The opening of this piece is thoughtful, spiritually aware, and reflective.
"Though spoken of rarely in public forums and still less in the beis medrash, the amount of physical distress sustained in devotion to the head-covering obligation by a substantial number of people is empirically, emphatically non-negligible."
"That the practice is identity-defining and spiritually foundational for so many – that the stakes are so high – only deepens the need for thoughtful attunement and response."This strikes me as a serious manner of approaching the topic, respectful of the issue as one that does speak to people's use of it as an identity marker, rather than diminishing the topic because it is 'just clothing' or even 'just a women's issue'. I have to say, I was charmed by the opening.
The research into realia was done via internet fora, but well, this is 2015. And it is effective in gathering information. I wonder which fora he looked at, especially since many of the spaces where I've seen such things mentioned are explicitly women's spaces. Or maybe he asked a woman to find such comments and ask if they could copy them and share those comments with him...
A general outline of the halakhic argument is as follows:
1. Any situation that causes pain preventing normal functioning can qualify one as a choleh she'ein bo sakanah (one ill with a non-life-threatening illness).
2. Halakha does/can think preventatively, as is done in allowing leniencies to prevent one from becoming ill due to extreme cold (i.e. Ashkenazi poskim allow asking a non-Jew to build up/start a fire for you, even Before you become ill from the cold.)
3. Sufficiently bad headaches can be bad enough to bring you to this point of difficulty functioning.
4. Once we are handing the category of choleh she'ein bo sakanah, there are leniencies we can invoke. There are different leniencies depending on what category of prohibition or obligation that we're talking about.
4a. We allow leniency in different ways for biblical prohibitions, rabbinic prohibitions, and obligations- more leniency as this list goes on.
5. Establish how head-covering stands in terms of categories of halakhic prohibitions and requirements.
5a. Halakha around head-covering for married women has to do with location/publicity- the more public, the stricter the prohibition on showing hair/going bareheaded.
6. There is likely room for leniency in some situations, starting with the least public areas paired with partial covering, and moving "outward" from there, depending on the situation- but exact details aren't discussed, nor is and actual psak given.
The conclusion is, well, inconclusive-
"Those for whom head-covering entails substantial physical distress should, in conversation with their families, communities, and rabbis, think through the degree of pain they sustain and whether it impedes their capacity to live their daily lives. If it does, they may consider whether certain of their regular, regularly problem-causing environments – their home, backyard, car, low-traffic office – qualify as places in which the head-covering obligation may be d-rabanan; the factors involved may include the number of people present, the number of people liable to become present, whether or not it is indoors, and whether it is controlled and familiar. Given that determination, it may then be considered whether the head-covering obligation ought to be relaxed – employing a less constricting method, covering less – or suspended long enough to alleviate or prevent undue pain."I wish that this conclusion had come down a little closer to "although I believe that each situation should be discussed with one's own rabbi, in certain situations, x, y, and z can be halakhically valid decisions"- this ending feels a little insipid or perhaps even lacking in courage, to me. It is closer to that than it sounded upon first reading, but I would still like this conclusion to read like the conclusion of a teshuva (which the body of the piece does read like), rather than shifting gears.
Something feels missing to me, at the end of the day, but I'm not sure what. It is a reasonable halakhic approach to the problem, but somehow- maybe there's something conceptual missing? Another halakhic concept? Some focus on realities? The sociological realities that people might deal with, when making the decision? I wish I knew.