VEILS AND MODESTY
There is a story from the Jewish Talmud about a man who wanted to destroy the reputation of a woman. He did so by seeming to accidentally spill a jar of expensive ointment at her feet. Instinctively, the woman uncovered her hair and scooped up the oil to wipe on her tresses. This act caused her to be arrested for immodesty. Luckily the judge was sympathetic and ruled that no woman could resist doing what she did.
This story reveals that among the ancient Jews, no woman was allowed to go with uncovered hair in public. Thus, artists and movie makers get it wrong when they depict any adult female from Bible times with uncovered hair.
This taboo was so extreme that it was even believed that lovely female hair could cause the angels to have lustful thoughts. There was an old Bible legend that some angels were stricken with desire when they saw the daughters of mankind. Falling from heaven, they cohabited with the women, and their sinful unions produced a breed of wicked giants that had to be drowned in the great Flood. In later times, Jesus discounted this story when he declared that angels are not sexual creatures. Evidently, the Apostle Paul did not get this message, however, because he advised the Corinthian church that a woman should not pray with her head uncovered “because of the angels.”
In obedience to this prohibition, my grandmother used to take up the napkin beside her plate and cover her head before asking a blessing on her meal. She would have been amazed to discover that she was doing this to prevent angels from having lustful thoughts about her. This also goes for generations of Catholic women who in times past would not go to church without wearing a hat.
With the Muslims, the extent of covering by females may go beyond just the hair. When Muhammad set the example by putting his wives behind the veil, it was natural for his male followers to extend the custom by devising all sorts of concealments. The custom of female seclusion not only includes head scarves, veils, and full-body shrouds, but also involves confinement to restricted apartments and behind lattice screens. The Ayatollah Khomeini decreed: “A woman must hide her body and her hair from the eyes of men.” It is obvious that the purpose here was not originally religious; it only served to keep the man’s “property” from going astray or being stolen by some other lustful male.
This same principle has been applied to the segregation of women from men in places of worship. The female form is believed to be too enticing to be seen in a sanctuary. Consequently, synagogues, churches, and mosques have all been divided between the sexes in past times, and in some backward places this custom is still perpetuated.
As with rules of modesty, religious people have devised rules of diet - such as unclean foods and seasons of fasting - that they believe make them more holy. Hairstyles - whether uncropped, shaven, bearded, or with earlocks - are similar customs. It should be obvious, however, that God is not concerned with such trivial matters. It follows that religious garb - whether it be black robes, sackcloth, head coverings, or veils - is of little spiritual consequence. True religion goes far beyond all externals.
Richard L. Atkins