Thursday, November 07, 2013

Does Judaism Require a Woman to Shave Her Head?

Frimet Goldberger - before and after. Photo credit: Forward
I have always had difficulty with the concept of Sair B’Isha Erva - the literal translation of which is ‘the hair of a woman is (considered) nakedness’.

I’ve written about this before and I am not going to re-hash it here. I will only say that as an Orthodox Jew I respect the Halacha and do not God forbid advocate married women violate it  – although I am sympathetic to those who do not want to cover their hair.

The reasons I am so disturbed by it is because of the way the concept of Erva is applied. Which to me is entirely irrational. It is considered Erva only for a married woman. Single women, no matter what age are not required to cover their hair. It is not considered nakedness for them. I have heard some explanations for this but must confess that I simply do not get it. No matter how much I try.

I am not going to discuss how Halacha deals with this dichotomy. It is beyond the scope of this post and frankly – as I said – I don’t quite get it. I only mention it to put in context to an article written in Today’s Forward by Frimet  Goldberger. And to point out the stark differences I have with Satmar like Chasidim on this issue.

Mrs. Goldberger is a former member of Satmar. She says that she left Satmar five years ago based on this issue.  The custom (perhaps even the Halacah as they see it) is for a married woman to shave her head. They feel so strongly that a married woman’s hair is Erva, that they do not want to take the chance that a single strand of hair will even be exposed. The safest (and according to Satmar the only) way to assure that is by a woman shaving her head. This is what Mrs. Goldberger did. At first without giving it much thought since that is what all married Satmar women did. This is what the Satmar Rebbe required. Here is how Mrs. Goldberger put it:
The Satmar Rebbe, Yoel Teitelbaum, famously gave emotional, tear-jerking speeches against married women growing their own hair. “Jewish daughters, our mothers and fathers gave up their lives to our Father in Heaven for the sanctity of His name, but you, their daughters, don’t want to give up even a few hairs?” he asked in a speech on Yom Kippur eve in 1951, according to “The Rebbe,” a 2010 biography by Dovid Meisels. “What does Hashem Yisbarach (God) ask of us? A few hairs! Because of a few hairs you are making yourselves lose both worlds. Jewish daughters, shave your hair and give honor to the Torah.”
I am in no position to argue Halacha with the Satmar Rebbe. His Torah knowledge dwarfed that of even many great Rabbonim. It certainly dwarfs mine by a lot. But he is not the only Posek in the Jewish world. Most Poskim do not see it his way. I therefore strongly disagree with him.

And frankly I do not understand why he was so strict with this particular Halacha. ‘Tears’ about not shaving a head?! I’m sure he knew that this was not a universally held view even in the most right wing circles of Orthodoxy. And yet he compared it to the Kiddush HaShem of giving up your life for God.

Mrs. Goldbeger tells a harrowing story involving her change of attitude about shaving her head, her encounter with the Satmar modesty squad, and her abandonment of Satmar. I could not believe what I was reading. The short version is this. She and her husband sat in front of the Satmar Vaad HaTznius and they were harangued about accusations that she had allowed her hair to grow. They were threatened with expulsion of their children from their schools if she continued to flout this rule.

Intimated by all this, Mrs. Goldberger went home and shaved her head for the last time.  That event caused the couple to leave Satmar. She no longer covers her hair at all. I have no clue whether she is observant or not. But I cannot blame her after reading of her experiences there.

When she first shaved her head she said she felt nothing… that this is what everybody did. But she cried when she did it for the last time.

I do not understand how their rabbinic leaders can require this of their married women to the point of serious sanctions if they do not comply. I appreciate their right to do as they wish religiously. But shaving a head is pretty extreme. How can it be that a woman is made to be permanently bald and look so unattractive to their husbands? Is there no place for a husband to appreciate his wife’s beauty in Satmar type Chasidus? They will tell you that this is all about keeping a high level of Tznius. But what about a woman’s self image in Satmar? Does that have so little value to them?

I am not saying that a married Satmar woman that wants to shave her head should not have the right to do so. If that’s what she and her husband want, God bless them. But what about the Frimet Godebergers of the world – and their husbands? Mrs. Goldberger eventually felt that shaving her head stripped her of her identity as a woman.

Should she have been treated this way by anyone – let alone a committee that is supposedly to be devoted to the word of God? Do they really believe that treating Mrs. Frimet this way is what God wanted of them? Furthermore if she is no longer observant – whose fault is that?

I have to wonder how other Satmar women actually feel about this in their heart of hearts. Is it really OK with them to live their lives in a state where an important part of their femininity is permanently stripped away from them? With the kind severe sanctions experienced by Mrs. Goldberger if they stray? And what about Satmar husbands? How do they really feel about it?

Like I said, I just don’t get it. Even in the spirit of Elu V’Elu it makes no sense to me to be that strict at the expense of a woman’s dignity. I somehow can’t believe that this what God wants of his people

There are obviously more important things going on in the world than this. But I can't help being upset about it whenever I read an article like this. OK. I’m done venting.