Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Things that I learned from “Hide & Seek: Jewish Women and Hair Covering,” edited by Lynn Schreiber

(Thanks to Lillian for recommending this book.)

1. I had heard that some in the Orthodox community are of the opinion that halachah (Jewish religious law) requires a married woman to cover all but a tefach of her hair. I learned from this book that the word " tefach" means "handbreadth." This accounts for the fact that many Orthodox women who cover their hair deliberately leave some of their hair (such as their bangs) visible.

2. The reason why some Chassidic women shave off all their hair is to make their monthly visit to the mikveh (ritual bath) easier. According to halachah, a woman must immerse herself completely in a mikveh seven days after the end of her menstrual period before being permitted to have sex with her husband again. Complete immersion includes the hair. If the hair floats, one must re-emerse oneself in the mikveh water. If one has no hair on one's head, there's nothing that can float, so the process is easier. This is not an approach that I would take—in my opinion, it makes one ugly in the eyes of one's own husband—but I hope that I'm explaining it properly.

3. Apparently, there is an opinion that, once a woman has begun covering her hair because of marriage, she is no longer permitted to uncover it, even in the event of widowhood or divorce. The principle seems to be that one is permitted to increase one's level of observance, but not to decrease it. Personally, I find this confusing. If the whole point of a Jewish woman covering her hair is that doing so is a signal to other knowledgeable Jews that she is already married, and therefore, unavailable, then why on earth should a no-longer-married woman not be permitted to make her status clearly visible? And if the purpose of covering one's hair is tzniut, modesty, why does the tradition of covering one's hair apply only to married women? From my own perspective, this makes no sense.

4. Page 136: " . . . there are important authorities which strongly encourage single women to cover their hair when they are praying or involved in sacred matters." Footnote: "See, for example, Ovadia Yosef in Yechave Da'at 5:6; Hilchot Baita, Machon Sha'ar Ze'ev, Jerusalem, ch. 6, sec. 10, footnote 33, p. 50; Halichos Bas Yisroel, Targum." So my parents' rabbi didn't just make this up!

5. As the old saying goes, "Two Jews, three opinions"—there seem to be as many opinions as to what constitutes the proper way for an Orthodox woman to dress as there are Orthodox women! At one end of the spectrum, there are woman who wear pants (but only if they're designed for women—it's forbidden to wear the clothing of the opposite sex), cover only their shoulders, wear V-neck tops, and go bareheaded despite being married. At the other end, there are woman who wear only skirts (and skirts that are long enough to cover their calves, at that), who wear stockings even on the hottest days of summer, whose sleeves cover not only their upper arms and not only their elbows but their wrists as well, who wear only tops that cover their collarbones, and who wear wigs with scarves on top (as if one or the other doesn't suffice!). Though many of those who contributed chapters to this book clearly favor a maximalist approach—no tefach of hair will ever be seen peeking out from under my scarf or fall!—the editor did take some pains to show that there is halachic support for the lenient approach. In terms of hair-covering, there is an opinion that, in times and places in which exposed hair is not considered indecent, a married woman is permitted to go bareheaded.

Here's where I ran into trouble:

Page 64: "When I first began to really learn about Judaism, I thought everything that was interesting to do was masculine. With the help of heaven, I persevered through that painful year until I discovered that the role of the Jewish woman in approaching God is more subtle. I want to feel closer to God in my own way, not by copying the ways of Jewish men.

By requiring me to make an unmistakably feminine, explicitly Jewish decision every morning of my life, covering my hair helps me stay connected to my identity as a Jewish woman, yearning for holiness."

" . . . the role of the Jewish woman in approaching God is more subtle. "

In connection with the above quote, I'm adding this one as of June 21, since, if my memory serves me correctly, it's mentioned at least twice in this book (page 171 and ?): "Kol k'vodah bat melech p'nimah, All the glory of the king's daughter is within." (Psalm 45, verse 18)

What can I say?

Actually, lots. For openers, on the subject of Jewish women’s head coverings, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: There’s absolutely nothing explicitly Jewish about a wig, hat, scarf, or snood. Any woman can wear any of them. A married Jewish woman's decision to wear a head-covering may be "explicitly Jewish," but the head-covering itself is not"explicitly Jewish" in the least. That's the principle reason why I don't wear a hat to synagogue: I'd vastly prefer to wear something that looks at least a little Jewish. For closers, why must all the "glory" of the Jewish woman be "p'nimah, within"?

To be continued.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

to clarify, everyone who is Orthodox says that halacha requires that a married woman must cover their hair.

Not everyone who is Orthodox does it, however. But nobody would say that halacha doesn't require it.

Wed Jun 21, 02:50:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Elie said...

The first statement - i.e., that all Orthodox hold that this is the absolute halacha - is not accurate either, although the zeitgeist is certainly moving in that direction. But see here for a famous (infamous?) analysis by Rabbi Michael Broyde, which I first came across in the comments on a Shifra post.

Wed Jun 21, 04:38:00 PM 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

All due respect, but R. Broyde seems to be applying an post hoc analysis to justify why a community was ignoring halacha, esp. in light of the poskim decrying that they did so. (Note that I don't disagree with the characterization of it being dat yehudit vs. d'oraita, since the d'oraita angle has always been a slim reed of an asmachta.) However, R. Broyde is not relying on a contemporaneous posek (i.e., a 19th century Litvak) who said "this is why women don't cover their hair."

Rather, the contemporaneous poskim -- who, contrary to what R. Broyde said, were focusing on halacha l'ma'aseh -- decried the fact that women don't cover their hair. Even the Arukh haShulchan, who ruled that a man can say Shema in front of a married woman with uncovered hair, bemoaned the fact that women in his day (late 19th century Eastern Europe) weren't covering their hair. The Arukh haShulchan was a community rabbi, not locked away in a yeshiva.

My point is that while R. Broyde _might_ be right in his analysis, I think it's far more likely that the women simply stopped covering their hair, rather than conducting a thorough analysis as to whether it was halachic or not.

So, to sum up, I disagree with Elie. I think R. Broyde's analysis may be an accurate description of the halachic landscape, but it's poor history. The halacha is clear -- whether it's a Torah requirement or dat yehudit -- that women must cover some portion of their hair. That said, many don't. But they don't try and justify it by saying it's not required.

Elie -- which shul in HP do you go to? I lived there about 10 years ago for three years.

Wed Jun 21, 05:49:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Elie said...

Jdub: There's probably a lot of truth in what you are saying, that to some degree Rabbi B. is stretching halachik arguments to justify what was essentially just the common practice in the O. world up until two generations ago. On the other hand, his stand against the motzee laaz approach of today's "nuvo-frum" towards their elders, appeals to me on a very visceral level.

In terms of your Jewish geography question - email me: rosenfeld.elie@gmail.com.

Wed Jun 21, 10:04:00 PM 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

unfortunately, i'm gonna know all about the laws of a divorced woman, so i'll let you know what i find out about the reasoning behind the hair covering thing...

Thu Jun 22, 12:21:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Jdub and Elie: As I was saying, "Two Jews, three opinions." :) That said, the "nouveau frum" business is upsetting even to some of us non-Orthodox. So my great-grandmother, aleha hashalom (roughly, rest in peace) wouldn't be considered frum enough, these days, even though she refused to go live with my grandmother and insisted on moving into a Jewish nursing home with an on-premises synagogue because she wouldn't ride to synagogue on the Sabbath?

DrumbumJ, oy, I wish I knew what to say. Best of luck.

Thu Jun 22, 12:44:00 AM 2006  

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