My first stop on our visit to NY to receive my Doctor of Divinity degree was to Devachan, a hair salon specializing in curly hair. A visit there is like a visit to an alternative universe where everyone has curly hair. While there, I witnessed a remarkable scene. The woman ahead of me, whose long, blond, curly locks had just been trimmed and coiffed, paused at the mirror on her way out and slipped a short blond wig over her curls before leaving. My hairdresser, Keith, and I were astounded. "Now that's a transformation" he remarked. " When you're born a Jewish woman like me, she commented, "you've got no choice." For her, as an Orthodox Jewish woman, Jewish law demanded that she cover her head in public.
The irony didn't escape me. There I was, a rabbi of 25 years, following her in the salon chair, and of course I wouldn't be covering my curly locks on my way out. What accounted for the gulf between our experiences?
Just this past week I taught a Melton class on the purpose and meaning of mitzvot. For traditional or Orthodox Jews, a mitzvah is a commandment from God. In order to be a faithful woman in her community, this Orthodox woman was required to cover her head in public to demonstrate modesty (although it was as if there was an Eruv* in the hairdresser creating private space). For a liberal or progressive Jew like me, even a Rabbi, a mitzvah is a guide or instruction, filtered through the lens of my ancestors, with the purpose of helping me to draw near to God. As a Reform Jew with modern sensibility, covering my head doesn't make sense to me. I am compelled by the notion of maintaining modesty, but through the way I dress or the language I use, not by covering my head.
As a progressive Jew I live in a world where I am constantly thinking and rethinking my Jewish practice. What does God demand of me? What will elevate my life and the lives of those around me? What will bring holiness into our fractured world? I ask and study and consider. I wonder if my Orthodox sister who covered her curls is asking the same questions. Are you?
*an Eruv is a string or wire around a public space creating the legal fiction that it is a private domicile. This is done so that Orthodox Jews are able to carry things on Shabbat, which is forbidden outside one's home. To see an Eruv, visit the Boardwalk on Miami Beach.