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Re-covering woman as religious subject: reflections on Jewish women and hair-covering.

Beginning with the rabbis of the Talmud there is an ongoing debate throughout Jewish legal history about the nature of law and its relationship to societal change: Is a particular law ahistorical and equally applicable through time or is it and has it always been subject to change? The Jewish legal tradition is layered with legal, narrative and sociological elements and this article brings these strands together with a focus on the issue of hair-covering for women. Feminist scholars of Jewish and Islamic law alike are drawing on the social context of religious laws as a way to explore possibilities for legal reform and development in alignment with established legal principles and a sense of loyalty to the respective legal traditions. (1) By showing how the legal traditions have always been decided in the spirit of the times, this reinforces the precedent that social change directly impacts and effects change in religious law. This is not a comprehensive history of the development of hair-covering in Jewish sources and practice. Although I propose reinterpretation of sources and rituals as a means of feminist agency, I am also interested in delineating the limits of reinterpretation as a means of agency.

In an era where modern western values prize individual rights and autonomy, prescriptive religious dress codes present an interesting point of contradiction and challenge. On the one hand, religious dress codes restrict and reinforce notions of women as sexual objects. On the other hand, religious dress codes can potentially undermine the objectification of women. Fashion does not get to be the ultimate arbiter where dress codes prevail. Dress as an expression of religious or cultural practice operates in gendered patterns. Many modern practitioners of religion come to their own understandings of the rituals they observe. Despite the divergent meanings that people attribute to their practice, it is difficult to divorce ritual action from the context in which rituals originate. This article shows that like all cultural practices hair-covering of religious Jewish married women holds multiple layers of meaning. The religious requirement of hair-covering for Jewish married women represents the woman as the potential object of the male gaze and as a distraction to religious service. At the same time this article explores this practice for women as religious subjects through hair-covering as an expression of their agency in their religious life.

Nature and origin of the obligation

Like all cultural and religious practice, women's hair-covering is a gen-dered practice. It is also primarily associated with married women. There is rabbinic debate, beginning with the first rabbinic commentaries on the Bible in Mishnah and Midrash Halakha, about the exact nature of the obligation of hair-covering for married women. (2) The debate centres around the question of whether hair-covering is a biblical or rabbinic obligation and what, if any, are the limits and parameters of the obligation. Hair covering as an obligation for married Jewish women may be a custom that draws upon biblical proofs for its validity. (3) The source in question that serves as the only biblical clue to women's hair-covering describes the gruesome ritual undertaken by the Priest upon the suspected adulteress (the Sotah), suspected because of her husband's jealousy.

The Bible states that "the priest shall set the woman before the Lord and loosen the woman's hair" (Numbers 5:18). (4) This is the only pentateuchal reference that alludes to what the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud interpret as a woman's obligation to cover her hair. The assumption is that because the woman's hair is being loosened it was previously tied up, and therefore that all women tied up--or covered--their hair. This is the verse that is used by those rabbis who argue that women's hair-covering is an obligation that comes directly from the Bible. (5) The rabbis go on to dispute how the hair needs to be covered, how much of it and in what social setting.

Halakhic Midrash renders biblical passages into law with direct biblical authority. When it comes to the verse above concerning the adulteress, Halakhic Midrash (Sifrei, Numbers 11) says that: "This teaches us about Jewish women (lit. girls) that they cover their hair. And although there is no proof to this there is a hint when it says 'And Tamar placed a covering on her head' (2 Samuel 13:19)." (6) Although not as authoritative as proof from the Pentateuch, other biblical sources can be used by midrash halakha to adduce the existence of laws and norms. It is strange that the midrash uses Tamar as proof of what later became known as married women's hair-covering. Tamar put dust on her head in an array of actions that signify mourning. The wearing of the ornamental tunic, that she ripped--as another sign of mourning--also represents loss of virginity.

