Academic journal article Sociological Papers

"Grace Is Deceitful and Beauty Is Vain": How Hassidic Women Cope with the Custom of Head Shaving and Wearing a Black Kerchief

Academic journal article Sociological Papers

"Grace Is Deceitful and Beauty Is Vain": How Hassidic Women Cope with the Custom of Head Shaving and Wearing a Black Kerchief

Article excerpt


Many studies have discussed the issue of modesty norms in extreme religious groups that ensure that women's bodies are covered and deny women's rights to their own bodies (Arthur, 1999; Daly, 1999; Elior, 2001). Most of these studies see modesty restrictions as a form of patriarchal oppression. McCarthy-Brown (1994) claims that these restrictions are salient characteristics of fundamentalist religious views in the modern world. According to her, fundamentalists strive to control the hidden forces of the human body and physical desires, especially sexual desire, which they consider a major threat. This is the reason that the men need to control the women. Women are seen as bearing the major portion of human physicality and sensuality due to their primary connection to nature, while men are seen as more strongly connected to culture (Ortner, 1974). In addition, most societies assign women the role of the "other", the category that is marked out and defined by men (Beauvoir, 1974). In consequence, women have become the object onto which whatever is undesirable or threatening to human existence can be projected: sexuality, emotions, ritual impurity, sin and death (Douglas, 1966). According to the fundamentalists, men's control over women ensures that the pure forces of reason can function properly and lead to a more orderly and certain world. It is for this reason that the fundamentalist agenda is focused on restricting women's behavior and supervising their sexuality by imposing severe modesty norms on them (Eilberg Schwatz, 1995; McCarthy-Brown, 1994).

Some ideological streams in Jewish society are also preoccupied with the issue of modesty in women's attire, albeit there are great differences in the modesty norms prevalent in the various groups. A number of researchers (Berger Sofer, 1979; Hartman and Marmon, 2004; Heilman, 1992) believe, like McCarthy-Brown, that the requirement of modesty in women's external appearance in Judaism stems from the idea that all women are a threat to men's spiritual world by their very nature. Therefore, strict injunctions about how to dress are imposed on women in order to distance men from their tempting, seductive ways, thus helping them to behave morally. The various researchers, however, have scarcely investigated the significance of these injunctions to the Jewish women themselves. Therefore, the author chose to discuss these aspects of the modesty requirements among the women of one of the most extreme Hassidic groups Toldot Aharon. In particular, to study was focused on the meaning these women assign to an extremely demanding custom practiced by this group--shaving off their hair upon marriage and covering their heads with black kerchiefs--and the way they cope with this requirement.

Since Toldot Aharon is one of the most extreme ultra-Orthodox groups with particularly rigid modesty requirements, this discussion can be seen as a case study of women's perceptions and coping mechanisms applicable to other religious groups as well. The major contribution of this article is its insight into the womens' own perceptions of this highly sensitive and typically silenced matter.

Toldot Aharon Hassidism

The Hassidic group of Toldot Aharon began in the 1920s with Reb Aharon Roth (Ratteh) (1894-1947), in Satmar, Hungary. Reb Aharon and his group settled in The Mea Shearim district of Jerusalem in 1940 (Halahmi 1997), where they have lived ever since in an "ultra-Orthodox ghetto".

The extremist nature of Toldot Aharon is reflected in the segregation of its members from the outside world and their rejection of any compromise with a modern lifestyle or with Zionism (Rozman, 1991). The language spoken in the group is Yiddish, although most of the adults (both men and women) speak Hebrew as well, because they are unable to avoid hearing Hebrew spoken on the street and because they study religious texts in Hebrew.

Toldot Aharon bears the characteristics of a traditional patriarchal community: almost absolute separation between the sexes and a clearly defined division of roles between men and women. …

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