Painful Piety: On Unbearable Rabbinic Rulings

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Having dreamt for years of a perfect wedding, Rachel finally met the one. She was a spirited, all-American girl in her 30s; he was intelligent, charming, and the man she envisioned she’d spend her life with. But, as is so often the case, life has its own melody, and due to incompatibilities, the couple parted and along went Rachel’s dream, for the time being, of a lifelong companion and family of her own.

What should have been a new start for Rachel was anything but. Having consulted with several rabbis, she was convinced of the need to continue covering her hair, despite no longer being married. Initially deeming the practice harmless, Rachel would ultimately conclude otherwise. 

Rachel spent years in a dismal state. Aside from the challenge of coping with a difficult divorce, Rachel’s head covering would add an aura of “shame,” in her view, to her every waking moment. Though freed of her ex-partner, their brief relationship had become a defining part of her being. With every glimpse in the mirror and every encounter with the world, she was without uttering a word broadcasting a part of her life which she had sought to move past long ago.

As time passed, Rachel’s loneliness was no more bearable and her age refused to pause and notice. Offers dwindled as matchmakers informed Rachel of the difficulties involved in convincing potential dates to meet her with her head covered. The rabbinic guidance she received during such trying times provided little satisfaction. “Anyone unwilling to date you because of something so trivial as a head covering is not suitable for you anyhow,” she was told.

Repeatedly rejected and feeling her life had become too challenging, Rachel could no longer continue. “I felt as though I was being choked,” Rachel confided. “I never felt so depressed.” Exhausted and teary-eyed, she contacted her rabbi and informed him that continuing as such was unbearable and that it was vital she be freed of the head covering. “It is a matter of life and death,” she desperately explained. In an unsympathetic tone, he replied that the law is non-negotiable. “There’s nothing I can do,” he said. “The law is the law.”

Rachel’s experience pained me, not simply because of how terrible her ordeal was but because of how terribly unnecessary it was. What drives a spiritual guide to assert legal clarity and objectivity absent either? What gives an individual in such a prominent position the right to omit the fact that that which he presents as explicit law is merely an opinion? How does one rule on the basis of a position without any reference to the many who modify, clarify and qualify it — let alone dispute it? 

How arbitrary the choice of one opinion over others so often is! And how often this is only known to those intimately familiar with each’s origins.

Suffice to say, without delving into details, the very covering of a woman’s hair while married is subject to dispute, despite what is traditionally advertised. (See: Responsa Mayyim Hayyim 2:110; Divrei Hamudot-Berakhot 3:116; Kaf Hahayim 75:18; Responsa Sefer Yehoshua 89; Hukei Hanashim ch. 17; and Makhazit Hashekel, Even Ha’ezer 21:5 for the practice’s contextual nature, also apparent from numerous Talmudic passages. An additional dispute over whether early references even refer to hair covering at all, and not merely hairstyles, only compounds the issue.) They who would invoke the Code (Shulhan Arukh), would be wise to glance over the countless overlooked or unobserved laws contained within, including the requirement for girls to cover their hair prior to marriage as well.

Blanket prohibition, so typically void of empathy, requires neither scholarship nor an understanding of the complexities of human nature and the surrounding world. Those out of touch with either may find themselves casually demanding their subjects sacrifice that which is so central to the latter’s being, their happiness, their freedom, and their privacy. 

That the world of theory is so often at odds with that of reality should be obvious to all who fill leadership roles. And while one is free to adopt an uncompromising approach, let him not insist others do the same. As for critics, there will always be those who deem any perceived leniencies as unlawful or opposed to the law’s “spirit,” just as there will always be those who deem any stringencies trivial. Never mind them.

Presuming that rabbinic guides such as those of Rachel’s intend the best for their adherents, would such directives be any less oppressive? Hardly. In fact, they are often more so. As writer and theologian C.S. Lewis noted, “Those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

Weep for Rachel and the many Rachels of the world. Feel the heartache of those at the mercy and whims of those either ignorant or indifferent; immature or inexperienced. Years of Rachel’s life were spent in superfluous misery. How many others have endured even more? How many more shall? 

About the Author
A writer and editor, Michael has spent years teaching and lecturing on various subjects. In addition to receiving ordination, he holds a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s in strategic studies.
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