The Mishna in Babylonian Talmud Tractate Ketubot 72a-b says:
   These are to be divorced without receiving their ketubah:
   a wife who transgresses the Law of Moses (Dat Moshe) or
   the practice of Jewish women (Dat Yehudit). And what is
   [regarded as a wife's transgression against] the law of
   Moses? Giving her husband untithed food, having intercourse
   with him during menstruation, not setting apart her
   dough offering, or making vows and not fulfilling them. And
   what [is deemed to be a wife's transgression against] the
   practice of Jewish women? Going out with an uncovered
   head, spinning in the street or conversing with every man.
   Abba Saul said: Also included is she who curses her
   husband's parents in his presence. R. Tarfon said also one
   who screams. And who is regarded a screamer? A woman
   whose voice can be heard by her neighbours when she
   speaks inside her house.

The Gemara--a commentary on the Mishna that forms the bulk of the Talmud--questions the categorisation of "going out with head uncovered" as a "practice of Jewish women" instead of as the "Law of Moses," in particular the verse in question, Numbers 5:18. The Talmud resolves this question in a characteristic fashion of creating different gradations to harmonise potentially contradictory laws. It says: "Biblically it is quite satisfactory if her head is covered by the work-basket, but according to traditional Jewish practice, however, she is forbidden [to go out uncovered] even with a basket on her head." Therefore this particular portion of the Talmud establishes that on a biblical level, a minimum covering is required but that the "practice of Jewish women" has added greater requirements for haircovering. (7)

The role of social context in determination of the law

In Maimonides' Code of Jewish law he says that "Daughters of Israel should not go out in to the marketplace with an exposed head whether married or unmarried" (Maimonides 21:17). It is likely that Maimonides reflected the cultural practices of twelfth-century Egypt where all women covered their heads in the public space of the marketplace. As a result of the cultural practices of his world, Maimonides does not distinguish between the hair of married and unmarried women, as do other legalists. This raises another interesting question about the way that religious practices are prescribed for married women to protect their husbands and the "sanctity" of the marriage. Some theorists argue that married women are subject to the male fears of indeterminate paternity, so that female sexuality and access to the public sphere is tightly controlled in order to guarantee that the husband is the father of the child. Maternity is evident but paternity is only presumed and therefore needs to be controlled. (8) It is in the husband's interest that other men know that his wife is not sexually available. (9) Medieval commentator Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhak)--quoting from the Sifri, the halakhic midrash on the aforementioned verse from the Book of Numbers--added a more contextualised approach: "[H]e undoes the braids of her hair in order to degrade her. From here we learn regarding Jewish women that an exposed head is a disgrace for them." Rashi indicates that the ritual was about disgracing the woman, and therefore a woman is disgraced when she had a bare head. (10) The understanding of the bare head as a disgrace, positions the covering of the head as a kind of antidote to that disgrace. Ironically, the act of covering the head that was meant to avert disgrace can reproduce that very disgrace through the creation of the obligation.

Later commentators raise the question about whether uncovering the hair is a "disgrace" under all conditions or whether it varies in particular social contexts where the majority of women have uncovered hair. (11) Is the hair of a married woman considered to be a body part that is always covered or is it dependent on the public dress codes? (12) To establish the contextualisation of this law and of other practices according to Jewish law is significant because it establishes from the outset a tradition that has always been in creative and constitutive dialogue with its surrounding environments. As Rabbi Yehuda Henkin states in his recently published book Understanding Tzniut : Modern Controversies in the Jewish Community, "Inurement, or habituation plays a significant if sometimes overlooked role in the development of Halacha" (Henkin 2008:79). Habituation by its nature is something that is determined in relation to a particular social context.

In addition to rabbinic commentaries on the biblical source mentioned above that represents hair-covering as a separate category, there is a parallel concept of modesty that also informs discussions on hair-covering and that was developed by the rabbis of the Talmud and based on biblical references. (13) Perhaps these laws about ervah (nakedness) and the question of what is considered nakedness are treated as more ahistorical? Hair of a woman is considered in the category of ervah (nakedness) along with thighs, voice and other body parts considered private. On the other hand, some elements of social conditioning seem to be applied in the development of standards about what constitutes nakedness as well.

