In their generations, only the most observant of Orthodox women covered their hair: It was, as my mother says, "just not done." But in my generation, it is done. Modern Orthodox women like myself have started to cover their hair when they get married, blending a stringent observance of halakah with Ph.D.'s in psychology and literature, jobs in law and medicine, graduate degrees from Columbia.
The way in which I covered my hair was thoroughly modern as well. For me, there were no tightly wrapped kerchiefs, no straw-like wig detectable a mile away, the kind you would expect to see in old, Hasidic neighborhoods in Brooklyn or Israel. I bought an expensive fall--a sort of demi-wig that starts in the middle of the head and, when covered with one's own hair, is almost impossible to detect. I wore bright-colored baseball caps and funky hats that made it possible to think it was a fashion statement I was after.
But hair covering is, of course, a religious statement, one that, to those in the know these days, signifies that you are in the fold, fully and unconditionally. Ask, "Does she cover her hair?" and this supposedly will tell you all there is to know about someone's religious commitment. As the Orthodox world becomes more stringently observant and more theologically conservative, hair covering has not only come back into fashion, it has become the litmus test of where you stand.
The source for hair covering comes from the biblical case of the suspected adulteress (Numbers 5:18). Her husband brings her to the Temple, and to shame her, the high priest uncovers her hair. Because having her hair exposed was so shameful, the rabbis deduced that a righteous woman would keep her hair covered. Various reasons are given for this law: A married women's hair is ervah--"nakedness"--and, like other parts of her body, must be covered. Other rabbinic interpreters explained that a woman should cover her hair as a sign of being married and thus unavailable to other men. Based on these varying explanations, some women cover all their hair, all the time. Other women wear hats as a sign of marriage but don't cover all their hair or don't cover it in their homes where their married state is clear.
I covered my hair not because I needed reminding that I was married, not because I thought my hair was ervah. I did it because it is largely acknowledged to be the halakah, the law. I had grown up with, and believed in, the idea that following halakah is not about liking it or finding it meaningful or necessary. It is about adherence to God's will, to subsuming one's own desires to His.
When I first got married, I didn't mind covering my hair. I felt good that I was following halakah. I liked looking in the mirror and seeing the young, Orthodox married woman I was. And I liked the feeling of fitting in. Even though I covered my hair in the most lenient, liberal way possible--not all of it and not in my own home--it was enough to establish my place inside the camp.
But mostly, I hated what covering my hair represented. I felt like I, as a whole, was being covered over, that the purpose of the law was to silence me and hide me from sight. I didn't feel like myself. I found that I said less when I had my hair covered. I was unable to explain to people why I covered my hair, because the reasons behind it were so troubling to me. I was offended by the idea of sexualizing one more part of the female body and by the idea that only married women, and not married men, need to be marked as "off limits." I tried to focus on the more benign reasons for the law--that this is a female version of the yarmulke that observant men wear, that it is a way to outwardly identify myself as an Orthodox Jew. But they didn't ring true to me, and I found that through my observance, I was more at odds with my religion than ever before.
In the end, my decision to uncover my hair wasn't a halakic decision, but a personal one.I stopped because I was no longer willing to do something that offended me so much. By willfully doing something that I acknowledged to be against halakah, I had changed. My bind to halakah had loosened. I had to concede that though hair covering doesn't mean everything, it does mean something. Halakah was no longer the sole criterion by which I would be making decisions; other values such as feminism now had competing weight. Questions that used to seem black and white--Is it in accordance with halakah or not?-- have become more complicated. If I'm already not covering my hair, I can ask myself, why it is that I am not called up to the Torah in the synagogue, which is also against Orthodox practice? And if I am not observing laws that offend me, what about the prohibition against a man hearing a woman sing for fear it will arouse him? So far, I haven't changed in these or any other ways, but I do not know what the future holds. By opening the door to this kind of reckoning, I knew I was setting down a risky path, and now I can't be sure where I will end up.
In the end, there was no ripping off my wig in celebration, no unambivelent triumph at reclaiming my freedom. I did feel more like myself. I did go out and get a good haircut. I gave away my hats to a friend of mine who was engaged and planning to cover her hair. I put my fall back into the box it came in and put it at the top of my closet. I didn't think I would want it again, but I liked knowing it was there, even just to remind me of who I was--and who I am.