Thursday, December 03, 2009

An Obsession with Hair

I have dealt with this issue before. Hirhurim is involved in a major discussion about it and I thought I would re-examine some of my own thoughts on this subject.

I have always found hair covering for married women to be one of the most perplexing Halachos on the books. The reasons I feel that way should be obvious. There is no direct statement in the Torah for it. It is in part deduced from the verses in the Torah that deal with Sotah. The Gemarah concludes that married women must cover their hair. This is the Halacha as stated in the Shulchan Aruch.

There are two measures in this regard. Breifly in reference to women's Halachos and customs - there is Daas Moshe which is a biblical level Halacha - and in the case of covering a married woman's hair requires covering most but not all of it. And there is Daas Yehudis which is a rabbinical level Halacha that requires covering all of it.

Rabbi Michael Broyde has written a lengthy well sourced Halachic treatise on this subject in the current issue of Tradition Magazine. It is being discussed and debated on Hirhurim. If I understand him correctly he argues that it is possible to say that some Rishonim consider full uncovering of the hair as Daas Yehudis and subject to custom. If a society does not generally do so then it is not mandatory for married Jewish women to do so.

This - in a nutshell - is what Rabbi Broyde says. He adds the caveat that he does not mean to suggest that the wide spread acceptance by Orthodox married women to cover their hair be abolished. He only states his arguments and conclusions as a Limud Zechus for those women who don’t.

The rationale for covering hair is that the uncovered hair of a married woman is considered Erva - nakedness. And that is the crux of my problem with it. One would be hard pressed to see a married woman who is fully dressed but with her hair uncovered as naked. Especially since the uncovered hair of single women who were never married is not considered Erva by anyone. This makes the entire rationale… well… irrational in my mind.

How can the exact same image be Erva in one instance and not in another? And that is even true about the same woman. One moment before she is married her hair is permitted to be uncovered. One moment after she is married that very same hair is considered Erva.

Just to be clear, I am absolutely not trying to uproot this Halacha God forbid. My wife and daughters all cover their hair and wouldn’t dream of uncovering it. But that does not make it any less perplexing to me. The fact is that in our day and in western culture there is absolutely no one who objectively sees a married woman’s hair Erva while not seeing the hair of a single woman in that way.

Covering hair was once a widely practiced custom even among non Jews. But it has practically disappeared as a custom today in western culture. The most modest women in the world in our culture do not cover their hair. Prior to the holocaust this Halacha had fallen out of practice in many Orthodox communities even in Europe. The plain and simple truth is that many - perhaps even a majority of married Orthodox women in Europe did not cover their hair.

It was mostly in Chasidic circles where the practice was meticulously observed. And though there was somewhat of a lament about it among rabbinic leaders - little was done about it. Life went on. Jews were still observant. In fact one of the most important Poskim of the late 19th and early 20th century wrote a Teshuva about whether one may make a Bracha in front of a married woman whose hair is uncovered because it was so common in his religious circle.

Most women who are educated in Orthodox institutions are taught that they must do so after they get married. And indeed they do. They are taught that their hair is saved for their husbands. But the truth of the matter is that their husbands rarely see their wives hair beautifully done. That’s because covering it with a wig, the most popular way of doing it ruins any hair style. It mats down the hair and when the wig comes off that hair is hardly attractive. So that ‘line’ is a myth. A married women will wear a beautiful wig for an evening out and then when she removes it…

Had the trend prior to the holocaust continued to the point where no married woman ever covered it -I doubt that anyone would have done a thing about it. But after the holocaust with the mass influx of Chasidim whose married women did cover their hair, the trend started shifting back. That was followed with aggressive teaching of that particular Halacha. It completely reversed that trend and now just about all Orthodox married women who attended religious schools cover their hair – even in left wing modern Orthodoxy…although there are pockets of modern Orthodox women who still do not – for whom Rabbi Broyde has made a Limud Zechus.

This leads me to note the following. It seems that covering a married women’s hair has become one of the most important Mitzvos in the Torah world. It is almost as though a married who doesn’t cover her hair is considered outside the pale of Orthodoxy – no matter how religious she may be in everything esle. Even an attempt at Limud Zechus is attacked. There is something odd about this.

Why has this Halacha taken on so much significance in the Orthodox world? Again, I’m not saying that it shouldn’t be followed. Quite the contrary, it should. But it seems that this Halacha is being given special attention. Why are other Halachos not treated with the same sense of importance as hair covering?

So much effort goes into observing this Halacha but I maintain that had the trend for married women to leave their hair uncovered continued, the entire Halacha would have fallen out of use. And no one would have cared or at the very least not done anything about it as was the case in Europe. But instead it has today become the symbol of a married Orthodox woman.

To insist that this particular Halacha is a terrible thing to be Maikel with as one commenter on Hirhurim claimed is to imply that there are other Halachos which are not so terrible to be Maikel with. It is only this one.

This is clearly a 'fear' instilled by right wing Mechnchim that is Hashkafic - or maybe even political - in nature. It is often people who have this Hashkafa that tend to defend the indefensible in matters like Dina D'Malchusa. In some cases asserting that it is Mutar to violate these laws if one does not get caught. Some extend this argument to cover blatant fraud! That it produces a Chilul HaShem doesn't even occur to some of these defenders. But mention a bare headed married woman and you might as well put her in a category of a Mechalel Shabbos.

To make a near Yehoreg V'Al Ya'avor out of it is a function of the 'move to the right' and the desire by certain Charedi Rabbinic leaders to dissociate themselves from Modern Orthodox Jews in a most tangible way.