Orthodox women and the evolving relationship with modesty

To better understand what’s happening in the hearts and souls of Orthodox women who undergo a shift in their appearance, we spoke to five local women, all Anglo immigrants, about their journeys. 

 ARIELLA ANOUCHI: ‘It’s complicated.’ (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
ARIELLA ANOUCHI: ‘It’s complicated.’
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

There’s a classic image of an Orthodox Jewish man. Black suit. Black hat. White shirt. Tzitzit hanging low. Perhaps a tallit over his head. It’s so ubiquitous, it’s become a media cliché. 

An image of an Orthodox woman can be harder to call up, especially given the current, noxious practice of erasing pictures of women from nearly every Orthodox publication. 

Adding to the complexity of fixing an image of an Orthodox woman in one’s mind is a developing trend: Orthodox women who once completely covered their hair and dressed with meticulous attention to the laws of modesty – but no longer do so. 

It’s vitally important to affirm that many, perhaps most, Orthodox women find great meaning and spiritual satisfaction in covering their hair and dressing modestly. At the same time, increasing numbers of Orthodox women are pushing back against what they perceive as incessant pressure and unhealthy messaging about their appearance. Much of this pressure is based on Jewish law’s overriding concern with the potential for men to be inappropriately sexually stimulated by a woman’s appearance.

The now-classic book Oz Ve-hadar Levushah/Modesty: An Adornment for Life by Rabbi Pesach Eliyahu Falk is 700+ pages long and filled with diagrams and explanations, intended to guide the Orthodox woman in her clothing choices. For some Orthodox women, it’s a valuable resource. For others, it’s their nemesis.

 A COLORFUL array of head scarves.  (credit: RIVKAH LAMBERT ADLER) A COLORFUL array of head scarves. (credit: RIVKAH LAMBERT ADLER)

Oz Ve-hadar Levushah symbolizes the conflict a growing number of Orthodox women have with the laws of modesty and hair covering. As interviewee Chaykee Mor put it, there are women who feel that “this part of religious Judaism has been weaponized against me,” and they are rethinking their appearance.

Why are some Orthodox Jewish women in Israel no longer covering their hair?

To better understand what’s happening in the hearts and souls of Orthodox women who undergo a shift in their appearance, we spoke to five local women, all Anglo immigrants, about their journeys. 

Changing one’s appearance while wanting to remain part of the Orthodox world in Israel requires a delicate balance. Out of concern for the feelings of their Orthodox families and social or professional connections, several of the women interviewed asked not to be named and/or pictured.

MICHAL SHERMAN (not her real name) became Torah observant 20 years ago through a right-wing outreach group. Looking back, she realizes now that she was taught stringencies as if they were actual Jewish law. 

“They implored us that covering all of your hair and your collarbone was the only way to truly dress modestly,” she related. “I didn’t have much exposure to the more Modern Orthodox approach at that time.”

Sherman made aliyah with her husband and children to “a largely Israeli community,” where she feels socially disconnected. Unable to connect and be inspired by the local Torah learning because of cultural and language differences, she acknowledges that lack of connection might be a factor in her changing standards. 

“That said,” she expanded, “I am hoping to move to a more Modern Orthodox Anglo neighborhood and reignite my enthusiasm, be part of a community and hopefully contribute.”

While she continues “to dress according to the standards of our neighborhood,” she has made some adjustments. Rather than covering all her hair with a wig or a scarf, for example, she now wears a partial wig that covers the crown of her head while allowing her actual hair to show in the front. 

“I did not stop covering my hair completely, although I definitely have my moments when I feel like it would be more comfortable to do so. 

“The only other thing that I have done that is much less strict is that I started wearing a bathing suit at the pool and sometimes at the beach as well. I genuinely feel in a better mood when I get real sun and lots of it, so that was the impetus. I’ve also been uncomfortable wearing layers of clothing and lots of it in the water for the past 19 years. I simply can’t deal with the sensory aspect of it anymore.

“For many years, especially before my girls became teens, I associated not dressing modestly with living an immodest life in general. I’m not sure why that was the case, but over time, as my teens have wanted to explore different modes of dressing, my sensitivity has changed and I am not so appalled by ‘immodest dress.’”

Michal Sherman

“For many years, especially before my girls became teens, I associated not dressing modestly with living an immodest life in general. I’m not sure why that was the case, but over time, as my teens have wanted to explore different modes of dressing, my sensitivity has changed and I am not so appalled by ‘immodest dress,’” Sherman shared.

“Judaism and Israel are both very important parts of my identity. I also feel strongly that there are lots of different ways to serve God and I am in no way holier than thou, no matter how I do (or don’t) dress,” she concluded.

ARIELLA ANOUCHI of Efrat grew up “as a ‘frum’ Torah-observant Jew with a strong belief that keeping mitzvot brings me closer to Hashem. I was grateful to wear loose-fitting clothing that kept most of my body covered. 

