Sunday, June 2, 2013

Tzniut, Hair-covering, and My Wife the Gadol

image from
I went for a walk with my wife over Shabbat. One of the topics that came up was the over-the-top, obsessive focus on "tzniut" (including hair-covering for married women) and how we both believe it's caused by overly-theologizing the issue. "God doesn't care whether I cover my hair" is my wife's refrain.

Why does she cover it then? First let's ask a more fundamental question: Why do any mitzvah, if not for theological reasons, that is? I see two basic reasons. One is that it carries a certain inherent value. It provides some tangible benefit - personally, interpersonally and/or societally. The second reason is simply that it helps a person identify him/herself as Jewish. For my wife, covering her hair is a bit of both. In her words: "I don't want some guy checking me out, thinking of me as a possibility." Meaning, covering her hair serves the function of "Sorry, I'm taken!" But mostly she does it because it's a Jewish-identity statement, like me wearing a kippah. Nothing to do with it being "un-tzenua" to show her hair. Nothing to do with any "rewards" or "olam haba" or bringing the geulah, etc. Nothing to do with "doing Hashem's will." She doesn't go for that any more than I do. And she doesn't judge people who choose not to cover their hair. If it really bothered her, she wouldn't do it either. Simple as that. She also acknowledges that if the community norm were to suddenly change such that married women didn't cover their hair, she wouldn't miss it. But since it is, and since like I say it doesn't bother her, "Am I going to be the one woman not covering her hair? No." So that's where she's at.

Anyway, we were lamenting the fact that crazy thinking on the part of the frum community leads many people to reject what are otherwise positive values like tzniut. It is a more enlightened mode of being not to be overly sexualized, or more generally not to "flaunt", not to deliberately put yourself (whether your body or your opinions) in other people's faces, not to put yourself into situations where you'll be tempted to cheat on your spouse, etc. But the way it's taken in the frum world, with so many rules about how a proper "Bas Yisroel" (Jewish girl) should dress, behave, walk, talk, wear her hair, her handbag, etc. (I won't even get into the details of the craziness here), with all the heavy God-talk about doing the will of Hashem and the Heavenly rewards/punishments at stake, tzniut goes from being a concept that has something profound and enlightening to add, to something that often borders on being sick and obsessive. It ironically has the capacity to sexualize things that should be asexual to a normal person. It creates the kind of sexual repression that leads to perversion and molestation. And it also causes young people to say "forget it" and throw out the whole idea. As we were walking, we passed a boy and girl making out, standing right there on the sidewalk, in a religious neighborhood. Now, my wife and I understand. We weren't "outraged", nothing of the sort. But we also recognized that there's something "off" about doing that in plain view, simply from a common-sense, derech-eretz, sensitivity perspective, and it struck us both as sad that the concept of tzniut had been hijacked in the form of extreme religiosity, and turned into a dirty word that kids feel they need to rebel against.

That's what I wanted to say about hair-covering and tzniut. I also want to say how incredibly lucky I am to have married someone so normal, so easy-going and pragmatic, who feels strongly about Jewish identity but doesn't get sucked into all the B.S. I'm also lucky that she's put up with me all this time. She's seen me through my charedi phase, my kabbalistic phase, my "Torah is a technology" phase. And meanwhile she's been normal and even-keeled all along. As an example, my wife has never been a big "davener". There were times when this bothered me, and (now I want to kick myself for it!) I may have even suggested to her that she go to shul more often. But now I see her non-interest in shul/davening as a "ma'alah", a positive trait, a sign of normalcy! Amazing how one's perspectives can change so radically. And it just goes to show, you also need to be "tzenua" about what you believe, not take your opinions so seriously - because you just might come to see things differently someday.

My main point here is that it's possible to be religious, enjoy it, feel a sense of connectedness with the Jewish people, with our values and tradition, without falling into all the theological nonsense. It frustrates me that a fixation on the nonsense makes a mockery of Judaism and turns people off. And the other personal point - it's clear as day to me that I've learned more from my wife than from all my rebbeim combined. What took years for me to develop toward she's known and been living all along. And even though she likes to poke some loving fun at me now about my various "phases", in all those years she never lectured me, never made me feel I was off. She just kept on doing her thing and let me take my own journey. That's my wife - a true Gadol!