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On Hair Covering

May 9, 2009 | by Rebbetzin Feige Twerski

A deeper look at the Jewish concept of modesty.

Dear Rebbetzin,

I converted over three years ago and have been married now for a year and a half. There are a few areas I struggle with but one sticks out as being the hardest: covering my hair.

Right now, when I go to a religious function or to the synagogue, I wear a hat over my shoulder-length hair. At work I do not cover my hair. Aside from the issue of if I should be covering my head, I am feeling that I am consigning myself to a certain social circle for how I cover my hair. I have also heard that the extent to which one keeps kosher can be "viewed" by whether one covers her head. All of this saddens me and makes me reflect on how we as Jews do not love each other the way we should.

I can also add that people in my life who are not orthodox (i.e. my mother, some friends who are Jewish but not observant and colleagues at work) would react negatively to my covering my hair. I tried making a start by covering my hair all day Friday -- I work at home and run errands at lunch. One non-observant acquaintance saw me and in the middle of the kosher market said, "Since when are you covering your hair? Is this something new?" I felt so embarrassed as other women in wigs began to look closer at me. I just shook my head and changed the subject.

I am torn. Part of me wants to cover my hair, but part of me does not. All this makes me feel guilty for not covering my hair, and I wish there was a solution.

I worry that my career path will be hampered if I suddenly chose to cover my hair. I hate to call attention to myself and I feel in a way it's not modest since people will be drawn to looking at me to examine how I changed.

Finally there is my mother, who takes it all so hard, and being an only child I feel guilty that I am making her feel uncomfortable and angry, and I feel resentful that I still care about what she would feel more than what God asks of me.

Thankfully my husband is understanding and has indicated that when it is right for me, if it is right for me, it's all up to me -- his mother did not cover her hair until later in life.

I would appreciate any words or comments you have about this particular law and also the bigger picture that perhaps everyone can relate to: being observant in the face of society's "approval."

Tearing my hair out.

Rebbetzin Feige responds:

My dear reader,

The first note of clarification needs to be that the objective of God's commandments is not the betterment of society as a whole or how we might appear to others, but rather how the mitzvot (commandments) speak to us personally, and how they enhance and promote the requisite spiritual growth of the individual who observes them.

A mitzvah (commandment) is a communication between the 'Metzvave,' the Commander (God), and the person who has wisely chosen to observe His expressed will, thereby forging a personal relationship with the Master of the universe. Society and the people around us are merely incidental and peripheral to the process.

As you correctly noted, covering the hair for a woman is indeed only part of a bigger picture.

Philosophically, the issue at hand is the existential struggle between focusing on the external or the internal dimensions of life. The external is the physical, material world of appearances that incessantly and compellingly beckons to us. This includes the never-ending drive to sate our appetites. It encompasses the needs of eating, drinking, sleeping, clothing ourselves, careers, acquisition of money, buying bigger and more beautiful homes, cars, vacations etc, etc. All of these drives are part of the world of the proverbial hunt. Arguably, the pursuit of the blandishments of the external world can be all consuming and, as such, can conceivably take us far off course from a life of purpose and meaning.

The internal world is the world of the spirit. Its voice is quieter and its demands on the human being more subtle and admittedly drowned out by the loud chatter of external pressures. But to ignore the needs of the soul is to ultimately deny one's raison d'etre -- the reason for being on this earth.

Tzniut is the de-emphasis of the outer self that enables the essential self to emerge.

The Almighty, in His great Wisdom, has provided us with the laws of Tzniut, variously translated as modesty, privacy. Better yet, Tzniut is the de-emphasis of the outer self that enables the essential self to emerge. Practically speaking, this means that our behavior in speech, dress, and in the way we carry ourselves should convey the message to ourselves primarily and to others secondarily that I need to be attractive and not attracting.

Attracting undue attention to my physical self proclaims that the totality of my person inheres in the physical presentation, that what you see is what you get. In contrast, when I am private and modest in my demeanor and to the extent I expose only that which is appropriate, my statement is that my body, important as it is, is no more than a vehicle for my essence. I am making the statement that it is indeed my character, my personality, my attributes which are the expression of the image of God in which I am created.

Consider the absurd end of the spectrum -- the tabloids and the various magazines at the checkout counters, the flaunting of flesh that screams "Look at me!" "This is who I am!" Where is the sense of the greater dignity that emanates from the fact that one's essence is drawn from God Himself? Clearly, there is no appreciation that there is so much more to a human being than their configuration which, no matter how impressive, ultimately has no enduring existence. In the end, everything that is physical wanes, dies and decays. It is only our internal spirit which is part and parcel of the Almighty that is eternal and timeless.

The external world of the hunt is primarily a man's domain. It is the sphere which man exercises his power and finds fulfillment. It is he, though not exclusively, who has historically been responsible for going out there to make a living by manipulating and exploiting the external environment.

The thrust of a woman's life is best captured by King David in the book of Psalms, who states, "the dignity of the daughter of a king is her inwardness." Hers is the inner stage of life, the private sector, the personal, the home, and by extension the one quintessentially able to connect with the inner springs of her person. Her inner place is the source of her superior ability to relate, to intuit, to perceive, to care, and to nurture. A woman has the greater wherewithal to look inside of herself for fulfillment and true gratification.

