Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart
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Monday, 21 December 2009

To Cover Or Not To Cover

As first noted on Rav Gil Student's Hirhurim blog, Rav Michael Broyde recent published a long treatise on the permissibility for married Jewish women to not cover their hair in public.  As anticipated, Rav Broyde's piece has generated tremendous discussion in the blogosphere.  This post is my attempt to add to that discussion.
Before I begin I will note the obvious.  Rav Michael Broyde is a tremendous talmid chacham, an important dayan in American circles and a very infuential figure within the modern Orthodox community while I am only a mythical secondary character in an excellent fantasy fiction trilogy.  I wish no offence to Rav Broyde in my comments on his article, nor do I expect him to even take note of them but if part of limud Torah is the element of discussion around such things, then I am within acceptable limits to state my concerns.
It is interesting to note that many otherwiswe impeccably tznius frum marriedwomen in the Modern Orthodoxy community routinely avoid the requirement to cover their hair properly when in public.  I'm not talking about the ladies who wear pants or short sleeved shirts but those garbed completely appropriately but with the locks flowing in the wind.  Given that this habit has not been limited to the layfolk but that several prominent rebbitzens over the years have also gone bareheaded in public, it stands to reason that there must be halachic justification for the practice.  It is this justification Rav Broyde seeks in his article.
Certainly the issue of hair covering is not as cut and dried as some in the Chareidi community might like others to believe.  There is tremendous discussion on both the stringent and lenient sides of the issue from the gemara down to the Acharonim with strong arguments brought for each.
Basically the root of the arguments comes from a verse in the laws of the Sotah in Bamidbar.  As part of the ritual in the Temple, we are told that the Kohen officiating uncovers the woman's hair.  This leads Rashi and others to conclude that until that point it had been covered and that therefore Jewish women cover their hair.
The problem with such a vague reference is that it provides no parameters.  At one extreme we could conclude, as the Rambam does, that public hair covering is an obligation for all Jewish woman, married or not.  One could counter with the opposite extreme - hair covering is only required when the woman enters the Temple precinct (or shul nowadays), not otherwise.  Or it could be somewhere in between.
Further, Rav Broyde notes that what uncovering the hair means is also vague.  Does it actually mean removing a physical hair covering or could it be understood to mean that the woman's hair was neatly braided and that uncovering means undoing the braid and giving it a rough toussle?  If the latter is the case, then we can learn nothing about physical hair covering from the verse.  We might only conclude that a woman must go publicly with her hair nicely braided, not necessarily physically covered.
From there we move to the famous gemara in Kesubos that discussed das Moshe and das Yehudis.  In brief, das Moshe are those Torah-level obligations that are required of married women in their marriages.  Das Yehudis are those obligations that are incumbent on married women by force of custom and predominant culture.  The difference between the two is vital.  The former don't change from time to time or place to place.  The latter do and therefore if physical hair covering is das Yehudis then if it can be shown that not covering the hair is acceptable in society today then there is no obligation for married women to cover their hair.
Thus Rav Broyde, in a thorough analysis of the issue proceeds to propose that physical hair covering is das Yehudis and therefore since nowadays we are used to seeing married women with uncovered hair and therefore the sight of such elicits no sexual excitement (the presumed reason for the prohibition) then married women today no longer have to cover their hair.
To his credit, Rav Broyde notes at the end of his article that he is not coming to moreh heter on the subject but merely to melamed zechus on those frum women who do not cover their hair in public.  However, his treamtent of the subject left me unconvinced for the following reasons.
1) A basic reading of the gemara implies there are two levels of head covering, one a das Moshe and the other a das YehudisDas Moshe would seem to require some kind of head covering referred to as a work basket.  Thus a baseball cap nowadays might be sufficient to fulfill the requirement.  Das Yehudis, on the other hand, seems to require a complete covering the hair in public, at least during the times of the gemara.  Rav Broyde goes on to show that over different eras, many Rishonim in fact drew this conclusion but he uses (deliberately?) vague language in doing so.  Although he lists eight prominent authorities who clearly conclude that "hair covering" is das Yehudis, one could easily conlude from reading their excerpts that they mean the second type of hair covering, the "total" version instead of the "minimalist" version.  Thus while showing support for the baseball cap option, he strongly gives the impression that being competely bareheaded is not a violation of das Moshe, something not supported by the gemara or a simple reading of his supporting Rishonim.
2) From reading his various sources, there is a meta-thought that comes to mind.  Yes, many authorities note something along the lines of  "Nowadays since no one covers their hair, there is no sexual excitement associated with a married woman's hair so they don't have to cover it" but in many cases there is an caveat along the lines of "In our many sins..." or "Woe that we have fallen this far but..."  In other words, many of ther permissive authorities admit that total hair coveing is only das Yehudis and therefore not required like in the times of the gemara but they clearly don't accept this as the ideal situation.  Does this not imply something beyond the basic "Is it allowed or isn't it"?  To use a harsh analogy, someone living in a swamp eventually won't notice the stench but that doesn't mean the place no longer objectively stinks.
3) There are those who can take Rav Broyde's conclusions to an unacceptable extreme.  If das Yehudis is subjective and dependent on societal norms, then why can't this be extended to other areas of tznius?  If all woman walk around in tank tops and mini skirts which makes that the societal norm, then why couldn't some avante garde YCT Rav come along and advise his female congregants that its okay to dress like that?
4) Finally, many people who drink cholov stam know that Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt"l, wrote a teshuvah permitting the drinking of regular milk.  They might not know the details or limitations of the responsa but they know to say "Rav Moshe said it's okay".  My fear is that this article, although presented in a very specific fashion, will one day become the equivalent of that teshuva with Modern Orthodox women who have never read the article saying "It's okay not to cover your hair.  Rabbi Broyde said so."  Yes, a posek doesn't have to take into account ignorance and people who will deliberately misrepresent them but with Modern Orthodoxy needing chizuk, not heterim, in order to strengthen itself, this article might work in the opposite fashion and give legitimacy to the "See, another thing we don't really have to do!" crowd.
These then are my concerns and why I am not as impressed with the article as I was hoping I would be.