“I have always been an active individual, and in high school I discovered that it was often more modest for me to wear pants rather than skirts or dresses. Being a woman who cared deeply about learning and practicing Torah and who also wore pants, I found myself being approached by many people who wanted to engage in conversation about religious observance and our ability to navigate through the gray areas instead of the black/white, all or nothing approach that was so prevalent.”

For Anouchi, her marital status is deeply woven into her hair-covering practice.

“I was eager to begin covering my hair, specifically as a woman who wore pants. Though they both connect to modesty, they are actually different halachic [related to Jewish law] issues. I was tired of seeing so many young (and not so young) women throw the baby out with the bathwater because they had never been exposed to an alternative, more nuanced approach. 

“Once married, I covered almost all of my hair. I wore huge scarves because I loved the look, but I gave them up because of the neck pain that came with that style. For a while, I was dealing with horrible headaches and could only handle wearing loosely fitting berets. It’s a balancing game of functionality and fashion. So many assumptions are made about us based on if and how we cover our hair.

“When I separated from my husband, I stopped covering my hair. Uncovering my hair was a powerful statement to my ex, myself and the community that our relationship was over. According to Jewish law, we were still married, so when I went to synagogue on Shabbat, I would cover my hair with a hat but not a scarf. It needed to feel different for me. It became about my respect for Hashem, as I shed any feelings of ownership by my husband.” 

 “During that time, I began noticing a shift in the attention I would get from men, and even women. They seemed to think that I was open and available for things that were simply not on the table. I may be divorced, but I’m still religious!”

Ariella Anouchi

Uncovering her hair led to unanticipated consequences. “During that time, I began noticing a shift in the attention I would get from men, and even women. They seemed to think that I was open and available for things that were simply not on the table. I may be divorced, but I’m still religious!” she exclaimed.

“Once I received my get [Jewish divorce document], it suddenly hit me. I removed my hair covering for him, not really for me. I actually missed wearing my scarf. I missed having an externally visible indication of my values. When I think about what I believe, and understand from a halachic perspective, I want my hair covered. And the kind of man I want to be attracting is someone who would appreciate that I cover my hair. 

“It’s complicated! I want to keep covering my hair because it seems to be a good filter for people who are interested in one thing that is not on the menu. But I don’t want to because I want people to know that I am available for dating.

“I have no idea where I’ll end up. What’s important for me is that I can choose, and I can change my mind about what I am comfortable with. I am engaged in an ongoing conversation with friends, colleagues, teachers and Torah scholars on the topic. We are ever-evolving beings, and we are meant to grow by showing up authentically, and actively engaging with Torah,” Anouchi said.

RECENT OLAH Eliana Yonah (not her real name) looks very different today than she did for decades.

Beginning at age 15, when she became Torah-observant, she dressed modestly. At 18, she married and completely covered her hair with a wig. After more than 30 years of marriage, Yonah got divorced, dropped 38 kilos and uncovered her hair. “My physical appearance is completely different!” she enthused.

Remarried now for four years, Yonah reported that she “also wears pants, shorts and shorter skirts” and doesn’t cover her hair at all. 

“My changes in dress have a lot to do with modesty, social pressure. I was sick and tired of being told what to wear, what not to wear, how long, what to cover. 

Along with the physical changes, Yonah also left the haredi community. “I was burnt out from being told that my child couldn’t continue going to the yeshiva because my earrings were too long or my dress was too figure-hugging. Believe me, it was far from tight in those days!

“I worked for years in a haredi high school, where I could hear teachers telling their classes that if a particular girl wasn’t wearing her ‘tznius button’ (top button) closed, she would burn in the fires of hell. I also was put in the position of having to spy on students, to check if their blouses were buttoned up properly and report back to the office. 

“I’m done with that!” she emphasized.

There was another, even more damaging way of thinking that Yonah faced and rejected. “I was sick of the prevalent attitude that it’s women’s modesty that is the cause of every bad thing that happens in the community and in the world. We were even blamed for hurricanes! 

“I made the decision to uncover [my hair] while dating my now-husband. He was Modern Orthodox and didn’t have any requirement for me to go covered. It hadn’t occurred to me to uncover, even after my divorce, as no one in our circles did that; but once I started thinking about the freedom I would have, I couldn’t go back.”

Yonah left the haredi community, along with her adult children, so she didn’t experience ostracism first-hand, but warns that other women might. She knows she’s been lucky. “On rare occasions, I see someone from my old world. They have been very nice and friendly. No one has ever said a negative thing to my face.”

Commenting on the trend more globally, Yonah said, “I do think all this ‘women erasing’ that goes on plays a huge part. Women are more worldly today and are on social media. They see what’s going on in the outside world. They are getting tired of being blamed for everything, as well as being erased in pictures and their voices not allowed to be heard.”

