The mystery of Trump envoy's missing yarmulke

Israeli ultra-Orthodox became preoccupied with the faith of US envoy Jason Greenblatt after he made public appearances without a yarmulke.

al-monitor Jason Greenblatt (L), US President Donald Trump's envoy, meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem, March 13, 2017. Photo by Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv/Handout via REUTERS.

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donald trump, jason greenblatt, israeli politics, judaism, customs, religion, ultra-orthodox, israel

Mar 24, 2017

US President Donald Trump’s representative for international negotiations, Jason Greenblatt, landed in Israel two weeks ago, on March 12. The religious and ultra-Orthodox sectors were surprised to see that Greenblatt, a yarmulke-wearing Orthodox Jew for all intents and purposes, attended public meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and other leaders without a yarmulke. The religious media in Israel wondered where it had gone.

Yonatan Dov Greenblatt, his Israeli name, has been a close associate of Trump’s for nearly two decades, working as a legal adviser for the Trump Group, and has his trust and confidence. Trump was once quoted as saying that the only kind of people he wanted counting his money were “little short guys that wear yarmulkes every day.” Greenblatt appeared to be among them.

Greenblatt, a graduate of the Har Etzion Yeshiva, a rabbinical college in the West Bank Elon Shvut settlement, later studied at Yeshiva University in New York. He is usually seen wearing a black yarmulke. In the Jewish religious world, a black yarmulke signifies that the person is ultra-Orthodox. If anyone thought that Greenblatt not wearing a yarmulke indicated that he had left religious Judaism, it became clear that this was definitely not the case after his second meeting with Netanyahu. At the end of the talk, Greenblatt organized a minyan, the quorum of 10 men required for prayer, for the Kaddish, the prayer ritual observed for a year after the death of a next of kin, to which he recruited Netanyahu and his staff.

In fact, a few days earlier, while en route to Israel, Greenblatt had posted a photo on his Twitter page taken at a synagogue in Germany and wrote, “Time for morning prayer at unexpected stop in Frankfurt. Pray for peace.”

Wearing a yarmulke is not an obligation ordained by the Torah, and not wearing one is not considered a sin. It is a custom that has been deemed part of Jewish law in recent generations. Some media outlets tried to advocate for the removal of the yarmulke by relying on a legal decision by one of the greatest American ultra-Orthodox adjudicators, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who determined that since wearing a yarmulke is a Hasidic custom, one could be lenient about it and, for considerations of work and livelihood, go without a yarmulke.

In a 2016 interview with The Commentator, Greenblatt talked about the outward manifestations of his Jewishness: “I'm generally a shy person. … I've had to work on myself to be more outgoing and to learn how to speak publicly. For example, probably the first time I spoke about what it’s like to be an Orthodox Jew in the world of Donald Trump was a pure chance opportunity when I got stuck somewhere for Shabbos, and the Chabad Rabbi at the University of Virginia that was hosting me asked me to get up and speak to that point.”

Among some ultra-Orthodox, Greenblatt's removal of the yarmulke raised suspicion that Greenblatt leans toward Reform Judaism. Rabbi Eliyahu Kaufman, who is affiliated with the anti-Zionist stream, wrote in an opinion piece for News1 (Mahlaka Rishona), “Our Greenblatt has fallen into the Reform trap where a black yarmulke shows its wearer belongs to a fanatical, dark and nationalist world and so he has to take it off to turn into a ‘man of the larger world,’ and more so a mediator for peace in the Middle East.” Kaufman argues that a Muslim or Christian would not hide their religious symbols in similar situations and called on Greenblatt to remove his yarmulke permanently.

A person close to Trump's envoy told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “Greenblatt is a Modern Orthodox Jew who sends his children to religious institutions, but he separates between his function in the community and his function in the working world.” According to the source, religious belonging in Israel is decisive and unidimensional: Either you are ultra-Orthodox, with all its symbols, or you are not. He then noted, “In the United States, there is much wider variety, and there are many Orthodox who don’t take their Jewish symbols everywhere. Jason didn’t really like the discussion of his yarmulke. He felt it was petty and invasive of his privacy. He doesn’t see himself as a representative of the Jewish world or someone who represents the community in any way. He’s not an elected official. He’s a confidant of Trump, and he conducts himself as he has conducted himself until now in his public life.”

The issue of not wearing the yarmulke touches on broader issues of religious conduct in the public sphere. “We have to distinguish between wearing a yarmulke, which is a custom, and issues that touch on the main body of Jewish law,” David Stav, a rabbi for the town of Shoham and the chairman of the moderate Orthodox Tzohar movement, told Al-Monitor. “I prefer to focus on what’s under the yarmulke and not on the yarmulke, on the head and heart of a man, and not on this external symbol. Tens of thousands of Jews in Europe and the United States who are religious for all intents and purposes go without a yarmulke at the office, because they choose not to emphasize their religious identity. No one has ever protested this phenomenon, and there’s not a word of criticism from the rabbinic establishment about it. Wearing a yarmulke is a very important custom, but all the same only a custom.”

Stav disagrees with the media coverage of Greenblatt’s yarmulke. “These are trifles, yellow, worthless media gossip. I’ve seen people who wear a yarmulke but act like nonreligious people.”

On the other hand, Stav has a much more strident position on issues related to Jewish law. All that relates to kashrut (Jewish dietary laws), Shabbat and modesty in his view is much more important to keep according to strict law. “Kashrut is a central issue in Jewish law,” he said. “You can’t take it lightly. So also is keeping the Sabbath. It’s not a yarmulke.”

Stav added, “On the other hand, there are laws about ‘saving life’ that teach when it’s possible to violate the law. Saving life applies not only when a sick person is about to die, but to national emergencies that impact hundreds of thousands of people. In such cases, you have to judge every case on its merits.”

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