease and boycotts end and hamas would lose its raison d’etre.

    • hulda

      Sure agree with you ,
      Art. One could add that after Napoleon asked the jews to quid polygamie they would be french citizens with all rights and duties.Today many french people express their antisemitism complaining that they are in all key positions. Centuries only change the modus not the jealusy.

      • mike

        hulda: If Napoleon asked Jews to abandon polygamy , he was misinformed. The Jews of France in his era, had already abandoned the option of polygamy by the 13th century.

        • shloime

          correction to your correction: herem derabbeinu gershon, prohibiting polygamy, was written just before 1000 ce. (and declared for a set period of 1,000 years, it expired before 2000.)