Individuals demonstrate how to correctly apply and use the Optune device in an instructional video. Screenshot from Optune

A caplike device to fight cancer has me leaning into an old religious tradition

(RNS) I’m wearing hats most of the time, these days. Some cap wearers link their choices to faith or fashion. For me, it’s mostly about my brain cancer.

I’m about five months into my time with glioblastoma, aka GBM. It’s a cancer with a median survival of about 15 months. Which means half of the patients live shorter and half somewhat longer.

What about me? Hard to say. But my hats are a no-kidding try at pushing to the long side. With an internal nod to a history of those traditions.

Individuals demonstrate how to correctly apply the Optune device in an instructional video. Screenshot from Optune

Every two days, I have to shave my head smooth and have my wife stick on a new set of electrodes that produce the electric field that I can’t actually feel.

The science part of the explanation is this:

There is a theory that an electrical field in my brain will make it hard for cancer cells to divide.

A few of the molecules inside the cancer cells that are key to the split are ions. The electric field pushes those molecules out of alignment, which makes tumor growth less likely.

Optune is the name of the gadget I wear. It ain’t a cure, but there’s some data that indicates that it helps.

The headful of stick-um electrodes looks odd. So I wear hats when I leave the house.

Some are baseball-style, some more fedora-ish. All of them carry the same slogan, hand-painted by my wife: “Cancer sucks.” Which is straight-ahead correct.

I knew when I started with my caps that I was leaning into a very old religious and even social tradition. In the U.S., most men wore toppers daily until the fade started when Eisenhower was president in the 1950s. Nowadays, men who wear hats are mostly into unusual American fashion.

Collection of yarmulkes — hemispherical or platter-shaped caps, usually made of cloth, often worn by Jewish men.

The Jewish tradition of keeping heads covered goes back a couple of thousand years. But not directly to the Torah, far as I can tell.

In Temple days, the priests covered their heads, however. And the Talmud has stories about men who wore head covers to remind them to obey God.

For instance:

A woman is told by astrologers that her son would become a thief. She requires the boy to wear a head cover at all times, to remind him that God is up there and paying attention. One day, he’s sitting under a palm tree and the wind blows the cover off. Temptation pushes him up the tree to steal and eat fruit.

That’s such a popular tale that Orthodox Jews wear some kind of cap pretty much any time they’re not in the shower. From small skullcap yarmulkes to gigantic fur hats, the visible covers have a huge range. (My current caps, I will admit, aren’t specifically like any of those versions.)

Christianity, on the other hand, is more anti-hat for men. With the exception of some clergy, taking the hat off is the Christian sign of a man’s respect for Jesus. There’s even a New Testament command in one of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians:

“But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head … ”

To which I respond: What the what? There are odd gender combinations of commands in many faiths. But this one is not my cuppa at all.

Other religions have their own ideas about head coverings. Because Muhammad supposedly kept his head covered, many Muslim men follow suit. Sikh men who follow their faith’s command wear turbans. Buddhists and Hindus aren’t big on head coverings with religious connection.

So where am I? My agnostic interest in Jewish tradition goes back to my childhood. I wore yarmulkes to temple services, Passover seders and a few special events. But I never felt pressure to keep the cover on at other times. If the Almighty cared, the message never made it to me.

And yet now — and for just about the rest of my life — I’m likely to never have a bare head in public. I’m not assuming God will give me credit for my own caps atop the electrodes that cover only a bit more than a standard yarmulke. But if there’s a plus beyond the technology, I won’t turn it down. I hope He gets a charge out of it.

(Jeffrey Weiss writes the RNS column "My Way to the Egress"


  1. Jeffrey – praying for you here and I pray that you find peace with Jesus. That is my first prayer. My second is that Christ will heal you – as I’m sure many others will pray also – and that He will use this for His glory. God bless you.

  2. I never turn down a prayer! I thank you, based on your motives.

  3. So five seminary professors were sitting around reading this…one said that ‘what-the-what’ is a really good line, and another said “so why didn’t we think of wearing yarmulkes.”
    Hope you get the results you’re looking for.

  4. Good article. Always confused about Paul’s “hat” theology and how it relates to Jewish tradition.
    Top line done shortly after Sandy.
    Woke up now to cont. Sometimes feel/hope it’s G-d that is waking me up & speaking to me.
    My first inclination earlier was to agree with Sandy, but maybe concerned with potential confrontational tone. Gave her an up vote then.
    Feel like you triggered a potential “book” & been told need editor. Went off to study 1 Corinthians 11 passage primarily

    Before I go any further, I am praying for you, because I want you to live. I hope that is true. I felt a connection through the article you wrote and want you to be part of ongoing dialogue.

