Is covering one's hair after marriage open to debate?
Is covering one's hair after marriage open to debate?

Recently, an article in Motzash, the Makor Rishon Hebrew newspaper’s weekend young adult-oriented supplement, focused on what it described as a new “phenomenon” among the national-religious public: changing attitudes toward kisui rosh (head covering for married women).

The piece described the new and apparently growing “phenomenon” of religious women who decided to uncover their hair after years of marriage. Obviously, using the word “phenomenon” is a blatant attempt to transform the removal of one’s kisui rosh into a normative choice. Moreover, in addition to a “dry” presentation of the facts, the article quotes women who justify their decision with the claim that uncovering their hair strengthened their personal bond with Hashem. To be fair, the piece did include other points of view as well, but the spirit was clear - and it was far from the spirit of “Yisrael Saba,” or rather “Savta.”

These types of articles have educational implications that we should not ignore.

A. Descriptive Journalism or Agenda-Driven Journalism?

Motzash,” like many other newspapers, endorses a very specific agenda – in its case, often what is termed a“dati-lite” slant. It regularly sends out the subliminal message that one can still be religious and part of the religious community even while enjoying a modern, “with-it” lifestyle that does not “capitulate” to halakhic rules that are depicted as rigid and oppressive.

The newspaper paints a picture of a worldly religious persona who does not allow himself to be closed off or restricted by the proverbial four amot of Jewish law. The question is: Can a discussion about the newspaper’s contents be detrimental? Does such a discussion give the paper a significance it does not deserve? Or perhaps, since Israeli young people are reading it anyway, it is important to talk about the newspaper and its contents at home and in the schools?

There is certainly room to discuss the literature and journalism we read. Is it sufficient for the newspaper to be “clean” and geared for a certain sector, or should we be analyzing it, identifying its biases, and filtering out that which we feel is inappropriate? Does this type of article reflect reality, or does it promote an agenda?

B. A Halakhic Obligation

The manner in which the justifications are presented in the article and – even more so – the follow-ups to the article on the radio were irreconcilable with a halakhically-committed worldview. A commitment to Halakhah is the very soul of Orthodox Judaism. It is inconceivable that a personal difficulty which causes one to renounce that commitment could be raised as a banner for all to follow. On a practical level, it could demoralize many women who valiantly face the challenges of kisui rosh on a daily basis – as they do with other religious challenges. And on an ideological level, it contradicts the foundation of the Jewish world.

In “The Rav Speaks: Five Addresses on Israel, History, and the Jewish People” (Lecture 2), Rav Soloveitchik zt”l discusses the deplorable and grave trend of those who wish to get closer to Hashem without submitting to Halakhah. He does so by focusing on Sarah and Avraham (Abraham). Rashi, in his commentary on the verse “מי מלל לאברהם היניקה בנים שרה” (“Who would have said to Avraham that Sarah would nurse children” - Breishit 21:7), notes that Avraham’s contemporaries would claim that Yitzchak (Isaac) was a foundling whom Sarah brought home from the marketplace, and that Sarah did not give birth to Yitzchak. Yet, in his commentary on the verse “ואלה תולדת יצחק בן אברהם” (“And these are the offspring of Yitzchak, the son of Avraham” – Breishit 25:19), Rashi states that the generation’s gossipers would say that Sarah conceived through the Philistine king, Avimelech – and not Avraham.

Rav Soloveitchik asks: Why did Rashi – citing our Sages, Chazal – examine that generation’s malicious rumors and gossip? In order to answer this question, Rav Soloveitchik observes that while the former bit of slander (that Yitzchak was not the son of the elderly Sarah and Avraham) was untrue but plausible, the latter bit of slander (that Sarah was the biological mother but Avraham was not the father) was absurd and spread by the generation’s scoffers.

Rav Soloveitchik explains that Avraham represents “divine discipline, the strict Shulchan Aruch, the rigid halakhot and laws that oblige one to perform certain acts and refrain from others.” In contrast, Sarah represents the Jew’s “great love for the Creator and the great happiness that he finds in being close to Him.” She symbolizes that which goes beyond the “forbidden and permitted”: the “deep concepts, longings, and eternal aspirations.” Throughout history, both types of slander accompanied the eternal Avraham and Sarah. There were periods when the Jews shrugged off their burdens and wanted to have nothing to do with Hashem and His Torah. The inclination to reject everything resembles the false claim that Yitzchak was a foundling from the marketplace.

