Dear Rabbi Fried,
With all the attention given by the media recently to the Arab mode of dress, I was wondering why Orthodox Jewish women aren’t dressed similar to Arab women with a burqua or niqab (covering the face and body). If this is the most modest way for a woman to be presented and the purpose of Orthodox Jewish dress is to preserve modesty, why not be as modest as possible?
There is a core distinction between the Jewish laws and customs of modesty and the Muslim mode of dress, reflecting two absolutely contrary worldviews.
First, the Halachah, or Jewish law, has clear parameters as to the requirement of dress for women to ensure and preserve modesty, such as skirts that reach below the knee and sleeves which cover the elbow. These guidelines are not about being “as modest as possible.” Rather, the guidelines focus on covering areas which have the halachic distinction of “ervah”; in other words, areas of the body that if exposed, could unnecessarily cause lustful attention and attraction.
The parameters established by Jewish law are predicated upon the principle of “Kol kevudah bas melech penimah” — “The complete glory of the daughter of the king lies on the inside.” (Tehillim/Psalms 45:14). This verse sums up the need for a Jewish woman to be modest in all her ways, as true royalty ought to be.
Every Jewish girl and woman is considered by Judaism to be a princess, a carrier of royalty. Just as the King and Queen don’t reveal all their riches to the masses, so too the Jewish woman keeps her honor covered and not exposed to the eyes of all to behold. Much like Buckingham Palace’s honor is in its changing of the guard, which shows there’s something inside worth guarding, a Jewish woman also has her “royal guards;” her clothing, which protects and suggests a profound inner self that deserves regal protection.
The face, however, is one area which should always be revealed. The Hebrew word for face is “panim,”which shares the same root as the word “p’nim,” which refers to one’s “insides” or deepest essence, the soul. This teaches us that at the same time the physical body masks ones essence, the face reveals one’s soul. “The wisdom of a man illuminates his face” (Eccles. 8:1).
A woman covers her body so the beholder can focus on her true royalty. Revealing the rest of the body causes a focus on her physicality and deflects the center of attention from her true essence. In many cases this causes the spiritual essence to retreat deeper within herself woman, covering itself with, and taking a back seat to, the physicality which she attempts to expose as her real self when, in fact, her real self is hidden.
The bottom line of all this is the Jewish woman is considered royalty, “the daughter of the king.” One place in the Talmud shows a discussion about the amount one must pay if he would embarrass a Jewish woman. The first opinion is that payment depends on her standing; if she is a rich woman than the price is high. However, the halachah is determined in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Akiva that every woman deserves the same payment because “all Jews are the children of kings,” every Jewish girl is royalty and to cause her embarrassment is to slight her regal bearing! (See Bava Metziah 113b and numerous similar rulings in the Talmud).
My understanding of the Muslim mode of dress, such as the niqab, is diametrically opposed to all the above. When you force someone to cover her face you are making a statement that there is no deeper essence to be shown.
I was recently dumbstruck when I watched a long film of an interview with a leading sheikh who expounded, unabashedly, on the virtues of wife-beating, a Muslim practice. He explained how such abuse becomes a husband’s religious obligation when his wife acts out of line. He repeatedly emphasized the “honor” Muslims show to women in that they’re not allowed to beat them in a place that will leave a permanent mark, and that the stick used can’t be too large and heavy, and that the husband should preferably use his hand so as not to cause a permanent wound!
With a straight face, even with a smile, this sheikh went on to explain that one should not beat his wife for just any transgression: a beating is reserved mainly for when a wife is unwilling to submit to intimate relations. This, together with general suppression demonstrates that a Muslim woman is a non-person or lower-caste person than the men in control.
How does this compare with the Jewish mode of dress based on a Jewish woman’s being “a daughter of the king”? It’s suggested that a Jewish woman dress modestly, but to expose her face, so her inner soul can be seen and beheld. But the Muslim woman, who is 100-percent covered, is not allowed to expose even her inner soul.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Dear Rabbi Fried,