The gendering of modesty requirements

The laws of ervah mandate women to dress in certain ways and also prohibit a man from looking at certain parts of a woman in an objectifying way or with an intention to get pleasure (Shapiro 148154). One of the places where the question of women's hair-covering in rabbinic law is discussed is in the context of male prayer: "What does a woman have to wear in order for a man to be able to pray within sight of her?" is the question that the rabbis ask themselves. If a woman is exposing a body part that is usually covered then a man is both forbidden to look and forbidden to pray in her presence. On the other hand, if women usually appear with this body part uncovered, and if it is not in the category of permanently covered parts always considered ervah (nakedness)--such as thighs and breasts--then it is not ervah (nakedness) and prayer is not prevented (Shapiro 148-154). The Talmud in Tractate Brachot 24a says:

Rabbi Isaac said: "A handbreath exposed in a married woman is ervah. In which way? Shall I say if I gazed at it, but we have already said ... No, it means in one's own wife and when he recites the Shema (the major prayer proclaiming God's oneness and providence)."

Picking up the Talmudic analysis, the Ravyah, Rabbi Eliezer son of Joel Halevi (1140-1225 Germany) is one commentator who acknowledges exposure as a contngent concept, relative to what one usually shows. He says, "And all the things that we mentioned above regarding ervah (nakedness)--this is only in a thing that it is not common to uncover, but an unmarried girl who is accustomed to uncover her hair--we are not concerned about this, for there are no lustful thoughts, and similarly regarding her singing voice for those who are accustomed to it" (quoted in Mordechai on BT Brachot #80). Therefore we see that according to the Ravyah it is not necessarily the part of the body per se that makes it attractive, it is whether or not we usually have access to it that makes it attractive. (14) His rationale is that when something is hidden it becomes more attractive to us. (15)

An ironic result of this relational concept of sexual attraction as expounded by the Ravyah implies that it is through the covering of something that it becomes attractive and therefore needs to be covered. This phenomenon is also illustrated by the way in which sexually policing communities can become so obsessed with avoiding improper sexuality that their initial purposes are thwarted. Henkin makes a similar argument in his critique of those modern Haredi (ultra-orthodox) teachings that put modesty as the centre of women's religious duties. He says "There is danger here of losing sight of the real basics of modesty--not to mention being so concerned about not thinking about women that one can think of nothing else" (Henkin 2008:72).

This idea of the relational content of what is considered attractive is supported by a responsum of Rabbi Yehoshua of Babad (late eighteenth-century European) who argues strongly that habituation would undo the need for certain practices regarding issues of modesty. Therefore he does not subscribe to the view that rabbinic sayings about modesty are ahistorically or eternally true but he rules that they can vary according to the social context. He writes: "But if all Jewish women had the practice to go with their heads uncovered, there would not be any prohibition for married women to go in such a manner" (Responsa Sefer Yehoshua 89). Not only does restriction create attraction but the absence of restriction could nullify the need for restriction at all. There is nothing essentially immodest about the hair; rather, specific cultural practices have given it a certain meaning that can therefore change. (16) He even goes so far as to say: "And even in an opposite situation to what is now, if married women were to have their heads uncovered and virgins their heads covered, then the law would be that virgins were forbidden to go with hair uncovered and married women were permitted" (Responsa Sefer Yehoshua 89). It is possible that these commentators who refer to the relational context of attraction may not in fact understand head-covering as primarily belonging to the category of ervah or nakedness alongside other private body parts. They may either have a different understanding of ervah which does make it susceptible to changes in context or alternatively they may think that ervah cannot change but that hair-covering is actually in a separate category of laws from ervah. Contemporary legalist Rabbi Yehuda Henkin questions the status of hair within the category of ervah because it is not mentioned in that context in scripture and hair which is not (17) (Henkin 2003:134). Women's hair-covering can be seen to occupy a liminal space within halakhic discourse because it is sometimes mandated and other times not. It is not like other private parts of the body that always need to be covered, but it is also not like those parts of the body that never need to be covered.