    I also studied,

    Segal was very good, but perhaps still suffers effects of “veil/hat”. He is so thorough on Paul. I have hoped the “veil/hat” was removed & he became believer. I got my copy through synagogue library when they discontinued it. Librarian Ruth was convert from Christianity & had originally ordered it for their library. “GJ So five seminary professors were sitting around reading this…one said that ‘what-the-what’ is a really good line,…” Saint Peter seemed to agree

    Freud’s Father’s Hat Googled, Has good discussion of Freud’s father’s hat knocked off by Christian into the mud. (Link on tablet allowed, but not here on pc) Not sure where originally read it, but idea was that episode drove Freud to take his vengeance through his studies and undermining fundamental tenet of society’s belief in God. Here’s summary without as much analysis

    I am M.D. who has wanted to be agent of Jesus’ healing. Went through brain tumor episode with cousin last year. Heard about it at family reunion. Prayed as group. I went to see him afterward at hospital. Recommended he forgo chemo & rely on “faith”. Another cousin asked me to stay away.

    I take somewhat of apologetic, naturalistic approach. Try to “argue” people to healing. Haven’t had much/?any success.

    I have recently been thinking about unholy alliance between Church & government medical system.

    Is there any “non-medical option” in Judaism for healing?

    Here’s Segal on “hats” with pp 151,2 missing
    Am currently wearing Yonsei University hat. See picture @lcvalin on Twitter.

    Veil keeps Jews from seeing G-d in Jesus.

    Once heard at synagogue speak on He said Moses here is very close to Christian understanding of Jesus.

  5. Excellent commentary, I’ve often laughed at the different approach taken to headwear by Christians and Jews. As you note, Jews wear hats to honor God and obey Him, while Christians do the opposite for the same purpose when praying. Who says God doesn’t have a sense of humor. For my part I think we lost something when Fedoras went out, I’ll take mine over a ball cap any day. And yes, I too continue to offer prayers on your behalf. Couldn’t hurt, Right?

  6. “To which I respond: What the what? There are odd gender combinations of commands in many faiths. But this one is not my cuppa at all…I hope He gets a charge out of it.” Wow, I’ve rarely seen such arrogant chutzpah in a dying man towards Messiah and His New Covenant commands. The quote you gave from the apostle Paul is clear, you just didn’t like it. God says in 1 Corinthians 11 that God’s mode of responsibility and authority goes this way: God–Jesus–Man–Woman. As every business, every school, every religious group (local as well as otherwise) and every home needs a head, so does the home and church. Jeremiah the prophet speaks of men covering their heads out of shame. So, why cover your head? A hat on your head is fine when the weather is bad, or when you don’t want to feel conspicuous of your struggle. But God’s command for a woman to cover her head? That’s His modus operandi.

  7. The author doesn’t seem to be interested in your alleged “Messiah and His New Covenant.” He doesn’t have to like what Paul says.

  8. I wish men’s hats would come back too. As a bald American, I try to wear something on my head when out in the sun. But I refuse to wear a baseball cap with a suit. The hipster preference for hats is helping our cause. My understanding of Catholic clerical skullcaps is that it originally was weather-related anyway.

  9. To answer your question about “non-medical options” for healing in Judaism, there are many Jewish prayers for healing. Some are said three times a day, some are corporate, some can be individualized, some are said in a more public way on the Sabbath or major holidays. There are also various versions of prayers for a physician to say. These are attributed to (but not actually written by) Maimonides aka Rambam, a medieval Spanish rabbi, philosopher and physician.

  10. I was meaning seeking healing without including medical system. Could medical system be form of idolatry? When did church and synagogue become so completely reliant on medical system for healing? “He said, “If you listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you.””

  11. Segal seems very interested in Paul. He has good discussion on hat/veils/commandments. Did hat difference arise as a difference between Jews & their Christian brethren? It relates to “seeing” God & life versus death. In chapter 11 Paul continues with “discerning/seeing” Jesus in bread & wine. See Exodus 24. Nadav & Abihu “see” God and “eat and drink” Torah Commentary raises relation to future demise.

    Seder Olam origin as counter to Jesus being fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy? See Rabbi Simon Schwab

  12. Judaism doesn’t see medicine as a form of idolatry. There’s a reason there’s so many Jewish doctors. God heals, through people.

  13. Seems like mighty poor protection to me, except perhaps against sunburn of the crown. As my hair is thinning as well, I wear a baseball type cap in the sun, a snap brim fedora for dress, and I don’t own a suit…I lack the professional standing. But I am kind of a hat nut, a couple of cowboy hats, a beret, a drill instructor’s “Smokey Bear,” a straw pith helmet, etc.

