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!


  1. While you may have a point about not flaunting one's body or one's availability, this is subjective, and relative. There is nothing wrong with wearing a bathing suit on a beach, but it's inappropriate to wear a bathing suit on a city street. It's OK to wear a tank top on a city street, but it's not OK to wear it in a corporate law firm's office. Even nudity may be appropriate in a nudist colony, but not on a family beach. What is modest is not set in stone. But the Jewish concept of "tzniut" assumes objective standards. I object to these objective standards.

    1. For sure modesty is a relative thing - not entirely absolute or objective, and I think JRKmommy makes a good case that it's also somewhat relative even within halacha.

      Actually, you touched off an interesting distinction. I used the word "flaunt", and yes I do think that part of tzniut has to do with a person's subjective outlook. Someone who walks out with little clothing with the specific thought of "look at me" is different than someone who does so because it's an extension of who they are, feeling free and comfortable with their own body, etc. The act can be the same, but the second is 100% tzenua and the first less so. But you can't exactly make laws based on what's in a person's heart. You need some sort of accepted universal norm (at least for a particular "makom").

      BTW, that's why I reject the objection to Women of the Wall based their "intent", as in: "They're not *really* interested in davening - they're just looking to score political points." To me, either it's legal for women to daven at the Kotel with tallis and tefillin or it's not. You can't make a law based on people's "motivations" - which can obviously vary significantly from one person to the next.

      So I'm thinking that maybe it makes sense to speak about the "middah" of tzniut as something distinct from the "halacha" of tzniut. I was really talking primarily about tzniut as a middah. In terms of halacha, I have to say I'm a bit conflicted. I can see the argument that as long as someone conducts themselves within the accepted "decency" norms of a place, that's called tzenua. But I can also see covering up a bit more even when everyone else is walking around in tank tops, either because the culture is deliberately lewd or promiscuous, or simply because dressing a certain way (going back to my post) can also be a Jewish self-identity statement.

  2. To a certain extent, there are both objective and subjective standards.

    Along with some basic rules for any public place, there is also the concept of "minhag hamakom", or local custom. Hair covering, according to many, is part of "daat yehudit", or the traditional practice of Jewish women, as opposed to an explicit commandment.

    Rabbi Moses Feinstein treated the American public space/business workplace as requiring a lower level of tzniut, since interaction between men and women was seen as a common occurance:

    "Female-male propinquity, so feared in the synagogue, is not a problem on the subway. Mistrust of the moral degeneracy of America is replaced by an appreciation and acceptance of the American work ethic. For the sake of business Jews may wear American-style clothing (IM YD 1:81); men may remove their head covering (IM HM 1:93; OH 4:2); widows may remove their head covering (IM EH: 157); and men may dye their hair (IM YD 2:61). Men and women may travel together on the subway to work (IM EH 2:14); men may be lifeguards where women swim (IM EH 4:62); and women can continue to work in offices where sexual transgressions have occurred (IM OH 4:117). In one responsum (IM YD 2:44), he justifies hiring a woman as a mashgiah, a position usually reserved for men."


  3. AJ - what a lovely tribute to your wife!! It is so touching how you write about her!

    I usually don't worry too much about tzniut - pretty comfortable in typical secular clothes. I used to feel very uncomfortable/self conscious around my OJ friends/relatives because I felt I may be being judged based on my clothes. They'd never remotely said anything judgy to me about what I wear, but knowing that they are part of a culture that measures these things had this effect on me. . . . Lately that feeling has completely evaporated (e.g. I'm in a fitness class where everyone but me is frum, and I don't really have any qualms about wearing my regular fitness clothes . . .most of the time). This is possibly in part thanks to blogging, and learning that the standards/expectations seem to be different for secular people.

    Along these lines, your reactions to the people making out were different than mine would have been. I always kind of envy couples who can be so openly passionate, but I do think it's disrespectful in a frum neighbourhood . . .

    JRK: frum men aren't supposed to dye their hair?

    1. I always kind of envy couples who can be so openly passionate

      Wow, what a great point. If I'm going to be totally honest with myself, there is an element of envy mixed in. Just like there is with anything where people are enjoying certain freedoms which I don't partake in due to personal commitments I've made (Jewish-related, marriage/family-related, etc.). Doesn't mean I'm not happy and good with my decisions in life - I am. But sometimes you still feel pangs of what you don't have - it's human I think. Of course what you say also explains the psychology of religious people who react angrily at "non-compliance" - for sure part of it is redirected jealousy.

