Kosher Burkas

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by Ayelet Waldman

It appears that the Edah HaChareidis, the Jerusalem-based rabbinic organization representing the most Orthodox of Ashkenazi Jews, is set to ban the burka.  According to the Yeshiva World News (and forgive me for having no idea of the reliability of this news organization. I heard of them for the first time about two minutes ago), a group of fundamentalist Jewish women in Jerusalem have, for the past two years, taken to veiling themselves head-to-toe in the manner of their Muslim cousins.  This all started, apparently, with a single woman who, not content with merely covering her entire body in layers upon layers of clothing, as others had done, decided to veil her face. The fashion took off.

Orthodox Jewish women have always dressed modestly and covered their hair. Some wrap their heads in scarves, or wear a snood. About half of ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi women practice "modesty" by wearing wigs, often elaborate and gorgeous ones.  (A discussion on the phenomenon of Indian women religiously sacrificing their hair for the benefit of the beauty of the Orthodox Jews of Williamsburg is beyond the scope of this post.) What's interesting, to me at least, about this latest craze, if a couple of hundred women can be called a craze, is that the impetus for the full-face-and-body covering comes from the women. And even weirder, the rabbinic organization is issuing the ban at the behest of the women's husbands, who object to their wives' "obsession with extreme modesty."

According to my friend Allison Kaplan, who blogged about this over at the Forward, this is part and parcel of the religious competitiveness manifesting itself in the Orthodox communities all over Israel, similar to the recent trend in having ever larger families, a kind of Jewish version of the Duggars. Once you could hold your head up in Beit Shemesh if you created 6 or 7 new Jews for the glory of God. Now, anything short of double digits is a shandah.  (A shame, a disgrace). 

Ultra-Orthodox Judaism doesn't allow its women much room for religious expression. Her family is her religion. She is supposed to pray, but Torah study is the domain of the man. In fact, it's common for ultra-Orthodox women to not only take care of the home and family, but to work to support a husband who devotes himself exclusively to study and prayer. She can't study the works of the rabbis, so what can she do to express her piety? 

It'll be interesting to see what these women come up with, now that the Edah HaChareidis has told them to remove their veils.  

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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