Later commentators, namely Rabbi Israel Meir Ha-Cohen (Hafetz Hayim, author of the Mishna Brurah around 1850) and Rabbi Yehiel Halevi Epstein (author of the Aruch ha-Shulchan, end of the nineteenth century), took opposing stands in relation to the question of a man praying in the presence of a married woman with no haircovering. The Mishna Brurah holds that immodesty in relation to a man praying is an objective standard irrespective of the current practices of the day. "Even if it is customary for such a woman and her woman friends in that place to go about bare-headed in the market place as is the way of wanton women, it is forbidden [to recite shema in her presence] (Mishna Brurah, Orach Hayim 75:10). Aruch ha-Shulchan (75:7) decries the bad habits of the time, but states that one can pray in front of women with uncovered hair because now hair is not considered to be immodest for the purposes of prayer. Aruch ha-Shulchan is drawing on the sources that we have mentioned that give weight to the practices of the time and that refer to a sense of modesty that is socially construed and not objective. (18) Further perhaps we need to argue that the Aruch ha-Shulchan does not understand hair-covering as an issue of modesty but rather as an issue of avoiding disgrace of a woman which would not be relevant if all women uncover their heads in a given society.

Although modesty as an ideal, like humility, is generally understood to apply equally to women and men, sexual modesty is primarily represented as a practice by women to prevent men from sinning or being distracted in their service of God. (19) The representation of woman as the agent of male sexual distraction makes women responsible for male behaviour, instead of making men responsible for their own behaviour. Women are not addressed as religious subjects but as potential religious threats or objects. Women's objecthood becomes the basis of their subjectivity--contemporary modest dress has often become the paramount religious commandment for women.

The narrative and mystical dimension

Rabbinic literature, most notably the Talmud, presents an immaculately woven text of legal and narrative fibres alike. At times the narrative material represents a critique of the values represented in the legal discussion, at times the narrative material adds moral weight to the legal discourse. No topic under the scrutiny of the rabbis is without this enigmatic dance of law and narrative, halakha and aggada. Alongside the legal discussion about women's hair-covering is the aggadic and mystical imagery. The Talmud tells of a woman named Kimhit who had seven sons, all of whom eventually served as High Priests. The sages asked her: "What have you done to merit thus?" She replied: "Throughout the days of my life the beams of my house have not seen the plaits of my hair." They responded to her in a somewhat unexpected and ambiguous way: "There were many who did likewise and did not succeed" (BT Yoma 47a). Kimhit represents a woman who has gone beyond the letter of the law as it is spelled out in the Talmud itself. She attributes her good fortune to her act of hair-covering inside the house all the time as well as outside. The sages' response is ambiguous. They could be saying that there are many women who cover all their hair in the same way yet do not receive such rewards. Therefore one should be careful of performing religious acts with a reward in mind. (20) On the other hand the sages could be subtly undermining her practice and discouraging women from taking on too many strictures upon themselves so that they forget what the real basic requirements are. Despite a more ambiguous critical reading it should also be noted that this example of Kimhit is used in some religious circles today as an inspiration towards total and constant hair-covering.

A later medieval source from the Zohar--a major kabbalistic work from thirteenth-century Spain--draws upon this image and takes it a step further. The hair itself is attributed magical powers of bringing misfortune to the family if it is revealed:

Rabbi Hezekiah said: "A curse falls upon the man who allows his wife to reveal her hair. This is part of family modesty. The woman who displays her hair as a mark of adornment leads her household into poverty, deprives her children of respect, and brings an alien element into the home. What causes this? The hair itself, when the head of hair is revealed. And if this is true within the house, how much more outside in the street or with any other kind of immodesty ... Rabbi Judah said if a woman reveals her hair on her head she causes a different kind of hair to be revealed, and this will harm her. Therefore a woman must make sure that even the walls of her house do not see one hair of her head, let alone outside the home (Zohar III 125b-126a, tr. Tishby).

This zoharic text is a good example of the way in which kabbalistic texts invest halakha with cosmic significance. What happens in this world, according to the Zohar, has ramifications for the divine world. Where the aggadic text describes Kimhit's practice of covering all of her hair even at home as an exemplary practice, the Zohar transforms it into a prescriptive practice with dire consequences when transgressed. The following source from an early midrash is another example of the demonisation of women who neglect to cover their heads. It describes the fourth level of hell:
   He entered in to the fourth house and found women hanging
   from their mamelons (daddehen or breasts). He said before
   God: "Reveal the secret; explain this great tragedy." He said
   to him ... "These are the women who reveal their heads in
   the market, and go out from their cities and wean their children,
   and sit in the market in order to entice men ..." (21)

