I suppose it’s not surprising that I’m still reflecting on memories and experiences left over from a 12-day visit to Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan. In my role as a shepherd of sorts, one of my jobs was to keep an eye on the agenda so we could make sure everyone knew how they needed to dress each day.
If we planned to visit sites considered to be particularly sacred to either Catholics, Jews, or Muslims, both men and women had to wear something that covered their shoulders and legs, below the knee. We didn’t have any men so gauche as to be wearing tank tops, so for them it was just a matter of wearing long pants on those days — a time when zip-off pants legs came in handy. Several of the women purchased scarves or shawls they could use for wraps, or wore light skirts over their shorts.
It strikes me as a bit strange that anyone should think that the God who created shoulders and knees should be offended by the sight of them.
In synagogues or other places sacred to Jews, such as the Western Wall, men also had to cover their heads in some fashion. Disposable yamulkes (or kippahs, as they are also known) were available for Gentiles, though regular hats were also permitted. A few of our guys bought their own yamulkes and pinned them on, which made for an interesting sight.
It’s interesting, I observed, that while Jews believe men should show respect for God by covering at least part of the head, Christians believe we show respect by removing our hats when we enter a church, or when we pray (with the exception of clergy who get to wear the big pointy hats in Catholic and Anglican traditions).
My philosophy for wearing headgear is entirely utilitarian: I wear it when needed for protection from the sun, rain, or cold — or on formal occasions at school when we’re required to put on our academic zoot suits and funny velvet hats.
The Bible says very little about head coverings. In the Old Testament, those who were pledged as Nazirites were not to cut their hair until their vow was completed, at which time they were to shave their head. Ultra-Orthodox Jews grow long curly locks in front of their ears in slavish obedience to Lev. 19:27, which says “you shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard.”
And, there’s Paul’s odd (and culturally conditioned) theological view that men should pray with their heads uncovered, since they were created in the image of God, while women should pray with veiled heads, because their creation is a reflection of man (1 Cor. 11:1-16). Oy.
It’s interesting that many fundamentalist interpreters are all gung-ho for the part about men having authority over women, but they blithely throw out the part about women needing to keep their heads veiled.
Where, at the end of the day, does this leave us? What’s respectful in one tradition is disrespectful in another. Does God really care what’s on our heads?
I think it’s appropriate to respect others’ traditions: if I’m asked to wear a hat at the Western Wall or long pants in the Church of the Nativity, I will — but I do it to respect the people for whom such practicies are important.
I really don’t think God gives a rip whether our head, shoulders, or knees are covered when we come to a place of prayer. Respect for God is not a matter of what’s on our heads, but what’s in our hearts.