Monday, August 30, 2010

Covering Your Hair: Leprous Plague?

Now that we've established that covering your hair is considered Dat Moshe, or law directly from Torah, which makes it binding for the Torah-observant, married Jewish woman, and that head covering doesn't come directly out of the call for modesty per se, we can now discuss how we cover. This, I think, is a more gray area that has led to a lot of conversations over the years and a lot of animosity among a lot of women in a lot of Jewish communities. So let's dig in.
hair (n) a slender threadlike outgrowth of the epidermis of an animal; especially: one of the usually pigmented filaments that form the characteristic coat of a mammal (from
Most of us know the act of covering our hair as kisui rosh, which actually means covering the head. By this account, even if a woman shaves her head, she's still required to cover her hair. Similarly, many women take this to mean that you merely need to cover the whole of your head and that anything that falls away from the head is unnecessary to cover (it's hair after all, not your rosh). But have you ever noticed that in some very religious communities all of the little girls -- no matter their age -- have their hair tucked up high in pony tails? That, folks, is an extension of the idea of keeping the hair bound, not loose. Let's explore. 

In the Rambam's codification of law, he discerns between two types of uncovering: full and partial, with the former being a violation of Dat Moshe (clear enough, right? we already figured this one out). In Rambam's discussion in Hilchot Ishut 24:12, he essentially says that it is a "direct Torah command (Dat Moshe) for women to keep their hair from becoming exposed in public, and a custom of Jewish women to increase that standard in the interest of modesty and maintain an intact covering on their heads at all times" ("Hide and Seek," 201). Rambam says, then, that full covering is law and partial covering is custom. Ultimately, his point is that your hair should neither be let down [paruah] nor exposed [galui]. So that thoughtful and tightly formed braid hanging out of your clearly covered head is not kosher in the eyes of Maimonides.

In the Babylonian Talmud, a more lenient pattern is established, maintaining that although a "minimal head covering is not acceptable in public, in the case of a woman going from her courtyard to another by way of an alley, it is sufficient and does not transgress Dat Yehudit" (20). So, I suppose, I could walk out of my apartment in whatever would constitute a "minimal" head covering and go through the alley to a neighbor's without fault. The Jerusalem Talmud, on the other hand, insists on a minimal head covering in the courtyard and a complete one in an alley. On that note, who has courtyards anymore? Luckily, the actual sources (BT and YT) explain what constitutes each of these public places. For us, it's not significant at the moment, but rest assured: they matter to modern understandings of how we cover where we cover.

The Rashba says that "hair which normally extends outside the kerchief and her husband is used to it" is not considered" sensual. But does that mean she halachically can leave that hair out? In talmudic times, the Maharam Alshakar said that it was permissible to allow some strands to dangle out the front (between the ear and forehead), despite the custom being to cover every last strand of a woman's hair. This, then, births the idea of the tefach, or hand's breadth, of hair that allows some (including me) to keep bangs showing or some hair out the back of a hat exposed.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ruled (in the vein of Rambam) that all married women must cover their hair in public and that they are obligated to cover every strand. However, he was a proponent of the tefach, saying that "a woman's hair can be regarded in the same way as any other part of her body that is typically concealed from view -- if a handsbreadth is revealed, so be it" (22). Rest assured, the slippery slope was not something Rabbi Feinstein was concerned with, as he advocated complete covering as "proper," but that the revealing of a tefach was not in violation of Dat Yehudit. This revealing of a tefach, to many, is considered "lenient."

The funny thing is -- I wouldn't consider myself lenient in hair covering. I'm just infinitely attached to my bangs, as my forehead is abnormally small. But if others consider me lenient for embracing the tefach, so be it.

Did you know that in Hungarian, Galician, and Ukrainian Chassidic communities, the women customarily shave their heads before covering and shave each month before going to mikvah? I know what you're thinking: crazy! However, the logic makes sense to me (am I crazy?). When you go to the mikvah, if you have long or longish hair, when you dip, if all of your hair doesn't go down with you and is left floating on top, your dip isn't kosher. So these communities resolved this by shaving their heads. I'm not as brave as Demi or Natalie Portman or these Chassidishe women. I also keep my hair short enough I don't think we'll have this problem.