Unlike the previous sources that mention revealed hair, this midrash refers to revealed head. It draws on a principle of measure for measure punishment where because the woman sinned through baring her head and weaning her children she is punished in a related way by hanging from her breasts. A bared head, this text tells us, paves the way to hell. It may be that because the legal texts for hair-covering primarily categorise it as Dat Yehudit, the binding customs for Jewish women as opposed to biblical precepts known as Torat Moshe--the Law of Moses, that the aggadic texts become more punitive and fear-provoking. Where the law itself is not fully authoritative or definitive the narrative enters to make clear pronouncements and to affect behaviour through appeal to extra-legal categories.

Hair-covering as quintessential religious act

The worlds of Jewish law and legal argument and also narrative aggadah are partnered by a rich social performance of Jewish ritual. For many orthodox and all ultra-orthodox women today the act of hair-covering initiated at marriage becomes a significant and constant religious act. Although covering the hair is performed to avoid sexual distraction, it can be seen to further sexualise the hair, both in the experience of the practising woman as well as the male gaze. On the one hand, hair covering of Jewish women and other practices of "modesty" are understood as a way of emphasising the inner qualities of a person, while on the other hand the covering itself sexualises hair and body. The hair becomes invested with a function of being attractive to men. This dynamic is imbued with added peculiarity in the practice of women who cover their hair with attractive wigs. On the one hand the world sees an attractive head of hair but on the other hand in the privacy of her relationship with her husband a woman takes off her wig to reveal a head of hair that has been squashed for most of the day.

In the sixteenth century the wig became fashionable in France for men and women and Jewish women emulated their French neighbours (Bronner 1993:472). Several rabbinic authorities objected to this practice of wearing a wig as a mode of hair-covering for the obvious reason that it belies the purpose of the law and gives the impression that she is not really covering her hair. (22) From this perspective the loophole of wig-wearing is an interesting act of hypocrisy which undermines the very value that the law aims at promoting, that of modesty. However, to see wig-wearing as merely hypocrisy is to miss the truth of it. Wig-wearing actually fulfils the law while at the same time satisfying the woman's desire for having nice hair. In an act of radical irony, if not transgression, the woman flaunts herself precisely by fulfilling the laws of modesty to the strictest degree. Sephardic poskim oppose the practice of wig-wearing to satisfy the hair-covering requirement for exactly this reason.

As expressed in a recent anthology of contemporary Orthodox women's experience, Hide and Seek: Jewish Women and Hair Covering, edited by Lynne Schreiber, a woman's commitment to marriage becomes linked with her commitment to God in a dynamic where hair-covering becomes a religious act par excellence. Even a visit to the sheitl-macher (wig-maker) is described in terms that resemble the inner sanctum of the holy of holies: "I entered the final chamber alone," while she (the sheitl-macher) is likened to a rabbi (Schreiber 2003:75). The sheitl-macher experiences women's attitude to religious practice and is facilitating their practice through her business. Women speak to her about how they "give up hair as a penance for misdeeds" and how "commitment to cover the hair is akin to commitment to God" (Schreiber 2003:55). It establishes "connection with the divine as a basis for all choices" (Schreiber 2003:39).

This gendered division of religious duty where men are for learning and women are for sex, is supported by the idea of women's hair-covering as a modesty issue. Men cover their heads as a way of standing reverently before God--yarmulka comes from yirat malkut, fear of the kingdom of heaven--while women cover their heads to remember they are married and their hair is only for their husbands to see. (23) Henkin epitomises this perspective in his description of certain ideologies in orthodoxy today: "Just as a man has the study of Torah, a woman has the practice of tzniut. The world of tzniut is all-encompassing, and women are expected to 'work on their tzniut as a counterpoint to the man's day-and-night Torah study.' A woman's ultimate distinction is to be called tznuah (modest woman)" (Henkin 2008:71).

