I have visited a lot of churches and Christian holy sites since I started wearing a kippah full-time. I have been to churches in Canada, in Ohio, in Jerusalem, in Rome. I've been to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and I have been to the Vatican, all while wearing my usual kippah.
Christian customs are different than Jewish customs. If you walk into a charedi synagogue, you'll see lots of men wearing hats, yet if you walk into a church you remove your hat as a sign of respect. I'm a hat guy — I almost always wear a hat outside. When I walk into a church, I take my hat off as a sign of respect. But I do not remove my kippah.
Lauri and I were taking one of our weekly walking tours of Jerusalem from the "Jerusalem: A Walk Through Time" book. You can tell we are well into the Byzantine era as we visiting the Christian sites. Mary's Tomb, in the Kidron Valley between the Mount of Olives and the Temple Mount, is where some Christians believe Mary was buried. Others believe she bodily left this world and went to heaven. The Wikipedia entry on Mary's Tomb relates some of the different schools of thought.
As we arrived at the bottom of the steps leading into the tomb, past the chapels for Joseph (Mary's husband) and Queen Melisende someone who had the appearance of a local and seemed to be some kind of official, but not a cleric, asked me to take off my kippah. I expressed surprise, and refused. He asked me to leave. So I left.
There are a couple of questions I would like to explore. 1) Is it appropriate that they asked me to remove my kippah? 2) Did I do the right thing?
To the first question, it clearly is a custom that men remove hats in churches. On the other hand, all Catholic clergy are entitled to wear the "zuchetto," which is like kippah, although customarily only bishops and above do so. I wonder, would he have asked the Pope to remove his head covering? Or is there a different set of rules for Catholics?
A tour guide who was there saw what happened, and afterward he saw me sitting outside. He told me that he asked the guy who asked me to leave whether Jews were not allowed in the church. He relayed that the response was "I have to put on a kippah when I visit the Wall, they can take it off when they visit the church." Is that a fair response?
I would say no. The reason is that kippah is not just a random head covering — it is worn as a symbol of one's faith, just as for a Christian wearing a cross is a sign of his faith. The rabbi who thought the Pope should not wear a cross when visiting the Western Wall is just as wrong as the guy who asked me to remove my kippah. You don't ask guests to remove the symbols of their religion.
As to the comparison made to requests to wear a kippah, it's not quite the same thing. It is a sign of respect to cover one's head in a synagogue. I am not aware of anything in Christian practice that says one should NOT cover one's head; so there is no reason not to. On the other hand, Jews do have a custom to keep their head covered, so uncovering their head IS asking them to do something contrary to their practice. At the same time, personally, I am not very pushy about this. When I was a congregational rabbi, if I had a visitor who did not want to cover his head after having been asked, I would not insist on it. There is no law that says everyone in a synagogue must cover their heads "or else."
Question #2: Did I do the right thing? This comes up as a question because wearing a kippah is a "minhag," a custom, not a matter of law. It is permissible to take off your kippah. There are occasions when I take off my kippah, such as when I'm in a business setting and don't want my religion to become a topic of conversation, or a distraction (R. Moshe Feinstein, among others, ruled that this is permissible). So why did I object to taking off my kippah in Mary's Tomb?
ESPECIALLY when I'm in a place that is sacred to a different religion, I want the reminder that I am there as a visitor. I cling to the symbols of my religion all the more strongly when I'm visiting someone else's sacred space. It makes clear I'm a visitor, I'm not a "believer." To remove my kippah at that moment felt like it would have been agreeing to hide my Jewishness, and I was not comfortable doing that. Just as I would not ask a Christian visiting my synagogue to remove his cross, I would expect a Christian not to ask me to remove my kippah when visiting a church.
The great irony, of course, is that Jesus was Jewish. It's a bit anachronistic, since kippot are later, but if Jesus showed up wearing a kippah, would they have turned him away?
PS: If any of my friends active in interfaith work have any ideas on how to use this episode as a way to open a dialog with the Greek Orthodox church that maintains Mary's Tomb, please let me know.