I was recently leading a small group as we studied different halachic approaches to the kippa, yarmulke or skull cap, which is often assumed to be obligatory for observant men. (In the last decades, it’s also been adapted by some women.) It might be the single most visible mark of an orthodox Jew.
The funny thing is, you can’t find a specific mitzva, commandment, which mandates it. Two of the greatest contemporary halachic authorities, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, zt”l and Rav Ovadia Yosef, shlita, both wrote significant tshuvot, responsas, about it and as they each review extensive previous material, beginning with the Gemara and moving forward through generations of halachic writing, the strongest classification for wearing one is as a midda chassidut, generally defined as going beyond the letter of the law and the absolutely required.
Our sages, very careful to preserve the kedusha, sanctity of the Torah, are very specific with the words they choose. Another frequent word used to describe something that is preferred, but still optional, is reshut, and this is the word used to describe the status of something as seemingly foundational as the Aravit, evening prayer! They reject that word and, instead, all use the phrase of midda chassidut (technically, they say it’s in the class of middot chassidut (plural)).
I propose that we take them seriously and literally in this case. Midda Chassidut really means a quality or personality trait of one whose primary orientation is Chesed, pro-active love. Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo, in a brilliant and moving essay, contemplates removing his kippa because if it’s always sitting on our heads it’s so easy to take it for granted. He concludes, for a variety of reasons (and I recommend you read his essay) that he will keep wearing it, but with forward-looking mindlfulness that he is continuously deciding to wear it. I’d like to propose taking this a step forward, that every time we put our kippa on, and every time we remind ourselves that it’s on our heads, we dedicate ourselves to behave with Chesed, to engage everyone we meet with pro-active love. If we’re going to make a public fashion statement that we are proud observant Jews, we need to, at the same time, model the behavior our Torah and tradition teaches.