Beginning with the rabbis of the Talmud there is an ongoing debate throughout Jewish legal history about the nature of law and its relationship to societal change: Is a particular law ahistorical and equally applicable through time or is it and has it always been subject to change? The Jewish legal tradition is layered with legal, narrative and sociological elements and this article brings these strands together with a focus on the issue of hair-covering for women. Feminist scholars of Jewish and Islamic law alike are drawing on the social context of religious laws as a way to explore possibilities for legal reform and development in alignment with established legal principles and a sense of loyalty to the respective legal traditions. (1) By showing how the legal traditions have always been decided in the spirit of the times, this reinforces the precedent that social change directly impacts and effects change in religious law. This is not a comprehensive history of the development of hair-covering in Jewish sources and practice. Although I propose reinterpretation of sources and rituals as a means of feminist agency, I am also interested in delineating the limits of reinterpretation as a means of agency.
In an era where modern western values prize individual rights and autonomy, prescriptive religious dress codes present an interesting point of contradiction and challenge. On the one hand, religious dress codes restrict and reinforce notions of women as sexual objects. On the other hand, religious dress codes can potentially undermine the objectification of women. Fashion does not get to be the ultimate arbiter where dress codes prevail. Dress as an expression of religious or cultural practice operates in gendered patterns. Many modern practitioners of religion come to their own understandings of the rituals they observe. Despite the divergent meanings that people attribute to their practice, it is difficult to divorce ritual action from the context in which rituals originate. This article shows that like all cultural practices hair-covering of religious Jewish married women holds multiple layers of meaning. The religious requirement of hair-covering for Jewish married women represents the woman as the potential object of the male gaze and as a distraction to religious service. At the same time this article explores this practice for women as religious subjects through hair-covering as an expression of their agency in their religious life.
Nature and origin of the obligation
Like all cultural and religious practice, women's hair-covering is a gen-dered practice. It is also primarily associated with married women. There is rabbinic debate, beginning with the first rabbinic commentaries on the Bible in Mishnah and Midrash Halakha, about the exact nature of the obligation of hair-covering for married women. (2) The debate centres around the question of whether hair-covering is a biblical or rabbinic obligation and what, if any, are the limits and parameters of the obligation. Hair covering as an obligation for married Jewish women may be a custom that draws upon biblical proofs for its validity. (3) The source in question that serves as the only biblical clue to women's hair-covering describes the gruesome ritual undertaken by the Priest upon the suspected adulteress (the Sotah), suspected because of her husband's jealousy.
The Bible states that "the priest shall set the woman before the Lord and loosen the woman's hair" (Numbers 5:18). (4) This is the only pentateuchal reference that alludes to what the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud interpret as a woman's obligation to cover her hair. The assumption is that because the woman's hair is being loosened it was previously tied up, and therefore that all women tied up--or covered--their hair. This is the verse that is used by those rabbis who argue that women's hair-covering is an obligation that comes directly from the Bible. (5) The rabbis go on to dispute how the hair needs to be covered, how much of it and in what social setting. …