Hats, precedents, presidents and moral obligations

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Joe Biden speaks about the coronavirus at the Hotel Du Pont in Wilmington, Del. Photo by Michael Brochstein/Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media via Getty Images via JTA.

By Rabbi Avi S. Olitzky

Special to WJW


Men have covered their heads in the Jewish community for millennia. However, the tradition of wearing a hat in addition to a yarmulke as a sign of formality and modesty has been preserved only in the Orthodox community, and generally only in the right-wing side of that community.

Legend has it that the end of this tradition came with the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy in 1961. This is particularly interesting because the common cry within the pulpit setting is to keep politics out of it.

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Presidents historically wore hats for their inauguration — Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman embraced the top hat tradition. President Eisenhower opted for the more casual homburg.

Shortly after Kennedy was elected (because Kennedy was known for being “modern” and going about hatless) there was a public push for him to return to the top hat tradition. This led to party divisions with Republicans in the Senate arguing that formal wear should be reserved for kings, not presidents.


Nevertheless, Kennedy opted for a black silk top hat. But he removed it shortly upon arrival and took the oath of office hatless.

For that reason, it is told, Rav Soloveitchik, a formative figure in the precursor to Modern Orthodoxy, ruled that the wearing of hats was no longer part of common dress and was no longer part of required modest attire.

Though President Joe Biden is Roman Catholic (like Kennedy), this year’s inauguration is unprecedented. We have a Capitol under siege and a District effectively on lockdown — Mayor Muriel Bowser is asking everyone to stay away. We have a larger military presence at the Capitol and in the District than we have in Afghanistan. We have an outgoing president who will be the first president in more than 150 years to ignore the ceremony symbolizing the peaceful transfer of power. And the cries are the same to keep politics out of the pulpit.

Indeed, wearing a mask would be a plausible precedent to set amid the pandemic. But the precedents to be set within the Jewish community, let alone the broader community, need not be about what we are wearing but about how we are acting. Further, the crises our country faces are beyond attire and pomp and circumstance.

Biden has committed to signing executive orders on Inauguration Day to address the pandemic, our country’s ailing economy, climate change and racial injustice.

His incoming chief of staff, Ron Klain, said Biden “will take action — not just to reverse the gravest damages of the Trump administration — but also to start moving our country forward.”

He’s right. We need to see these not as political issues or controversial conversations. We need to see these efforts as an attempt to rehabilitate the soul of our nation.

Granted, our country is divided. But if we can begin to understand these goals as categorical moral imperatives, then perhaps the precedent set by this year’s inauguration will be an annual rededication to recovery, harmony and rebuilding. And then maybe, one day, we can get back to worrying about hats.

Rabbi Avi S. Olitzky leads Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minn.

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