“But times have changed. Modern man… feels that he is alone… He is beginning to sense that without God, life is gloomy… and he is beginning to look for a way back to the Master of the Worlds.” However, he is only willing to do so in a manner that will “deny the fatherhood of Abraham, since Abraham demands firm discipline and selflessness.” He rejects Avraham as he seeks to “cleave to Sarah.” This approach is even more grotesque than the first one; it is a mockery. A complete Judaism is a “Judaism of discipline and romanticism, of awe and love, of submission and joy, of Abraham and Sarah.”

No one disputes the fact that kisui rosh (head covering) for married women is a clear-cut halakhah, and no rabbi – neither past nor present – would permit l’chatchilah (a priori) a married woman to walk about with uncovered hair in the reshut harabim (public domain). One cannot discard this time-honored halakhah due to shifting modern social attitudes or discomfort. Like Avraham, every Jew is occasionally called upon to his own personal Akeidah. He is asked to surrender his hopes and dreams when they conflict with Halakhah.

C. Meaningful Study of Jewish Law

Educational frameworks – of every stripe - must allow their students to gain a deep knowledge and understanding of Halakhah and its development. In particular, we must encourage women to study the Oral Torah. We must strengthen their grasp of the “language” of Halakhah, and ideally, erudite and Heaven-fearing women should teach sensitive halakhic topics. This type of study will allow for meaningful and profound discussions of every challenging subject. However, it must be based on a solid foundation of halakhic knowledge.

This format does not allow for a full discussion of the detailed laws of hair-covering, kisui rosh, but I will note that the source for kisui rosh is d’orayta (from the Torah). The minimum requirement is to cover one’s hair with a covering known as a kalta. Anything beyond that is mandated by what is called Dat Yehudit – that is, the standards that Jewish women have accepted upon themselves.

Without enumerating specific measurements or dimensions, we must remember that we are talking about a kisui – a covering – not a headband or a decorative ribbon. A “clean” and true study of this halakhic topic – i.e. without any preconceived notions – forces one to conclude that kisui rosh is a halakhic requirement.

There is certainly room for a discussion of the underlying reasons for kisui rosh. After all, if it is an issue of modesty, why are single women exempt? And if it is meant to serve as some sort of sign, why are widows still required to cover their hair? Various answers have been suggested, but this is not the place to discuss them. However, even without understanding the underlying reason for kisui rosh, the obligation remains.

D. “Sanctify Yourself Through That Which is Permitted to You” (BT Yevamot 20a)

A final note about the difficulties experienced by women who come in contact with the general public, as described in the original “Motzash” article. According to these women, they are uncomfortable and feel that they are being labelled. Obviously, one cannot argue with feelings. Yet perhaps a discussion about positive religious pride and appropriating labels is in order. Do men choose to remove their crocheted kipah because it automatically identifies them as belonging to the religious-Zionist community? I wonder, but we will leave this question for another time.

Nevertheless, in acknowledgement of Jewish law’s position on kisui rosh, and in hope that more and more religious women will meet this challenge, we should not ignore the halakhic solution of wearing a wig. Although not everyone agrees, a significant number of halakhic authorities permit this option. Yet many women in the national-religious community are reluctant to wear wigs. Apparently, this reluctance has sociological roots: Wigs tend to be associated with the chareidi community. However, any frank discussion of kisui rosh - that is based on a recognition of the relevant halakhic sources – should acknowledge that wigs are a legitimate option. Understandably, women who come in contact with the non-religious public are likely to prefer this halakhically-permissible solution. Let us remember that “it is forbidden to prohibit that which is permitted just as it is forbidden to permit that which is prohibited.” (JT Trumot 5:3)

E. Conclusion

The media is inundated with these types of articles. As educators, we must assume that our offspring and students are being exposed to problematic messages which can interfere with our efforts to educate them to a life of Torah and mitzvot. In fact, without being aware, they are even exposed to these ideas when they read “kosher” newspapers. We delude ourselves if we think that our students only get their information from papers like the halakhically careful “Olam Katan” and its ilk. Not only is it our right, but it is also our obligation to address these issues.

Translated from the Hebrew "Eye on Education" Orot College.