5 comments:

David said...

Hair covering has long struck me as a bit silly for one of the reasons you mentioned (we're all pretty much used to seeing everyone's hair, and nobody but frummies and Islamic fundamentalists thinks it a mark of modesty to cover it). The ironic result is old ladies with thinning grey hair who wear luxurious shaitels that look better than anything that ever sprouted out of their heads. Doing things that are more likely to call attention to you than not (like covering your hair in public) is hardly "modest" in any meaningful sense of the word. One can cover one's hair and not be particularly modest, and one can leave one's hair uncovered and be quite modest.

It's yet another example of ritual taking precedence over substance, which is pretty much the depressing state of Orthodox Judaism today.

Full disclosure: my wife covers her hair.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Sad statement: I agree with you about the ritual taking precedence over substance.

A few years ago I saw a TV special on Chabad and they interviewed one young kallah who was asked precisely that: what's the point of a wig that looks great if the whole point is to be modest? And in her best Brooklyn accent she told them "The Torah says you have to cover yer hair. It doesn't say anything about the new hair being better or worse than what's underneath so why wouldn't I want to look my best?"

Seeing the leaves, missing the forest, that's what they're doing.

David said...

Garnel,
Not to try to force an argument when we obviously agree, but what is the point? The rabbis allow for shaitels. They also allow for lipstick, make-up, and bras that make women look a bit firmer than they actually are.
I recognize that it's unrealistic, if not unreasonable, to try to conform the Torah world to society at large, but, in all honestly, "modesty" is a very relative concept. If you live on an island where all the natives wear nothing but grass skirts, you're not being modest if you wear a dark suit and a white shirt-- you're just calling attention to yourself. Now, I'm not arguing that you should adopt whatever the local standards are, but I am suggesting that the dress code imposed on Jewish women by a group of Jewish men has little to do with actual modesty.
People should dress modestly; but they should also understand what modesty actually means.

Garnel Ironheart said...

> Not to try to force an argument

I've gotten the impression you live for it!

Anyway, I recall reading an article about Islam and head coverings a few years ago in which they described how Muslim women often cover their hair for purposes of modesty but without any connect to what they're wearing on their bodies. So in a Canadian university you might see a Muslim girl in tight jeans but wearing a hijab. In some African countries where women go topless as a matter of course, the Muslims will also go al fresco but with their hair covered. So your comment about being on the island with grass skirts is a good one but it raises a counter point - in addition to considerations of modesty, there is an issue of Jews dressing in a distinctively Jewish fashion. According to the more stringent authorites one should be able to recognize a Jew from just a glace on the street, which explains many of the "uniforms" in the Chareidi world. So yes, on one hand the dark suit would immodestly call attention to yourself but on the other hand it would mark you as a Jew, and if the island is hot, an idiot.

The Leader, Garnel Ironheart said...

A reminder ot readers: keep your coments relevant or keep them to yourselves.