In opposition to this view, some women more recently are seeing themselves as covering their head, as a way of marking the fear of the divine--in the way that men cover their heads. The interpretation of women's head-covering as a mark of fear of God is not contradicted by some later sources mentioned above. It strips the practice of head-covering of nearly all of its gendered connotations except that a woman potentially only starts the practice when she is married, so the head covering is also a sign of being married. (24) It is however logically inconsistent for the unmarried woman not to cover her head if the reason for covering is modesty. Despite this problem, the shift from seeing it as a hair-covering--a woman's only obligation--to seeing it as a head-covering--a gender free obligation--enables some women to practice humility without seeing their hair as a sexual object. Haviva Ner-David writes: "The decision to cover my head embodies all the tensions of my religious life. Modern sensibility maintains that requiring women to cover their hair is oppressive; a religious sensibility maintains that wearing a head covering can be humbling and uplifting, reminding us that there is a higher power in the world. I have chosen to embrace the mitzvah of head covering in a way with which I am comfortable: I do not cover my hair, I cover my

head" (Ner-David 2000:58). This interpretation is supported by a ruling of Rabbi Yehiel Michel Epstein in the Aruch Hashulchan (Orach Chaim 75:7). There he reasserts the need for Jewish women's head-covering irrespective of an issue of ervah. He says that the obligation to cover one's head still stands even if hair has the status of body parts that are usually uncovered (Schiller 1995:105). Many of the sources refer to the head rather than the hair, but the assumption is that they are talking about the hair on the head. This distinction is sharpened in responsa that talk about the hair on one's head being covered as opposed to the hair flowing over one's shoulders. Henkin argues that because the hair-covering is derived from the biblical sotah ritual, and because in that ritual the woman's head requires uncovering, if most or a large part of her head is covered (and her hair is not), she is not considered to be bare-headed according to Torah law (Henkin 2008:37).

The possibility of feminist reinterpretation of Jewish law and practice

The understanding of hair-covering as head-covering raises important questions about the limits and possibilities of feminist interpretation of Jewish law and practice. For a woman to consider herself bound to Jewish Law on the one hand, and committed to feminist practice on the other hand potentially gives birth to interesting interpretations and choices. Are all interpretations valid from feminist and traditional Jewish standpoints? What are the limitations to interpretation? (25)

The interpretation of hair-covering as head-covering acknowledging awe of the divine as opposed to an expression of modesty is interesting in that it is the appropriation of a male-identified ritual. Does the appropriation of hair-covering as head-covering as a feminist strategy reinforce dominant structures of what have traditionally been male forms of worship and practice? This question assumes the existence of discrete forms of worship practiced by men and by women, which is by no means an established fact. Feminist commentators on religion have been asking for decades whether we are creating new forms of service or whether we are creating space for women to occupy already established forms of service. Perhaps these questions cannot be separated so easily. The full integration of women into religious service will also mean that the nature of the established religious service will change, even where that is not the express intent.

In conclusion religious practice can produce both women's oppression and liberation simultaneously. Women's engagement through learning becomes a crucial part of this process of shifting from woman as religious object to religious subject. When women engage in the interpretation of sources from within their tradition in its own terms and categories and bring their experience and interpretations to bear, then they can self-consciously bring a range of interpretations and choices to their practice. Most women who cover their hair today do not in fact study the sources--they do so based on societal norms, expectations and pressure.

The deep engagement with textual sources has the risk of obscuring the vision of more radicalised gender upheaval because it is so all-encompassing. If I am spending all of my days in the pages of Talmud and Shulchan Aruch, where do I get the tools to think about alternate strategies for gender practice? Being too immersed in the religious law as a closed system will inhibit thinking outside the system, yet certain changes can only be affected with a degree of investment in the system and engagement in its language and logic. It is possible that women's creative response to the dual obligation to religious practice and to feminism can become the stage of protest as well as acquiescence.


Aranoff, Susan. 2000. "Two Views of Marriage--Two Views of Women: Reconsidering Tav Lemetav Tan Du Milemetav Armelu." Nashim, 3:199-227.

Baumel Joseph, Norma. 1998. "Hair Distractions: Women and Worship in the Responsa of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein," in M.D. Halpern and C. Safrai (eds), Jewish Legal Writings by Women. Jerusalem: Lambda: 8-22.

Bronner, Leila. L. 1993. "From Veil to Wig: Jewish Women's Hair-covering." Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, 42:465-477.

