Within Orthodox Jewry, the practice of respecting tzniut (modesty), is nearly omnipresent. Across Jerusalem, scattered among tour groups and secular residents are flocks of orthodox or haredi (ultra-orthodox) Jewish women and men, often segregated by gender, each donning specific attire for their activities: The men often wear suits with tzitzit (fringes) hanging from the front and back on each side of their plain-white button-downs, so that they may be prepared for the frequently recurring religious services, song sessions, and meals; whereas, the women wear comparatively simple, long, black dresses and sheitels (head-coverings), so that they may keep their bodies to themselves while they venture outside the home.
Of course, it may be simple to note the mere rigidity of Jewish gender roles (Still noteworthy: My discussion will address gender as binary, as it is often seen in these religious communities.), given my quest to discuss a religious and/or cultural belief and/or practice contrary to Western—often individualist—conceptions of human rights, but I will choose to focus on the female hair-coverings, and the reasoning behind them.
An important distinction, Aaron Moss, Rabbi of the Nefesh Community in Sydney, Australia, notes, the Jewish halachic (based in Jewish law) sense of “modesty” is not aimed to hide physical beauty, but to instill privacy.” In his depiction of a sheitel-wearing woman, however, he remarks that she experiences “a cognitive distance between her and strangers… [S]he is attractive but unavailable,” demonstrating that, perhaps, the theological justification of physical modesty often converges with its aforementioned colloquial purpose.
Thus, while interpretation of Jewish law greatly differs among sects, synagogues, and Jews themselves, there is reason to believe that a good number of Jewish women across the world cover their hair out of tzniut, with some respect to Moss’ definition. Of course, many would hesitate to entitle these scatterings of people within worldwide Jewry a culture, but they do mostly root their actions with the same justification: halacha. For this essay, I constitute them as a culture, due to the historical nature of this rather large group practicing very similar religious ideologies, derived from very similar religious texts (e.g. Shulchan Aruch: Evan Ha’ezer 21:2 and 115:4, Orach Chayim 75:2).
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In Richard Rorty’s “On Human Rights,” he contrasts his desired audience for human rights philosophy with everyone else, by declaring that the nearly universal target for the long history of interdisciplinary discussion on the subject is the “psychopath, the person who has no concern for any human being other than himself” (123). This leads to his latest contention that attempts to foster positive human relationships among all members of the “planetary community” (125), must not focus on converting the selfish, but forcing the selfless to realize that their behavior is still wrong (126). He beseeches us to appeal to an oppressor’s pathos, by presenting purely emotional arguments, such as “Because her mother would grieve for her” (133). While the above strategy may not yield an immediate intellectual understanding of peace, truth, or empathy, it may effect some good in a world ridden with oppression.
It is important to note that, to Rorty, most haredi Jews are not psychopaths. Most see their lives as entirely dominated by an attempt to follow halacha as rigorously as possible (as well as to maintain a strong community, but I will return to that later), implying that they have a strong sense of morality, even if it is nearly entirely shaped by the writings and teachings of centuries past. However, equally important, Rorty’s proposed argument rooted in appealing to one’s pathos fails to resonate with most deliberative rabbinical communities, given their almost complete reliance upon ethos, upon their myriad laws. Even in the Talmud, one of the longest and most widely appreciated rabbinical texts, rabbis used stories and allegories only to circle back to their Torah-backed argument. Thus, one may not appeal to—notably, always male—haredi rabbinical circles with the painful stories of emotional terror and isolation brought on by wearing a sheitel and expect change. Real rabbinical “legislation” must eventually lead back to dat moshe (Jewish law directly from the Torah).
Martha Nussbaum, complementing Rorty’s approach to human rights, demands in her piece, “Women and Cultural Universals: Sex and Social Justice” a strict, universal respect for “Central Human Functional Capabilities,” which she enumerates to include “Life”; “Bodily health”; “Bodily integrity”; “Senses, imagination, thought”; “Emotions”; “Practical reason”; “Affiliation”; “Other species”; “Play”; and “Control over one’s environment” (426). Largely, her approach is individualist, relying upon a universal recognition of the moral necessity that individuals deserve the opportunities to make decisions upon their own merit. This is an understandably popular perspective, specifically in Western ideologies that value individual liberties, licenses, and rights, sometimes treating government authorities as antagonist to personal autonomy (See Ted Cruz: “The less government, the more freedom” or Ronald Reagan: “Government is the problem”). However, her noble wish for individual opportunism lies contrary to many belief systems around the world that don’t value individual decision-making as much as, say, preserving the structure of a community, which may fall into disarray upon the rise of the universal capabilities Nussbaum mentions.
There is no certainty that the beliefs of haredi Jews is to preserve the structure of the Jewish community—echoing back to my earlier conjecture that every Jew treats halacha and the purpose of the Jewish community differently. However, the above is not an unreasonable claim, as many in the community may attest. Many laws within the Jewish community mandate the presence of a steady, religious community (such as the necessity of 10 people present before anyone begins to utter certain prayers, including those for mourners), and many limit the potential for Jews to fraternize with members of other religions (such as a ban of inter-religious marriage). To break halacha is to infringe upon dat moshe, the ultimate security for the sanctity-in-sturdiness of worldwide Jewry.
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Certainly, the cries of the Ultra-Orthodox women who must unwillingly hide their bodies from anyone other than their husbands are real and often heartrending. Those women who champion the sheitel raise legitimate ideas, as well. Moreover, I, an external onlooker on the haredi people may not simply decide which practices are worth keeping and which may be thrown away. Instead, I wish to analyze the structure in which the laws and traditions I’ve discussed have been formulated and expanded upon, to better understand their relevance in contemporary Judaism, as well as the repercussions of their potential elimination.
The family and communal structure of haredi Jews has stayed stagnant for centuries: Justified by rabbinical halacha, the father and his sons have remained the family’s representatives to the larger socio-judaic community, forming both the praying community’s membership and leadership, while the mother and her daughters have prepared and improved upon the domestic domain. Thus, when we discuss the merits of women obeying strict Jewish laws, it is critical to note that much of the organization of the Jewish community often keeps women from advancing upon—or even attaining—their central human functional capabilities, specifically that of “practical reason,” especially given a general distaste among haredi Jews for organized education for women. So, as long as we condone most contemporary Jewish laws in place for women, these women will not be able to enter the decision process to continue wearing or to remove their sheitels, and the religious deliberative community shall forever absent a crucial perspective.
If the haredi community were to begin to allow women to uncover their hair, it would require a strongly religiously justified test of faith and a commitment to deliberate frequently with those who remove their sheitels and those who continue to don them. It requires, just as in the Talmud, a series of vignettes from personal experience rooted in dat moshe, and a deliberative community more inclusive than ever before.
More importantly, however, instituting such a grand change in halacha, all for the hope of advancing individualist liberties, requires a pure hope that the steadiness of the haredi community rests upon a rich cultural and social history, not merely its restrictions of the women in its midst. Ultimately, it embodies the hope that, if women abandon the sheitel, they’ll stay in the shtetl (Jewish community).