    2. another rational for the laws of tznius is very likely gufah because of this very human tendency of those watching to feel jealousy and frustration at the fruits that are out of there reach so out of respect and consideration for the have-nots feelings we are expected to try to play down to a certain extent the good we have and not vainly flaunt it

    3. Good point Juda. And even if that's not the "reason" for tzniut (my sense is it's mostly to keep people from giluy arayot), for someone who's a true ba'al nefesh and sensitive about his/her actions, just like you want to be careful in the area of halbanat panim and ona'at devarim you also don't want to be the inadvertent cause of anyone's suffering by making them feel "impoverished", lacking or hungering for something that's out of their reach. It's like being sensitive to lo titen michshol in the area of lo tachmod (if that makes sense).

  4. > "God doesn't care whether I cover my hair" is my wife's refrain.

    How does she know that?

    If god cares about what you eat, what you wear, etc., why is it implausible that He cares whether she covers her hair? There are arguments that can be made about the interpretation of Sotah, but the impression I’m getting is that this is more of a gut feeling than an academic objection – a protestation that the notion that God might care about whether she covers her hair is silly.

    > 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 theologicalnonsense.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “theology” here. You seem to be describing a connection to Judaism based on emotion rather than a coherent, well, theology. But what you’re dismissive of isn’t theology, it’s the socially-driven chumrah treadmill and, I think, the overly-mystical aspects of current frumkeit.

    1. G*3,

      You're right - "God doesn't care whether I cover my hair" is not an academic objection. Nor is it isolated. I think she'd apply that statement to any ritual observance. She's not particularly theistic, but I think she'd say she believes that if God is out there and cares about anything, it's the way we treat one another. Which is not exactly a radical or foreign belief. (See e.g. Yeshayahu first chapter.)

      I’m not sure what you mean by “theology” here.

      I mean justifying observance of Judaism based on the notion that this is what God wants/expects from us. Though if I had to pick my battles, I'd definitely start with chumras and mysticism! (The former for quality-of-life reasons and the latter for anti-superstition reasons.)

    2. > I mean justifying observance of Judaism based on the notion that this is what God wants/expects from us.

      What other reason would there be to follow halacha?

    3. The reasons I brought in this post are 1) intrinsic value (perceived meaning, enjoyment, benefit, etc.) and 2) Jewish self-identity (as a way of maintaining cultural distinctiveness, being part of the community, committing oneself to the Jewish national enterprise, etc.). For me that's plenty.

    4. The problem is the package. Yes there are isolated observances I enjoy, and there are some nice things about Jewish national identity. But other mitzvos range from annoying to oppressive to disgusting (bedikot, anyone?) And some aspects of Jewish national identity are at best self-serving and at worst racist. So the package, on the whole, is not worth the minor benefits.

    5. tesyaa,

      I hear ya.

      Just out of curiosity, why do you have to take the whole package? If there's something that truly annoys or disgusts you (be it an observance or an idea/belief), why not just let it go? Yes, if you live in a frum community there's no getting away from certain problematic or obnoxious beliefs and attitudes, and there's a certain amount of "playing the game" that you need to do to be in the community (less so further "left" in the religious spectrum), but to a pretty large extent you can define what *your* world is (family life, marital life, ritual life), no? (To emphasize, I'm not trying to convince you of how great everything really is - I just want to understand your experience here.)


    6. So you're atheist and your wife is not particular a believer either? And yet you both keep to the mitzvoth? Quite interesting.

  5. I am so happy I found your blog today! Your wife sounds just like me, only I would add, I hate my hair so it's great to have an excuse to cover it up. :-) Also suffering myself from the strain of being frum while feeling atheistic. I feel I need to continue the charade for the sake of my children and their sense of stability. Anyway, glad you're here! I feel less alone now. As I stroll through my community at gatherings, I always wonder who else is a secret atheist. There must be more of us! Batgirl

    1. Hi Batgirl - welcome!

      Glad you found the blog. Can I ask how?

      Yes, there are tons of people out there who don't believe to varying degrees, and who are suffering for it to different degrees. My wife for example is a fairly happy camper. She has her friends, a very busy life, is very much involved in the community, and basically ignores the belief package. It doesn't weigh on her like it does me. She's more brass tacks/tachlis: "What do I believe? What does anyone believe? Who the hell cares! Are you a decent person or not? Are you part of the Jewish people or not?" That's her take. Me - I get bothered by conceptual stuff. And when someone like you says they're suffering from having to put up a charade, that also bothers me. What kind of "Torat emet" is it where we have to pretend that outright fantasy is "emet"?

      Anyway, I have this idea of presenting a non-dogmatic form of Torah observance, in the hopes of elevating the Torah world, or at least creating a new kind of Torah sub-community. But even if that fails, what you say is right on the money - if all it does is help people feel less alone, that itself a great thing!