Ginzberg, L. (ed.). 1938. Ginzei Shechter Vol. 1. New York. Haberman, Bonna Devora. 2000. "The Suspected Adulteress: A Study of Textual Embodiment." Prooftexts: A Journal of Jewish Literary History, 20[1-2]:12-42.

Henkin, Yehuda. 2008. Understanding Tzniut : Modern Controversies in the Jewish Community. Jerusalem: Urim Publications.

--2003. Responsa on Contemporary Jewish Women's Issues. New Jersey: KTAV.

Mir-Hosseini, Ziba. 2007. "Islam and Gender Justice," in V.J. Cornell (ed.), Voices of Islam Vol. 5. Westport, Conn.: Praeger: 85-113.

Ner-David, Haviva. 2000. Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Toward Traditional Rabbinic Ordination. Needham, MA.: JFL Books.

Schiller, M. 1995. "The Obligation of Jewish Women to Cover Their Hair." Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, 30:89-91.

Sered, Susan. 2000. What Makes Women Sick: Maternity, Modesty and Militarism in Israeli Society. Hannover and London: Brandeis University Press.

Shapiro, Marc. 1990. "Another Example of 'Minhag America'," Judaism, 39:148-154.

Schreiber, Lynne (ed). 2003. Hide and Seek: Jewish Women and Hair Covering. Jerusalem: Urim Publications.


(1) See feminist Islamic scholar Mir- Hosseini 2007: 85-113.

(2) Halakhic midrash, contemporaneous with the redaction of the mishna in the third century, is the authoritative verse by verse commentary on the Bible that determines the law based on interpretation and the application of hermeneutic principles to the biblical verses.

(3) One of the key questions of Talmudic argumentation is whether a particular commandment is of biblical (d'oraita) or rabbinic origin (d'rabbanan). Some commandments that are not exactly replicated in the bible are still considered to be of biblical origin. The ramifications of such a distinction include differences in the way that doubt is dealt with (if it is biblical then doubt is decided according to the strict opinion and if it is rabbinic then doubt is dealt with leniently) and the willingness of the rabbis to take into consideration mitigating circumstances. Rabbi Michael Broyde, law professor at Emory and Judge of the Rabbinical Court of America, says that the vast over-whelming majority of contemporary decisors who address the issue of hair-covering rule the obligation to cover to be a torah violation; see Yechavah Daat 5:62, Tzitz Eliezer 7:48:3, Iggrot Moshe EH 1:53, Seredai Aish 3:30. shtml, accessed 15 August 2006.

(4) The different translations of the Bible vary slightly as follows: Everett-Fox--"to loosen (the hair of) the woman's head"; Koren--"loosen hair of the woman's head"; JPS--"bare woman's head" and "dishevel hair" from note to Leviticus 10:6; King James--"uncover the woman's head."

(5) If hair-covering for women is seen as a biblical law, as opposed to a rabbinic law then changing social conditions would not mitigate against obligation and this would lend weight to its categorisation as a non-changing law. Rabbi Yehuda Henkin sees the law in two parts. The first biblical prohibition being about a woman having more than half of her head exposed and the other rabbinic laws of ervah and hair fitting into the category of those parts of the body which a woman should not expose and in front of which a man is prohibited from prayer. See Henkin 2003:131-151.

(6) See Jewish Study Bible, Oxford, New York: 641.

(7) This is reminiscent of women taking on a range of stringencies throughout history related to women-only commandments. It is interesting that the legal tradition, although it does not bring the law in the name of a woman, it does note that women have adopted this or that practice. One example is that women started to wait seven clear days after seeing a drop of blood before they could immerse in the mikveh (ritual bath). In the bible after a week including bleeding, a woman could immerse in the mikveh. Another later example is documented by the Rema (Rabbi Moshe Isserles, Kracow sixteenth century) who writes in his gloss to the Shulchan Aruch that women took it upon themselves not to look at the Sefer Torah or even not to come to synagogue when they were menstruating even though this is not something that is prohibited by legal precedent. Perhaps it can be seen as an example of where the law's authority extends beyond itself and becomes internalised in some way and exercised outside of itself.

(8) See Haberman 2000:25 for more about indeterminate paternity and the law of the suspected adulteress.

