Musings / A Question of Status

Women wearing head coverings share a worldview that conflates the territorial with the spiritual.

I find it puzzling that, parallel with the undeniable progress achieved by women in recent years in their struggle for equality, many have, in the name of religion, consented to practices that perpetuate and even aggravate their subjection. There is little value in repeating the humiliations visited on women under Islam. That the European left should have joined hands with the most extreme exponents of religious reaction is one of those ironies that we will need to leave to history to ridicule. What is interesting, however, is that the trend among young Western Muslim women of wearing veils and head scarves is often foreign to the practices of their more Westernized mothers. Their apparent return to religion seems to be more political than spiritual.

The phenomenon is not unique to Islam. The highly educated religious women of a people that has totally absorbed Western values - the Jews - have also succumbed to what one might have thought was the discarded medieval custom of covering their heads upon marriage. As with the Muslims, the ostensible reason is to keep a woman's crowning glory from the lustful eyes of all but her husband. But also, as with Muslims, the adoption of outmoded customs that reduce a woman to subsidiary status masks a political intent. The Israeli victory in the Six-Day War in 1967 brought about a number of unforeseen changes, of which one was a return to a premodern form of Judaism. The most visible sign of this change is the head covering worn by married women. We are not talking here of the ultra-Orthodox, for whom time has stood still for centuries. This revolution has occurred in the camp of Orthodox Judaism that has in all other respects embraced modernity. There are political overtones. The married women for whom a head covering has become de rigueur share, without exception, a worldview that conflates the territorial with the spiritual. A woman who covers her head believes passionately that the Land of Israel was given exclusively to the Jews.

The year 1967 brought other, less visible, changes in the position of modern religious women. Dancing or swimming with men is now strictly taboo. One can only marvel at the joyful acceptance of their new status by women graduates, who have done nothing to merit their new state as second-class citizens.

There is a cop-out available to the more religious. If a woman wears a wig, she does not need to wear other headgear. From my observations, the wig (known in religious Jewish circles by its Yiddish name, sheitel) comes in three varieties. There is the poorly made wig that achieves its object by making its wearer look even frumpier than she did before. Then there is the wig that is made of the wearer's own hair and, when worn, makes her look exactly as she looked before. In which case, what was the point of the exercise in the first place? Finally, there is the wig that makes its wearer look more glamorous than she did originally. In this case the wearer is Hungarian.

Mercifully, in one respect Jews have not imitated the retrograde anti-feminist practices of their Muslim cousins; they have not re-adopted polygamy. For that we have to thank a proto-feminist who lived 1,000 years ago. He was Gershom ben Judah of Mayence. He is known best to later generations as Rabbenu Gershom or Meor Hagolah, the Light of the Exile. He lived at the turn of the first millennium. It was around the year 1000 that he issued the edicts for which he is still famous. The synod which he summoned for that year made four enlightened and far-reaching decrees that were to be binding on all the Jews of Europe. One important edict decreed that the consent of both parties was required for a divorce. But the decree that is familiar to everyone is that forbidding polygamy. This decree, commonly known as the herem (ban) of Rabbenu Gershom was valid for 1,000 years. The 1,000 years have now expired, but though the Jewish religion does not lack crazies of all kinds, there are more supporting the return of animal sacrifice than there are favoring the return of polygamy.

I have been trying to verify a piece of arcana connected to the ban of Rabbenu Gershom. The late Prof. Yuval Neeman was not only one of Israel's great scientists, he was a man of astounding erudition in a variety of spheres. I once heard him talk - I cannot even recall his general subject - when he fascinatingly ranged from one exotic topic to another. One concerned the exclusion principle of Wolfgang Pauli, one of the great physicists of the 20th century. As simply as I know how to explain it, this principle says that no two electrons in the same atom can be in the same quantum state. This restriction to one electron reminded Pauli of monogamy. According to Prof. Neeman, Pauli decided to call his principle by the same name in German that was already attached to the celebrated ban of Rabbenu Gershom.

This ban also furnishes the background to the novel of Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua, "Journey to the End of the Millennium." The action takes place in the year 999, at the end of the first Christian millennium. The main protagonist is Ben Attar, a successful merchant from Tangier. He has had a profitable partnership for several years with his nephew Abulafia, who resides in Europe. Abulafia has recently married an Ashkenazi widow who, when she learns that Ben Attar has two wives, persuades her husband to dissolve the partnership. The journey of the title is a voyage to Europe in a ship chartered by Ben Attar. He takes with him his two wives in a quixotic attempt to persuade his nephew to return to their partnership. They skirt the Iberian and French coasts before sailing up the Seine to the dirty little medieval town of Paris, and later on by land to Worms. In both towns he puts his case to tribunals for a restoration of the partnership.

What is interesting is how Yehoshua, a writer of unambiguously progressive views, loads the dice in favor of the polygamous life-affirming North Africans, against the monogamy of the narrow-minded puritanical Ashkenazi Jews of France and Germany. The opera based on his novel makes the contrast even starker. The North Africans are dressed in white, while the Europeans are clad in black. We have here the sunshine of the Maghreb - think of Matisse's sun-soaked Moroccan interiors - against dark and gloomy northern Europe.

Yehoshua is far from advocating polygamy, but he is making a point. In the same way the women who dance together behind a partition would hotly deny that they are thereby acquiescing in their inferior status. But that is what it looks like. We are still distant from the restrictions imposed on women in Saudi Arabia and Iran, but I cannot help regretting the voluntary acceptance of secondary status implied in the covering of the heads of these modern enlightened Western women.