Times change. My late father was Principal Rabbi of the Federation of Synagogues in the United Kingdom (more kosher than the United Synagogue) from 1945 to 1948. He would meet up with the former Chief Rabbi, Israel Brody at Covent Garden, where they would both sit without head covering, listening to female singing voices. It is probably fair to say that the same applied to the majority of Central and Western European and American Orthodox rabbis fifty years ago.
I was “educated” not to wear a kapel (kippah) in public–but of course my youth in England was a time when all “decent” people wore hats. I didn’t at university. We were still in those days under the “Anglo/Germanic” influence of “Be an Englishman in the street and a Jew in your home.” But after the Six Day War and spending time in yeshiva, I felt confident enough to say, “What the hell, why not flaunt my pride in my heritage,” and I have worn one in public ever since. It’s as much a social issue as a religious one. These are obvious examples of how circumstances, even fashions, change outward aspects of religious life.
Some fifty years ago it was unusual, in the west, to find an Orthodox rabbi’s wife who covered her hair outside of a synagogue. The same could be said for some great Lithuanian rabbis’ wives, and indeed for some wives of Hassidic rebbes. There was still a degree of variety and flexibility that stemmed from a clearer distinction between the anti-rationalists, the anti-Enlightenment rabbis of the Pale of Settlement, and those to the west who had been exposed to other attitudes.
Nowadays, hair covering for women is almost the definition of Orthodoxy. The question is whether this is an absolute requirement or a social one and whether the current trend bears any relationship to universal trends as with Muslim fashion. Once it was rare to wear a hijab, or even hair covering, in the West. As in Judaism, it was confined to the more closed eastern societies. Holidaying Sheiks from Saudi in the South of France looked no different from other wealthy French jetsetters. In Turkey it was unheard of, except amongst the backward Kurds, for a woman to cover her hair. Now it has become a statement, as it has with us.
Was head covering a social phenomenon in Torah times? Or was it a religious obligation? There is no actual requirement laid down in the Torah, but the origins lie in the Biblical narrative (Numbers 5:18) of the woman suspected of adultery (who gave adequate grounds for suspicion but there was no proof). She was brought before the priest for a sort of psychological test. No Inquisition trial by torture I am pleased to say. The priest made her swear her innocence and “loosened” her hair. The Hebrew for “loosened” (PaRaH) is also used of loose men, as in the song of Deborah (Judges 5.2). There it certainly didn’t mean “uncovered”. Rashi, the great commentator, says it (PaRaH) in the Torah means “removing the pins that keep her hair in place” and then he goes on to say, “This is the origin of the daughters of Israel not going out in public with uncovered hair.” Of course, in Rashi’s day in northern Europe, no good Christian woman would be seen in public with her hair uncovered either.
The Talmud (Ketubot 72a) asks if hair covering is a Torah obligation or just “tradition” and if tying hair up under a basket to keep it in place is good enough. It is clear that head covering of some sort is an ancient tradition. The only issue is whether it is merely a matter of modesty, as with modest dress, or whether hair covering is a requirement in itself. Clearly the Western rabbis thought modesty was the issue. But, interestingly enough, as important as modesty is, it is not really defined. The Shulchan Aruch says that one should not pray in front of a tefach (a hand’s breadth) of hair or skin that is normally covered. But “normally covered” is left vague. The actual definition varies with times and traditions. “In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking; now, heaven knows, anything goes,” wrote Cole Porter.
It would be true to say that at one period, a major chunk of Orthodoxy regarded neat and tidy hair a good enough mark of modesty and perfectly acceptable. On the other hand, it is equally true to say that in both many Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities all married women were expected to cover their hair. And as I have said above, now, in most Orthodox circles it is de rigueur in one form or another. The issues are simply what one covers with and how much.
What has swung the pendulum in recent years? Generally there has been reaction to scientific modernity. Specifically the Holocaust so traumatized so many that Orthodoxy decided that the values that could tolerate Nazism, or at best stand by and ignore what was happening, reflected so negatively on Western culture that there was a conscious decision to reject it in favor of survival. The post-1960s tolerance of difference cultures, religions, and immigrant societies, meant that one no longer needed to accommodate to prevailing norms. There weren’t any, any more. So head covering, for men and women, has become a statement, both an assertion of one’s own values and a rejection of others.
The fact is that within Orthodoxy there is now a whole range of different standards. Chasidic sects wear different hats of different shapes and sizes, coats buttoned up different ways, and socks and shoes of varying styles that all betray, or reveal, the identity and affiliation of the wearer. The same goes for hair covering. Some shave their hair and wear only scarves. Some wear wigs that are covered with hats. Some wear wigs, sheitels, that are supervised religiously, others are bought at the local shops. Some cover their wigs in public; others do not. Some wear scarves, snoods, hair bands, or combinations of the lot, each group allowing different amounts of hair to peek out.
So what’s one to do? The fact is that it really depends on what sect or society you want to fit in with and what their conventions and customs are. There is no single standard. There are choices. Rav Ovadya Yosef declares wigs are an abomination and must be covered like normal hair. But virtually all the Ashkenazi Charedi world ignores him. Is anyone right or wrong? It seems to me that the bottom line is modesty. Then there is custom that has taken on the status of law. Thus, what you wear on your head, male or female, is rather like what style of clothes you buy. It is a useful tool to remind yourself where you affiliate religiously and to tell the world outside that you don’t give a fig either for their values or their politics! Which is all fair and fine, so long as your own standards pass muster.