Anne Lindbergh, in her book Gift from the Sea, writes,

"Woman must be the pioneer in the turning inward for strength. In a sense, she has always been the pioneer. Less able until the last generation, to escape into outward activities, the very limitations of her life forced her to look inward. And from looking inward she gained an inner strength which man in his outward active life, did not as often find. But in our recent efforts to emancipate ourselves, to prove ourselves the equal of man, we have naturally enough perhaps, been drawn to competing him in his outward activities to the neglect of our own inner springs. Why have we been seduced into abandoning this timeless inner strength of woman, for the temporal strength of man? The outer strength of man is essential to the pattern, but even here the reign of purely outer strengths and purely outward solutions seem to be waning today. Men, too, are being forced to look inward -- to find inner solutions as well as outer ones. Perhaps, this change marks a new stage of maturity for modern, extrovert, activist, materialistic man. Can it be that he is beginning to realize that the Kingdom of Heaven is from within?"

Often times, the stimulus for a woman to go inward and to connect to her core are life changing events, such as life threatening illnesses (God forbid), losses, and various forms of adversity. Something that challenges the status quo motivates her to take stock and evaluate the authenticity of her life.

Hair covering serves as a constant reminder for a woman to focus on the inner beauty inside of her.

For observant women who are tuned in and listen carefully, the mitzvah of Tzniut -- of dressing modestly and covering one's hair after marriage -- serve as a powerful medium to raise our consciousness and maintain our awareness that we must be inner directed. The hair, which is a woman's 'crowning beauty,' is covered when a woman leaves the confines of her home. In a sense, her full beauty is reserved exclusively for her husband. The foreign object, be it a hat or wig, no matter how attractive, is foreign, nonetheless, and constantly reminds a woman to focus on the inner beauty inside of her.

In a behavioral way when we go out there to interface with the powerful world of illusion, we center ourselves with a reality check. We cover our hair in an attempt to somewhat conceal our external selves, so that we might reveal and plug into the internal.

The commentators note that a woman covers her eyes when she lights the Shabbat candles, to block out the external world -- that which is only virtual reality -- so that she might apprehend the true, real world of the spirit. Similarly, when we recite the Shema, our ultimate statement of faith in God, we cover our eyes to our immediate external surroundings and move deep inside of ourselves to get in touch with what is real and enduring.

Assuredly, observant women must take care to always look pleasant, clean and appealing. Not to do so would reflect negatively on the God whose imprint she bears.

Bottom line, the concept of Tzniut cautions us that to get seduced by a culture that is obsessed with externalities is to abandon our very core and essence.

My husband has suggested the following additional philosophic framework for covering one's hair. Hair, in Jewish sources, is representative of the Yetzer Harah, the base inclination. Consider Esau, Jacob's evil twin brother who has born hairy, furry, animalistic. Hair grows in the areas of our body that are most closely associated with appetites that require discipline and self-control; the mouth, pubic area, the head, the brain. While we cannot control whether hair will grow or not, we can choose our response to the challenge it represents.

The domain in the male in his service to God is within the sanctification of time. It is preferably he who should usher in the Sabbath and holidays by the recitation of the Kiddush. The Nazir, who takes on a vow to abstain from wine and live in a heightened sense of purity, lets his hair grow for 30 days. Hence, in responding to the challenge of hair which represents unbridled appetite, a man is required to deal with it in time. He cuts his hair before holidays. A Kohen Gadol, (high priest) had to cut his hair once a week. A king was required by Jewish law to cut his hair every day. All of these are time connected.

The Jewish woman's role is seen within the sanctification of space -- the space of the home, the womb, etc. The woman expresses her understanding of the need to govern her Yetzer Harah, i.e. the growth of hair that symbolizes appetite, by creating a space around her head. Thus, by exercising her prerogative as the sanctifier of space, she creates a boundary around her head through the covering she wears.

Whether this approach resonates with you or not, when a married woman chooses to abide by the requirements of Halacha, (Jewish law) to cover her hair, when she leaves the context of her home, one thing is very clear: Covering one's hair is a very cogent reminder, moment to moment, that she is a married woman. Regardless of how attractive that hair covering might be [it may even be more attractive than one's own hair], it is, nonetheless, a foreign object which creates an undeniable awareness of one's marital status. Especially in our times when the barriers to the genders interacting freely have been removed and the opportunities, both socially and in the workplace, abound, there can never be too many reminders that we are committed to the exclusive covenant of our marriage.

My dear reader, taking into account everyone's reaction, sensitive as it might be, does not serve you well or give you peace. To your own self be true and everyone else will ultimately adjust. I sense that your level of observance and the kind of conversion to which you committed your life involved the acceptance of all mitzvot (commandments). You have to assume responsibility for your decision.

Those who question the level of your kashrut (observance of dietary laws) or that of others based on whether they cover their hair, are merely stating that since they have neither the time nor the opportunity to examine every home in question, they can safely assume that one who commits themselves to all of the mitzvot can also be trusted in the standard of their kashrut. It's not a value judgment of their personhood. It is merely a way of attempting to maintain the integrity of a commitment that, to them, is very precious.

All of us, my dear reader, are on a journey towards becoming the best we can be. There are times in everyone's life when we are torn. We hear conflicting voices inside of us, simultaneously urging us in different directions. There are times when we have to keep moving up the mountain and other times when we need to stop and catch our breath. This might be a good time to enlist the guidance of someone you respect to help you gain some clarity and perspective.

Your husband is wise to leave it up to you. He knows that your agonizing is a product of a desire to do the right thing. And I am sure that you will. I wish you all the best.


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