One of the things one finds in modern orthodox (MO) circles that many women do not cover their hair. This is often brought as an example of modern orthodox laxity in observance.
The truth of the matter is that serious modern orthodox Jewish women who are married -even in the most left wing of modern orthodoxy - do cover their hair. But it is fair to say that many do not. I think it is also fair to say that not all of them are MO-Lite. Many are serious MO Jewish women who are quite careful in Mitzvah observance. This has always raised a question in my mind. How important is it for a married woman to cover her hair?
I have always had difficulty with this particular issue since it is based on the concept of Sair B’Isha Erva - a woman’s hair is considered her nakedness. But is it? Well - it depends. Single women who have never been married do not cover their hair. This means that there is no intrinsic ‘nakedness’ to hair.
Yet, the fact is that the hair of a married woman is considered Erva. So what gives?
I have written about this before and it merits another look by what is now a larger readership.
There are two terms identified in Halacha that refer to sexually modest behavior.
Daas Moshe is the term used in Halacha to connote that which is the immutable Halacha transmitted to us via Moshe Rabbeinu. .
Daas Yehudis is the term that refers to a custom of modesty for women that is accepted by a majority of them in a given society. If a woman transgresses one of these modesty customs, she violates Daas Yehudis.
The Shulchan Aruch (Even HaEzer 21) which deals mostly with the laws governing intimacy between men and women includes the issue of hair covering. While it doesn’t specifically say that hair covering is relative to societal standards - it cannot be ruled out that it is. The activities mentioned in Even HaEzer 21 are not categorized as either Daas Yehudis or Daas Moshe. The Shulchan Aruch just tells us how to behave without specifying the level of Issur. The tone of the Siman is more about removing temptation. It tells us how far we should go in doing that.
It can be understood from the Even HaEzer (115:4) that Daas Yehudis is a modesty issue which has always been relative to one's society. It is designed to protect us from violating Issurei Erva, those laws about sexual conduct which are biblically mandated. By definition, Tznius (modesty) in dress that goes beyond Erva is that which is communally perceived as such.
In certain Muslim cultures for example - Jewish women who do not dress in accordance with those standards are not acting modestly. They would be violating Daas Yehudis - but not Daas Moshe.
Based on this - I believe that the concept of culturally determined modesty in dress boils down to ‘what one is used to seeing’. If one becomes accustomed to rarely if ever seeing anything but the eyes of a woman then exposure to the face may very well be seductive - even though the face is not normally seductive in western culture - or considered such by the Torah.
But in some Muslim cultures - it is. Dressing by western standards of modesty- in a Muslim culture like Iran would be considered immodest and a source of temptation in their society. Even the stringent modesty standards of Meah Shearim would not be stringent enough in societies where women must cover their faces.
I think it is reasonable to assert the following. The Shulchan Aruch, indicates categorizing uncovered hair as a violation of Daas Yehudis and not Daas Moshe. That makes it relative to the culture. This allows for at least the possibility that in another time and another place, uncovering hair might not be a violation of Daas Yehudis.
Just to be clear, I am not advocating the abandonment of what is now almost universally accepted Halacha. That probably makes it a violation of Daas Yehudis. I am only suggesting that an alternative interpretation of Halacha as a ‘Limud Zechus’ – so as to view those women who do not cover their hair in a more favorable Halachic light.