  14. I have a “stingy brim” fedora for the winter, but similar hats I’ve gotten for the summer always seem to fall apart. i also have several flat caps, which are more practical.

  15. How does God see it? What is the “reason”? How does Judaism see Jesus? Sometimes called “The Great Physician”? Ecclesiasticus 38 comes to mind. “Sin not, lest you fall into hands of physician” paraphrase less friendly translation.

    The problem we’re dealing with here appears to be “lack of healing”.

    Jeremiah 8.22 one of my favorites with answer at Mark 5. See above.

    Recently read Sir Thomas Browne M.D. wondering why people resist death, the ultimate “healing”

    Hope to get back to “hat”, shrinks, shrunken heads possibly.

    Paul wrote about law/hat? bringing death. Jeffrey brought him up. Don’t think it was to disparage only.

    Jewish patient became friend. Mentioned Marie Cardinal’s The Words To Say It. Literary version of “told him the whole truth”.

    (Woody Allen’s “growing tumor”. Freud’s tumor represents “grieved lost love object”)
    Estrogen theory of tumors may relate to “woman with hemorrhage” grieving womb.
    “Woman with hemorrhage” ” 27 When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak/fringe/hat, 28 because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes/fringe/hat, I will be healed.” 29 Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.

    30 At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes/fringe/hat?””

    I was banned from commenting at Christian website by a female clergy because I wondered if she/the woman in story might have touched him in his “privates”. Jewish modesty euphemism? like “what the what”?

    Do any of these women wear fringes/hats?

    Think there are two women commenting to this article. Don’t see their “hats”. Should they have them?

  16. Paul also writes about redemptive suffering. “By his wounds we are healed.” Catholic Church focuses on this idea particularly during Lent.

    The neighbor who gave me this book may be currently suffering dementia Has chapter on wounded healers. Prayer shawl/hat & thorn crown “hat”.

    Heard Donald Barnhouse during night speak on Aaron’s “hat”

    Aaron Hernandez had the Bible verse “John 3:16” scrawled on his forehead when he was found dead in his prison cell Wednesday, reports say.

  17. I wore baseball caps until my hair started to recede.

  18. I don’t know about the amount of Jewish doctors, but I do agree with you, that it is God who heals – no one else. blessings

  19. Got one of those as well (flat cap), but I’m particularly enamored of my fore and aft cap from the now defunct Yugoslavian Army. The Red Star on the green wool always puts me in the mood for a Heineken.

  20. Reading Fri includes Acts 9, which includes parallel to Jesus’ healing of Jairus’ daughter. Talitha/Tabitha= Tallit/Tzitz(fringe) Jairus connects to Balm in “Gilead”. Prayer shawl(tallit) & fringe(tzitz) forms of “hats”
    “blood on head” from Torah this past Sabbath & Matthew at Jesus’ trial for guilt or protection? May you be washed in the blood of the Lamb(talitha).

  21. Second Reading yesterday started Acts 1.55. Part left out Your first prayer answered would include 2nd. What if Jeffrey is “stiff-necked” & under “wrath of God” i.e. not at peace with Jesus? See my comments Recently heard preacher saying Holocaust would be “walk in the park” or some other pleasant metaphor compared to “burning in Hell forever”. Is that anti-Semitic preacher? You say as much in a nice way. Does anybody believe in “Hell” anymore? Maybe that’s something we prefer to be “agnostic” about.
    Gospel yesterday includes: “Jesus the Way to the Father
    5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

    6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

  22. From today’s readings “Psalm 102
    A prayer of an afflicted person who has grown weak and pours out a lament before the Lord.

    1 Hear my prayer, Lord;
    let my cry for help come to you.
    2 Do not hide your face from me
    when I am in distress.
    Turn your ear to me;
    when I call, answer me quickly.”

  23. Jeffrey, I also have GBM, I also wore Optune last year, AND I also wrote about wanting to see wearing the Optune cap with the same intention as wearing a prayer cap. I’m glad to find I’m not alone in that intention and experience! I’m 7 months past that median survival time, and feeling great. May the same be true for you! Here’s one funny story from my time with Optune:

  24. “From Phrygian to liberty cap
    In late Republican Rome, a soft felt cap called the pileus served as a symbol of freemen (i.e. non-slaves), and was symbolically given to slaves upon manumission, thereby granting them not only their personal liberty, but also libertas— freedom as citizens, with the right to vote (if male). Following the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, Brutus and his co-conspirators instrumentalized this symbolism of the pileus to signify the end of Caesar’s dictatorship and a return to the (Roman) republican system.[2]

    These Roman associations of the pileus with liberty and republicanism were carried forward to the 18th-century, when the pileus was confused with the Phrygian cap, with the Phrygian cap then becoming a symbol of those values. (”

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