Headaches and Head Coverings Part III

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09 Sep 2015
Courtesy the Wrapunzel blog.

When I published “Headaches and Head Coverings” on Torahmusings.com, I did so with the thought that this was a modest but substantial area of our community’s life that could benefit from more, and more nuanced, discussion in the open air. From the sheer volume of attention the article received, I take this thesis as corroborated, and from the wonderfully high quality of peoples’ responses, I have renewed inspiration and confidence in our community’s capacity for fruitful reflection and debate. Thanks. 

With thanks to the OU for the opportunity, I want here just to clarify a few points, respond to and incorporate some of the reactions, and generally to provide some perspective and synthesizing conclusions.

The reactions have been heartily mixed. Some remained skeptical that the problem is ever so severe as to require special attention; others felt that it simply can’t be widespread enough to warrant broad-scope, public intervention. On the halakhic side, some noted that I neglected to mention several further avenues to viably justify leniency, and others worried that the approach I did present was inordinately formalistic and hence potentially out of tune with the cultural and communal realities on the ground. And some, as exhibited here in “Part II,” were concerned that the featured conceptual-halakhic approach obscured the more basic need for appropriate medical consultation and care.

But more than anything else, the main response was one of gratitude: From those who have long sustained this challenge without hope of understanding or sympathy; from those who had felt forced to cede the practice because they saw no alternative; from those sympathetically acquainted with individuals in the latter groups; and broadly, from those whose experience it has been that this is a kind of issue that simply is not adequately addressed within our present communal structures, and who as a result have felt hurt by the religion they love. One person expressed their surprise at an article’s “taking what women said seriously.”

Hair covering has in the last few decades emerged as an at times polarizing, and always charged, testing ground, for halakhic seriousness and communal allegiance—whether and how you cover your hair is effectively always a statement. And the fact that the practice has met with widespread neglect—even at times among the unimpeachably Orthodox—has naturally encouraged its champions toward greater zeal in its defense. It is a pro-Torah impulse and that is never a bad thing.

It is vital, though, to proactively ensure that the retrenched stringency in this sphere not grow so categorical and pervasive as to reify an environment in which important questions can’t be comfortably asked and open-ended conversations can’t be comfortably held. Shemirat halakha is compulsory but not free: Here, tireless effort to reinforce its engaged responsiveness to all is the non-negotiable opportunity cost owed for vigilance in retrenching its integrity. It is not that we shouldn’t be protective about halakha—building “fences” around the letter of the law is a vital Jewish tradition—but that our protective efforts entail the corollary obligation to cultivate space for nuance, appropriate moderation, and above all, robust communicability.

The far-and-away best way to realize both aims? Education, or in the native idiom, learning. The Torah is quite beautifully the property of Jews one and all to study and to teach, and categorically without qualification, the more people who know more Torah, the better. In one place Rav Moshe Feinstein zt’l begins a teshuvah (about hair covering, it happens) by explaining that he was initially reluctant to answer, on the grounds that perhaps it is best not to share leniencies in print, communicating them instead to the concerned individual alone.[1] But ultimately he relented, because he grew concerned that his silence was causing confusion, and because “there is an obligation to clarify halakha, even when it is l-kula, so that the truth be known.” [2] Sometimes there are real reasons to think Torah shouldn’t be publically expounded—it might be abused, misunderstood, rejected—but those reasons are always defeated by the overwhelming imperative that the Torah’s truth reach the minds and hearts of all.

That is the spirit in which I hope articles like “Headaches and Head Coverings” are and will be read. Real-life cases are irreducibly complex, and in any given case for any individual, the right way forward will emerge only from invested engagement in all considerations involved, be they halakhic, personal, medical or communal. For many who do suffer from head covering-induced headaches, the right way forward for them will be to change nothing and nobly soldier on in the reassurance that they are clearing their God’s, family’s, and community’s standards and doing so with grace. For some, a regimen of most-of-the-time head-covering spelled as necessary by free-haired interludes, in specific controlled environments to be determined, will be the ideal way to embrace this time-honored, noble duty. And while I myself would find it hard to imagine ever actually concluding in a given case that head-covering might be outright forgone anywhere but outdoor city-centers, as one letter of the law reconstruction would suggest is a viable possibility, I think that it’s a question legitimately asked and a conversation meaningfully held.

The point, to conclude, is less to propose any particular solution than to encourage and facilitate the kind of informed, nuanced, and open-ended discussion that healthy answers come from—in a word, learning. It’s about good questions winning ground over easy answers, and about the commanding vitality of intelligent commitment in negotiating challenge and adversity. And importantly, it’s about awareness, sympathetic concern, and rigorously, dynamically thoughtful attention. Thanks again to everyone whose reading and reactions so wonderfully helped that cause.

Part one of Headaches and Head Coverings is available here.

Part two is here.

Steve Savitsky of Savitsky Talks will be speaking with Rabbi Alex Ozar next week.

To read about Wrapunzel, click here.

The OU would like to thank Rabbi Alex Ozar for writing about this topic and Rabbi Gil Student of Torahmusings.com for allowing us to republish the first and second installment of this series.

[1] Igros Moshe, Even Ha-Ezer 1:58.

[2] Ibid. Please see original for full context.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.