B'Yachad

For the week ending 1 September 2018 / 21 Elul 5778

Wearing a Kippa in Business School

by Rabbi Ari Wasserman
ArtscrollLibrary

Question

Is there a heter to not wear a kippa in business school?

Following graduation, the students at the premier business schools — such as Harvard and Wharton — typically take jobs at the leading financial and consulting companies, the large venture capital firms and even start their own ventures. Many eventually go on to run the global mega companies and take senior roles in government and politics. And a large part of attending business school, especially a prestigious one, is the networking opportunities it affords.

Creating a strong professional network starting at school is often a key to success down the road. Many students choose schools based on where they will have the strongest peer, faculty, and alumni networking connections and opportunities. And they are right to do so. Indeed, 65 to 85 percent of jobs are found through networking.

Therefore, a number of Orthodox students want to know if they can remove their kippas while in business school, due to their concern that it could disadvantage them in networking with peers.

Halachic Background:

Early sources enumerate a number of reasons for men to wear a head covering. One major reason is that it expresses our subservience to the Almighty. Another is that it imbues us with fear of Heaven.

According to some halachic authorities, going bareheaded violates the Torah’s prohibition of “do not follow the traditions of the non-Jews.” This prohibition against following non-Jewish practices is often referred to as chukat hagoyim.

The Rishonim (early halachic authorities who lived between the 11th and 15th centuries) and Achronim (later halachic authorities who lived after the Shulchan Aruch was written, from the 16th century to the present) debate whether head-covering for men has always been an absolute obligation, or simply a praiseworthy and pious practice (midat chassidut).

Today we follow the unanimous view of the Achronim that wearing a head-covering at all times is definitely obligatory. However, this head-covering need not necessarily be a symbol of Jewish identity such as a kippa. In fact, it can be a hat, cap, turban or the like.

What about covering one’s head on the job? For many Jews in the workforce this can be a crucial issue. Under what circumstances would one be obligated to give up or lose a job for the sake of wearing a kippa? Some poskim forbid going bareheaded even for parnasa (livelihood), while others rule more leniently, permitting it under certain conditions.

Rav Moshe Feinstein discusses the question of whether one may go without a kippa when necessary for parnasa, in a number of responsa. In essence, Rav Moshe rules that, generally, going bareheaded is a violation of the Torah’s commandment against adopting non-Jewish practices. He writes, however, that this ruling applies only in circumstances where the basis for such a practice is related to the non-Jews’ religious beliefs. In the United States, a non-Jew generally goes bareheaded not as a matter of religious belief, but simply because of comfort, convenience and contemporary norms.

Therefore, Rav Moshe rules that one may rely on the lenient opinions which permit going bareheaded when there is a question of substantial loss. Note that he states substantial loss — not minor loss. This would mean that a job which is one’s primary source of income is one thing, but an opportunity to pick up a little extra on the side is quite another. If his business will not be seriously affected by a kippa, he would not have a heter to go bareheaded.

In addition, before deciding to remove the kippa, some soul- searching is in order. A hunch that it might hurt one’s job prospects is not sufficient grounds to remove the kippa. There must be much more solid evidence. If one knows for a fact he will not be hired — as was certainly true for kippa-wearing business school graduates in the 1950s — then he can rely on the more lenient rulings. But in today’s day-and-age, when religious Jews are a prominent presence in the business world, and the general norms for what’s considered acceptable business attire are much more lax, it is hard to make the argument that leniencies apply.

RESPONSE:

I see no heter for students in the business school to not wear a kippa for a number of reasons:

  • They are not being interviewed for jobs at this point; they are merely in business school, a two-year educational program.
  • The connection to suffering a financial loss down the road is too tenuous.
  • They are basing taking off their kippas on a “hunch” that they might be financially disadvantaged.
  • Numerous kippa-wearing students have graduated from top business schools and wearing a kippa was not a detriment to them in any way.

Postscript

An interesting, true story sheds further light:

Jeff, a second year student at Harvard Business School, told me that in his first year he did not wear a kippa, thinking the kippa would make him stick out and hurt his ability to network and integrate with his classmates.

However, not wearing the kippa actually caused him significant problems, the opposite of what he expected. He did not participate in any of the after-class social events at bars, non-kosher restaurants, comedy clubs and the like. His peers viewed him as arrogant and aloof, not understanding that his religious restrictions and beliefs were the reasons he did not join them.

For his second year, Jeff put his kippa back on, and things improved immediately and dramatically with his peers. They now understood the reason why he did not participate in certain social events with them, and they accepted him for who he was.

  • l’Iluy nishmas Yehudah ben Shmuel HaKohen Breslauer

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