The sheitel is the real thing that brought us here: How is the sheitel kosher? If the point is to cover your head and hair, how can it be okay to cover it with hair? And if it is okay, why not just cover it with your own hair? One argument in favor of wigs is based on the premise that head covering is all about modesty, which doesn't really fly -- it isn't based on modesty, at least not exactly. This idea revolves around the idea that by wearing a sheitel, you more easily blend into the population and don't bring unnecessary attention to yourself. A brightly colored tichel with some gnarly pattern on it (ahem, like mine), will make you stand out in a crowd, especially in South Carolina (believe me, I know).

The funny thing is that wig-wearing became popular among non-Jews before it did among observant Jews. In Europe, especially. In France in the 16th century, wigs became popular as a fashion accessory for men and women. Rabbis rejected wigs as doable for Jews because it was inappropriate to emulate the "ways of the nations (chukkot ha'goyim)." Women, too, were uncomfortable as it fell like a loophole out of hair covering. Wigs were embraced, begrudgingly, but women typically would cover their wigs (which didn't look natural to begin with) with another type of head covering, as is the case in many very religious communities today (I think of Monsey -- lots of hats on wigs).

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, believed that a wig was the best possible hair covering for a woman. Why? It wasn't as easily removed as a scarf or hat. This makes sense, believe me. He even helped needy brides purchase their wigs! On the other end, then, we have the former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel who called wigs a "leprous plague," even stating that "she who goes out with a wig, the law is as if she goes out with her head [uncovered]." Yikes. Big yikes. For those of you curious about cutting your own hair and having it formed into a wig, it's kosher according to Darkei Moshe, Orach Chaim 303, which says, "A married woman is allowed to expose her wig and there is no difference if its made from her own hair or her friends hair." Of course, there's a lot more to it than this, but this discussion is more helpful than me trying to explain it all. In truth, even if you use your own hair to make a sheitel, it will never look or feel the same as your natural hair, period.

And then there are those who descend from Lithuania, Morocco, and Romania, where women did not cover their hair at all. From the Lithuanian community we have the great posek and father of modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who, interestingly, never wrote down his opinions on hair covering! This, some conjecture, is because he was incredibly frum but his wife did not cover her hair. Even those he entrusted his opinions to never shared his views on covering. As a result of this, however, many former students of the Rav teach their congregants that it is no longer necessary to cover their hair -- yet, how can they know? The great Rav Soloveitchik never spoke on this!

In conclusion: The majority opinion is that hair/head covering is Dat Moshe, a binding, from-the-Torah law. How we approach it, however, depends on time and place. The Rambam (Maimonides) and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein dictated that all hair should be both covered and unexposed, with Rabbi Feinstein leaving room for a tefach or hands' breadth of hair to be exposed. Wear a hat, wear a tichel, just keep it covered and unexposed. However, some communities never covered, and others shave their heads to cover. The important thing to note in all of this, then, is that all of these individuals who choose to cover and not to cover have basis in texts and the opinions of the great rabbis. Ultimately, you should seek out a reliable rabbi in your community to explain to you your community's standards. It is not -- ever -- advisable to "shop around" for a rabbi who will tell you it's okay to go out uncovered as a Torah-observant, married, Jewish woman. It isn't in the spirit of Judaism! As one rabbi has said, "It is not God-fearing to hunt for new leniences where there is no pressing need" (33).

Modesty, indeed, plays a role in hair covering, but that's a "scratch-the-surface" answer that results in more questions than answers. Yes, by covering my hair I carry myself in a manner that I view as modest. It keeps reminds me that I am a Jewish woman, it reminds me that I am married, it allows me to walk about without running wildly (my scarf would fall off!), and all of these things allow me to speak appropriately, think appropriately, and keep Judaism before me at all times. But knowing that this simple mitzvah is an act of Torah law? That's powerful. That's the crux of everything: Torah, HaShem. 

(Note: The Shulchan Aruch commentary does say that hair covering clearly is only a custom that may be subject to change based on societal standards and community practice. This goes back to the previous post, and even in the Mishnah Brurah and Aruch haShulchan there are discussions about what to do if a married woman does have her hair uncovered. As progressive and forward-thinking as some women today might think they are, someone's already attempted to push that boundary of uncovering.)

Action: Write your own story about why you are embracing it or aren't. If you're not married, write something to. Why would or wouldn't you embrace it? Post it to your blog. Link it here on this blog post. We'll start our OWN narrative on what gives us the heebie-jeebies about hair covering, what we don't buy into, and what makes our hearts sing when we cover our hair.