LAURA BEN-DAVID lived in Gush Etzion for 20 years and recently relocated to Jerusalem. 

Growing up Orthodox, she was expected to wear skirts and dresses exclusively starting at age 12. Initially resistant, she committed to the style on her own at 19, stopped in her late 20s, and eventually returned to classically modest dress “even stricter than before.”

This back-and-forth pattern repeated with hair covering. “When I married at 19, I covered all my hair, except my bangs. I wore wigs, hats, scarves, whatever. I stopped covering my hair in the late 1990s for a couple of years, then started again in late 2000, stricter than ever. Over the next 15 years, I eventually started covering less and less until I ultimately stopped altogether,” she elaborated. 

“I stopped covering my hair completely in 2015. It had been slowly reducing over time, until by the time I stopped, I was really only wearing a symbolic headband. Even still, it was very difficult to remove completely, mostly because I was worried about other people’s reactions.”

The process of uncovering her hair “was complex. Part of it was covering my hair as symbolic of a marriage I was no longer really invested in. Part of it was flagging beliefs and commitment to Judaism. And the biggest part was really that I hated it. I really hated it. So I allowed the first two reasons to give me the excuse I needed for the last reason.”

Now divorced, Ben-David is engaged and will marry again in the spring. “I have thought about if that might ever be an issue, like will I need to wear something in shul? And honestly, I don’t want to even do that.

“I have been in a fluctuating relationship with Torah, Judaism and my spiritual self throughout. One thing I did find was that freeing myself from the shackles of ‘tznius clothing’, hair covering etc., did allow me to experience and express my Judaism in a more free and authentic way, without the deep resentment I felt at the bonds of dressing in a way that did not feel like me. 

“My mom gave me a great gift when I was younger and struggling with religion. She told me that the keys to Orthodoxy are kashrut, Shabbat and the laws of family purity, and if I’m having a hard time with some of the other things, to focus on these as kind of religious ‘anchors.’ I can’t say I have always followed even those, but that helped me tremendously.”

Today, Ben-David said, “As far as my dress, I wear whatever I want now, and I am so happy. I think people have to find and live their authentic selves. If they’re struggling with that, they can either fight to overcome or let it go, and work on other areas,” she advised.

CHAYKEE MOR of Otniel is “a self-proclaimed Peshischa Hassid, whose authenticity in my service of God is paramount. This carries over into all parts of my life – in my relationships, in my emotional and mental well-being, and in my own self-identity. It’s the most important thing to me and guides my agency in my Jewish practice.

“So when I began to get frustrated with my hair covering, I started digging. I looked into the halachic history and progression of hair covering and realized that it had not been appropriate for me to have put a head covering on without this element of understanding. 

“I am now much more relaxed in my view of it, and although I still cover my hair (in public) in a way that I feel still signals ‘hair covering,’ I do not do so for the benefit of others in my peer group, nor their understanding of it, nor their willingness to accept me in this way.”

By the time Mor was a toddler, she was already wearing long sleeves, along with dresses and skirts. With time, aside from the occasional teenage rebellion outfit worn out of view of her parents, Mor shared, “I’m wearing pants today because it’s convenient for me in this situation, but long term I hold value in the ‘uniform’ of my upbringing.”

At the beginning of her marriage, she covered her hair fully with scarves, “everywhere, including at home when non-family members were present.” But something shifted for her. “I can’t say for sure when it happened. Now I mostly wear hats with my hair down. Occasionally I’ll still wear a scarf with my hair exposed in the back; and often, if I’m in someone’s home and definitely my own, I’ll skip it altogether.

“I also wear pants and short sleeves. I do stick to feminine pants in style or color, and I’m never sleeveless except at the beach.” For the record, Mor emphasized that “I believe these choices are based on Jewish law, even if not widely accepted as such.

“My clothing changed more rapidly than my hair covering. I have always been very into clothing as self-expression and it just seemed like a natural progression. 

“I recognize when something in my life propels me toward a different line of thinking or underscores a previous value. In either case, I am comfortable changing things to accommodate that. 

“So, even though I see modesty as a value, I began to see some of the ‘halachot’ (in quotations because this is a loaded term that means something different to each community and even each Jew personally) in this area as problematic and not in line with my understanding of Hashem and His directive for me.”

Demonstrating her grounding in Torah, Mor quotes two biblical passages to illustrate what she understands as God’s expectation of her.

“He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord demands of you; but to do justice, to love loving-kindness, and to walk discreetly with your God” (Micha 6:8).

“And now, O Israel, what does the Lord, your God, ask of you? Only to fear the Lord, your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, and to worship the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 10:12).

Mor believes that the seriousness of her reputation as a person committed to Jewish law cushions her from communal and familial criticism.

