It's funny. Everyone, I mean everyone, regardless of how old or young, ignorant or culturally savvy, recognize the kippah as a religious ornament. It means something: something to do with God. Even if a child has never seen a Jewish person before, he or she recognizes it as something more than just peculiar. There is something about it that is absolutely holy.
I tease them. When they ask, I say, "It's for talking to God," then turn it upside down so that it is bowl shaped, sitting on top of my head. "See? Satellite dish!" They laugh. It's important that they laugh. Something holy doesn't always have to be something serious, or untouchable, or intimately private.
Some days I show up at work, or around town not wearing my kippah. People around me seem to walk uncomfortably, as if the rotation of the earth just shifted slightly and they have to re-assess their sense of balance and order. They don't ask. They avoid looking toward the top of my scalp, though I see them check from time to time, to make sure that they really saw it not there. I think they're afraid that if they ask, they're going to get sucked into this divorce-style diatribe on how I've suddenly abandoned my faith in God. Then, they see me wearing it again... and stumble the other direction. It's as if my faith is something that I put on and take off, like a hat: that wearing a kippah makes me religious, and not wearing it makes me not religious (or, at least, not the same kind of religious). It's a justification, I suppose, if wearing the kippah makes me holy, then not wearing it makes me not as holy.
I explained to my friend, "The kippah represents God's holiness. It's a reminder that God loves me and has lovingly covered me with His blessing. Some days I need that reminder more than others. Some days, when the day is particularly busy or hectic, I just don't have time for it. And sometimes, when the day is particularly stressful or burdensome, I need it even more."
For many people, Judaic rituals, such as the kippah and tzitziot (the little strings that hang out from the waist of our pants), are cultural identifiers of religiosity: badges of holiness. We must wear them so that other people will see how religious we are. Or, by wearing them, we think ourselves more religious. It's as though dressing in a certain way, or going through a certain process, is what makes us closer to God. We don't have to think about it. We just do it, and vwa-lah! We're supernaturally connected with God!
That's what's called "rote obedience": doing something without thinking about it because that is what makes us who we are.
But, Judaic ritual is really exactly the opposite. It is not something that we do just for the sake of doing it. They are acts that force us to slow down, to consider the process, to make normal mundane acts such as getting dressed in the morning something that involves reaching toward the holiness of God. Wearing a precarious little hat that has no natural compunction to stay on your head is never rote practice. It requires constant awareness, even as I'm going about my daily activities, reminding me that I dedicated this day to God, and constantly, I must be prepared to readjust.
I think we do a lot of things by rote. Often our prayers and daily Bible readings, even attending fellowship meetings or giving to the poor, is an act of rote practice: doing it without thinking, just because it is what we do and who we are. I think there's room in our lives for that. Sometimes it's necessary, just to get through.
But, I think there is also a lot of room in our lives for ritual: doing things for the sake of relationship, forcing ourselves to slow down for the inclusion of God in our daily things.