In my spiritual journey to find what traditions are meaningful to me and enhance my understanding of Judaism, I've considered starting to cover my hair (I'm married). How do I reconcile my feminist values with Jewish ideas of Tzniut and practices such as hair covering?
I give you a lot of credit for your decision to cover your hair, or at least that you are in the process of considering it. It is a difficult mitzvah to keep from what I am told and a very sensitive topic. The reward you will receive for doing it will be that much greater because of the work you have had to do to prepare yourself for this important mitzvah.
Hair covering is an important part of the wardrobe of the married Jewish woman. What uniform exactly am I speaking of? It is the garb of a priestess. Jews are a “kingdom of priests” and we are supposed to dress and act as much. The purpose is to be physical representatives of the values of the Torah that all of the world are supposed to follow. One of the missions of the Jewish woman is to communicate to the world the values of modesty and monogamy. When a Jewish woman covers her hair, she is displaying a higher level of modesty as she is reserving herself for her husband as well as declaring to the world she is married, thus showing the value of such a relationship. The hope and expectation is that non-Jews will look at the way the Jews conduct themselves and want to emulate our behavior.
Judaism has a concept of feminism. Some of it overlaps with the secular version/s, some does not. For example, modesty is seen as a way to put the emphasis on the insides of a person and not simply their looks. This applies to both genders but women are seen as the guardians of modesty. This is due to the fact that Judaism has a concept of gender roles, the anathema of most feminist thinkers I am familiar with. The purpose the gender roles is to create a yin-yang type of relationship where men are supposed to take care of certain functions and women are meant to take care of others. It is not meant to be a control mechanism of men over women.
The only way to really answer whether this step will contradict your feminist values is to clearly define what they are. Are you a first generation feminist like Susan B. Anthony that simply believes that women should have equal rights to representation and equal pay for equal work and such? This doesn’t seem to be a problem. Other strands of feminism present much more of an issue. Feminists thinkers like Naomi Wolf for example say things that are much more problematic from our perspective. We don’t believe that feminist values are a trump card over all other moral or ethical considerations.
To appreciate the Jewish value of modesty, you should take the time to look at some of the literature on the issue. A very good book to read is A Return to Modesty by Wendy Shalit. She wrote the book before she became religious so it has a much broader base of appeal. Outside/Inside by Gila Manolson also deals with the topic, but I can’t recommend it since I haven’t read it.
I wish you much success with all of your spiritual endeavors. Hashem should help you make the right decisions.
Before answering your specific question, let me start by commending you for striving to incorporate more Jewish traditions, values, and practices into your life—something that is central to what living an active Jewish life is all about.The reason our Jewish legal system is described with the word “halacha” --from the Hebrew root word “to walk” -- is that Jewish life is all about walking—traveling the paths of our individual Jewish journeys, continually exploring the beauty and wisdom behind our tradition, and seeking to bring more holiness into our personal lives, into our relationships with others, and into the world around us.
In terms of covering your hair, I think there are a number of questions to consider.You could start by investigating the historical roots of this practice, in order to help give you a greater context and understanding of how this practice came into play, and what significance and meaning was originally ascribed to it.For example, you will find that some traditional sources explain that women’s hair was considered to be very erotic, and therefore had to be covered once a women was married in order to avoid any inappropriate temptation.Within the context of contemporary society, this perspective could seem outdated, irrelevant, and demeaning.That said, you may find some other traditional sources or explanations that make sense to you.
Once you consider the background, if you do find the roots of this practice in conflict with your contemporary sensibilities, you may then want to consider whether or not you are able to personally reinterpret this practice in a new light.Is there a way to “reframe” the practice so that it fits within your values and worldview?A wonderful example of how this “reframing” has played out in recent years is the resurgence of the mikvah.Though many women are uncomfortable with some of the traditional roots of the mikvah’s use, many individuals and communities have been “reclaiming” the mikvah through the application of contemporary values, practices, and understandings to this ancient tradition.This has led to exciting renewed interest in mikvah usage within liberal communities.
I recommend you then examine whether or not there is indeed a tension between your feminist values and the general Jewish concept of tzniut. On the one hand, some practices which fall under the category of “tzniut” (e.g. “Shomer Negiyah”--the practice of avoiding contact with members of the opposite sex, or “Kol Isha”—the practice of women not singing in front of men) have their roots in assumptions that are demeaning or degrading to women. On the other hand, not all elements of tzniut are necessarily in conflict with feminism. One might, perhaps, argue that modesty IS a very “feminist” value as it is ultimately all about self-respect.Modesty can be about treating yourself with the honor and dignity due to one who is made in God’s image.At its best, modesty, practiced by both men and women, can be a reminder that our bodies are not merely objects, but rather holy vessels that are meant to be valued as such.
With all of this in mind, I think that your consideration of the practice of covering your hair is an expression of the way you are obviously embracing the Jewish concept of “walking” and it is something you should be proud of, even as this exploration is bringing up an experience of internal conflict.
Depending on how you define your feminist values, and on how you understand the mitzvah of tzniut generally and of hair-covering in particular, there may be no conflict to resolve.
It cannot be argued that traditional Judaism developed out of anything other than a patriarchal, andro-centric culture and ethos. It similarly cannot be denied that traditional Judaism frequently displays, alongside attitudes often rendering women second-class citizens, an impressive concern for and protection of the dignity, material well-being, and sensibilities of women. Given this tension, it is difficult to address the issue you raise succinctly without minimizing the complexity of the relationship between women, traditional Judaism, and feminist values. Still, I would suggest that, depending on your motivations, your theology, and your philosophy of Jewish practice, the decision to cover your hair could be interpreted as itself a feminist gesture.
The laws of tzniut are meant, in part, to protect men from their own sexual urges, and a feminist may feel justified in asking, “Why should I, a woman, accommodate my dress, indeed the very way in which I move through the world, to the needs of men?” Perhaps men should place restrictions on themselves, instead. As a feminist and a rabbi, I personally have trouble with the idea that a married woman’s hair must be covered for all but her husband. To me, it seems to unduly sexualize this aspect of the female form.
On the other hand, modesty can be seen as a gift that anyone—woman or man—gives to her- or himself, by honoring one’s body and one’s person enough not to objectify the flesh. Moreover, the covering of hair, which strikes me as uncomfortably excessive, is but one point on a continuum. Traditional Judaism does not require women to wear a veil or a burka, but other cultures do. By the same token, I maintain my own personal standards of modesty in dress—for a number of reasons but most basically because I do not wish to present myself to God and the world as a sexual object—that might strike another as overly conservative.
One of my Reform colleagues, who writes the blog at Frume Sarah’s World, put her own spin on the question of tzniut. She writes:
[M]odesty in dress and speech is … not typically a value explored in the liberal [Jewish] communities and I think that is a mistake. Imagine how powerful it could be for modern Jewish girls and women to redefine the motivations for covering their bodies and barring others from objectifying them. (http://frumesarah.com/2011/09/09/the-sisterhood-of-the-vanishing-pants/)
At the same time, the gender-segregation controversy currently raging in Israel and the public abuse of 7- and 8-year-old school girls in Beit Shemesh for alleged immodesty serves to remind us of the potential anti-feminist implications of the laws of tzniut.
Bottom line: if you are taking on the practice of hair covering because it seems meaningful and right and holy to you, a feminist and a Jew, I believe you have found your answer All best wishes as you continue in your spiritual journey!
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