“This is not a place of contention and has hardly even been a discussion. Maybe because my people know I approach every area of my life with authenticity and frankness; it just isn’t a thing I am confronted about.

“Occasionally, because I am known for caring about Halacha, I am asked about my view on this area, and we can talk for a long time about the subject, which snowballs into many other areas. 

“My husband also sees it as a natural progression and has not raised any objection to it. In fact, he often rolls his eyes if I ask him whether I should change my outfit or head covering for the sake of his haredi family. He’ll say, ‘I think you’re beautiful in whatever you wear, but I like it most when you’re yourself.’

“I know this is an area that some religious Jews really struggle with in their marriage, and I’m thankful that it is not ours,” she confessed.

“There are a lot of areas in my life where I feel need spiritual work. This isn’t one of them. Changing my appearance has [positively] impacted my relationship with Torah and Hashem because I feel I understand more and more about myself and about Torah Judaism in a way I truly did not when growing up. 

“Even if I’ve learned some hard truths and had to grapple with what I believe to be some deep corruptions, I feel overwhelmingly positive about the subject and the changes I’ve made.”

For other women who are questioning their standards of dress and hair covering, Mor has some sage advice. 

“I would encourage all Jewish women who have a cultural or spiritual practice that feels like it no longer (or has never) suits them to dig deeper. Does this come from within or without? What does Torah truly value in women? What does Torah truly value in modesty? What are the things that have been passed off as ‘Halacha’ that are not? Why did this happen? Does it serve us as a community to continue that specific practice? Does it serve me in reaching my highest potential? 

“I think these answers will be different for each person and I believe that is the right way to sift through the good, the bad, and the ugly so you’re left with the path you know is right for you. When you’re on your correct path, other paths don’t bother you so much, even the path you got off to get here.”

Mor concludes with a nuanced perspective on the phenomenon of so many women rethinking their relationship with hair covering and modest dress.

“I see some of it as a positive thing, where women are delving deeper and getting rid of the outer shell to get to the core. But I also recognize that some of it is coming from deep pain. Women [are now openly] saying, ‘This part of religious Judaism has been weaponized against me and has permanently traumatized me, and I can’t or won’t include it in my practice.’” 

The writer is the editor of Ten From The Nations: Torah Awakening Among Non-Jews and Lighting Up The Nations: Jewish Responsibility Towards the Nations Today and in the Messianic Era. [email protected]

 ‘MITPACHAT,’ A popular Israeli style of hair covering.  (credit: Shlomi Shalmoni) ‘MITPACHAT,’ A popular Israeli style of hair covering. (credit: Shlomi Shalmoni)

An exceedingly brief guide to Orthodox women’s hair covering

There are dozens of variations of hair covering for married Orthodox women. Orthodox women do not cover their hair before marriage.

A woman may choose one particular style of hair covering at home and a completely different style for work or festive occasions. The seriousness of a woman’s commitment to Torah observance is often judged, albeit fallaciously, by her hair covering. 

Some women cover their hair a certain way in order to demonstrate affiliation with a particular community. Some hair-covering styles that are acceptable in one community are not acceptable in others. 

Each of the major styles listed below has multiple variations. 

  • Hats: All styles of hats, from baseball caps and beanies to cloche, straw and dressy “church” hats, are worn with or without some hair showing. For full coverage, some women wear a thin scarf or other fabric beneath a hat. 
  • Headbands: They are a symbolic form of conveying a woman’s marital status; they don’t actually cover the hair. Headbands are a relatively recent variation and are most commonly seen among younger and more liberal Orthodox Israeli women.
  • Scarves: Scarves are worn, as well as other soft coverings such as snoods, turbans and berets. Scarves, which come in thousands of size, color and style variations, are known as mitpachot in Hebrew and tichels in Yiddish. They are worn with or without shapers underneath, which help provide volume. 
  • Scarves may be worn with or without some hair showing. Hundreds of short online videos demonstrating a wide range of creative ways to tie head scarves are readily available. 
  • Snoods resemble soft bags that offer full coverage. Turbans also offer full coverage and are generally reserved for very informal settings. Berets generally allow for some hair to show. 
  • Wigs: Called sheitels in Yiddish and pe’ah in Hebrew, wigs come in a variety of types. A full wig is meant to cover all of a woman’s natural hair. There are also partial wigs, such as hat falls and kippa falls, which cover part of a woman’s head. They are generally paired with a hat, scarf or a large portion of the woman’s own hair. 
  • – In the hassidic community, there are other variations, such as a shpitzel, which is an intentionally artificial-looking partial wig. A shpitzel is generally paired with a hat or a scarf to cover the rest of the head. 
  • Some Orthodox women leave their hair completely uncovered, even after marriage. They may or may not cover their hair when attending synagogue or a Jewish ritual occasion. Similar to removing one’s wedding band, some divorced or widowed women uncover their hair as an indication that they are open to meeting someone new.