(9) It is interesting to note that some religious Jewish males do not wear engagement rings because of the prohibition of following the ways of non-Jews. The wearing of a ring by the man is a mutual sign that the woman and the man both wear a sign of their union.

(10) For a further discussion on the differences between dat yehudit and dat moshe and its relationship to hair-covering see Bronner 1993:465; see also Schiller (1995) for elaboration about different kinds of covering mentioned in the sources.

(11) See Rabbi Michael J. Broyde, v24/mj_v24i87.html#CACE.

(12) The technicality of the discussion can risk forgetting the problem of disgracing women as a form of social control and expression among other things of male fear of female infidelity (Baumel Joseph 1998:10).

(13) This distinction between two parallel categories for the prohibition against married women's hair is often blurred by modern scholars. See Shapiro 1990.

(14) Not all or even most commentators see rules of modesty as relative to cultural norms, they see them as eternal and immutable. This leads to a very interesting discussion on the way that rabbinic statements are interpreted as either principles that can change as the times change or whether they are seen as eternal. See discussion on this topic of whether or not rabbinic norms can change with changing circumstances (Aranoff 2000).

(15) This may be an obtuse coding for womb envy or just a reference of desire emerging from lack.

(16) Rabbi Yehiel Michel Epstein in Aruch Hashulchan (Orach Chaim) 75:7 is clear to distinguish between the issue of ervah and married women's hair-covering. That is that he says that the hair may no longer be seen as provoking lust because it has the status of parts of the body which are usually uncovered so one can pray and recite blessings in front of their heads but at the same time married women are still obligated to cover their head. Therefore he severs the link between ervah (nakedness) and hair-covering as well as acknowledging that ervah may be affected by changing times.

(17) Rabbi Henkin says that this is contrary to the view of the Mishna Brurah which holds the position that hair-covering is not subject to social considerations and is therefore like covering the thigh. Or conversely because it is like covering the thigh, and because the prohibition is of a similar nature, it is not subject to social consideration. When hair of a married woman is seen as ervah this actually makes ervah into a subjective category as well. One day it is fine to look at a woman's hair, and the next day when she gets married, it takes on a new status when the woman takes on a new status. Rambam's position--requiring unmarried women to also cover their hair--would be more consistent with the approach of seeing hair as ervah (Henkin 2003:134).

(18), accessed 21 October 2005.

(19) A woman's modesty can become a life or death issue for ultraorthodox men. Susan Sered refers to signs around ultra-orthodox neighborhoods that proclaim: "A woman who wears immodest clothing causes the Divine Presence to depart and leads many to sin. Leading someone to sin is worse than killing him." According to this poster, the immodest woman becomes an alleged murderer. Immodesty wields power for women over men's lives (Sered 2000:124).

(20) This would be drawing a connection with the verse from Pirkei Avot about being a slave to a master without a reward.

(21) See Ginzberg 1938:205, 198. For the historical background to this Midrash see Ginzberg's discussion (189-190) quoted in footnote 41 of S. Herzfeld, "Searching for Sources of the Zohar: A Woman's Headcovering" at 20.haircovering.doc, accessed 4 July 2005.

(22) See the Herzfeld material mentioned previously . Such authorities include R. Katzenellenbogen (Padua, sixteenth-century), and R. Jacob Emden (1697-1776).

(23) As Bronner writes "Modesty in rabbinic literature functionally acted to render the woman inaccessible and unavailable to all but her husband" (1993:467).

(24) This is so unless women covered their heads from when they were girls as in some rare families like the children of Devorah Steinmetz in New York and in other progressive communities, predominantly for synagogue services.

(25) The other question that emerges relates to the de-gendering of the head-covering experience. When women cover their heads in a way that men cover theirs does this collapse women into a male norm? Do we see the male norm as a practice that women should aspire and be equal to? Is equality found in standards applied to men? If it were preferable to have a woman's unique path, can women's experience be represented in a way that adds choice and does not take it away? We do not want to deny women the capacity to interpret their own experience but at the same time need to query about gender-specific claims in religiously essentialist terms.
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Author:Landau, Melanie
Publication:The Australian Journal of Jewish Studies
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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