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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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