Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Modern Text: A Very Focused Review

One of the journals I read (it's often my "I can't focus in shul, let's read for 5 minutes during the announcements/brachot after haftarah/etc reading) is Conversations.  In the winter 2012 issue, there's an article by Rabbi Marc Angel called "A Modesty Proposal: Rethinking Tseniut"  (It's available online).  It's a broad approach to his philosophy of tsniut in general, and I'm not going to address his whole article.  But here's what he has to say about women's head covering, and my own thoughts in response:
Here are a few items that udnerscore the gap between the concept of tseniut and the technical halakhic rules that are supposed to foster tseniut:
1. “Women’s hair is considered ervah, nakedness.” Normative halakha applies this statement only to married women. Single women need not cover their hair, since men are used to seeing them with uncovered hair and will not be aroused.
This ascribes one particular reason to the requirement for married women to cover their hair.  Rabbi Angel argues that women's hair (in a moment, he'll limit it to adult women's hair) is arousing, but that we presume that this is not true of single women.  I've seen it argued elsewhere that while women's hair is attractive, single women are permitted to reveal it in order to "catch" a mate...  If you allow a degree of attractiveness in between "completely platonic" and  "generally arousing", the argument begins to break down a little bit.
Is this a valid argument? In olden times when girls were married off at an early age, this assumption may have held true. Seeing girls up to the age of early teens with uncovered hair may have been a normal feature of life, not generating untoward thoughts on the part of men. Yet, today most women do not get married while they are still children. If a woman in her 20s or 30s has her hair uncovered, what difference would it make to men whether she is single or married? Most men would not be able to tell whether such a woman is single or married.
Another interpretation of the reason behind the mitzvah is to help us tell who is married and who is not.  It falls then less into the category of tzniut, admittedly (and makes trouble for the gemara on which Rabbi Angel is relying, but it is not the only gemara that discusses women's head-covering), and more into the category of a status-marker, like wearing a kippah might be (marking one as a Jew, among its other uses), or wearing a wedding ring.
Yet, halakha allows the single woman to go bare-headed, while a married woman must cover her hair. If the purpose of head covering is to foster tseniut and to prevent men from looking at women’s “nakedness,” then there is no substantial reason today to differentiate between married and single women. Either all women of marriageable age should cover their hair, or none of them need cover their hair because men are accustomed to seeing women with uncovered hair. Indeed, Rabbi Yosef Mesas rules that married women need not cover their hair in our days, since the normal practice of women in our society is to go with hair uncovered.  He wrote: “Since in our time all the women of the world have voided the previous practice and have returned to the simple practice of uncovering their hair, and there is nothing in this that constitutes brazenness or lack of modesty…therefore the prohibition of covering one’s hair has been lifted.”
In other words, he argues that social norms of modesty have shifted, and therefore Jews should follow the same norms as the rest of the society in which we live.  And modesty is always about social norms to a certain extent.

But it can also be able establishing our own communal norms- and certain parts of the Jewish community take that perspective very seriously- to the point of declaring immodest things that are considered more than modest enough in the general society (for instance long, relatively loose pants).  (Yet another perspective declares modesty to be external to society and to have fixed, inviolable rules.  That perspective would reject Rabbi Angel's argument as absurd.  That perspective has a hard time dealing with history, though.)

Even without going to that extreme, there might be room to decide that we see some value in some intermediate practice- or even for going "whole hog" in order to maintain our identity.  On the other hand, I see a lot of justice in this argument.  It's a pretty fair one- as long as you consider modesty to be a purely social/communal phenomenon.
2. “Women’s hair is considered ervah.” Yet various posekim allow women to cover their own natural hair with a wig. As long as they have fulfilled the technicality of covering their hair, they are not in violation of halakha.
The weighing of the technicalities and the intent of halakha tend to come up at a draw.  I sympathize with Rabbi Angel's argument, myself.   Nevertheless, I can see a concern with fulfilling a technicality when you don't feel strongly about the intent.  If you don't understand the intent of hair-covering, or feel it is inapplicable (as Rabbi Angel himself seems to feel or at least accept as reasonable), then why not fulfill a mitzvah while not marking yourself as outside the norm?
In some circles, it is expected that married women wear wigs; if they do not do so, they are considered to be religiously deficient. Does this make any sense? Women will spend thousands of dollars to buy wigs that often look better than their own hair. They will wear these wigs, which can be quite attractive, and be considered to be within the laws of tseniut. However, if a woman “wears” her own hair, in a modest fashion, such a woman is deemed (by many) to be in violation of halakha. If a woman’s hair is indeed nakedness, how can it possibly be permitted for them to wear wigs—also made of hair? Would anyone suggest that a woman is permitted to wear a skin-colored dress that is printed with the design of her private body parts? Of course not. Such clothing is obviously anti-tseniut. Likewise, if a woman’s hair is nakedness, covering it with a wig is anti-tseniut.
 I'm fond of this argument, because it's so blatant.  However, since I see a fairly significant difference between hair and one's genitalia, breasts, etc, I can see some space for claiming that this argument is too overstated to be reasonable.  After all, as long as one's wig is part of one's external apparel, it acquires a certain status in our minds.  And since there are plenty of women who don't cover their hair at all, all around us, while almost no women walk around with uncovered genitalia, there's a difference in gradation going on- maybe.  After all, I do see observant women who wear vaguely skin-colored shirts under otherwise two-revealing tops, and that seems to be acceptable...  Just because two things carry the same general label doesn't mean that they fit into an exactly identical category.

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