Why No Jewish Burqa?
With all the attention given by the media recently to the Arab mode of dress, I was wondering why, in fact, orthodox Jewish women aren't dressed similar to Arab women with a burqa or niqab robe that covers the face and body. If this is the most modest way for a woman to dress, why don’t Orthodox women dress as modestly as possible?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
There is a core distinction between the Jewish laws and customs of modesty and the Muslim mode of dress, reflecting two absolutely contrary worldviews.
First, Jewish law has clear parameters as to the requirement of dress for women to ensure and preserve modesty, such as skirts which reach below the knee and sleeves which cover the elbow. These guidelines are not about being "as modest as possible," rather to cover areas which are most immodest if exposed and could unnecessarily cause lustful attention and attraction.
The parameters established by Jewish law are predicated upon the principle of "The glory of a princess is on the inside" (Psalms 45:14). This verse sums up the need for a Jewish woman to be modest in all ways, as true royalty ought to be. Every Jewish woman is regarded as a princess. Just as the King and Queen don't reveal all their riches to the masses, so too a Jewish woman keeps her honor covered and not exposed to the eyes of all to behold.
Much like Buckingham Palace's honor is in its changing of the guard which shows there's something inside worth guarding, also a Jewish woman has her "royal guards," her clothing, which reveal a profound inner self deserving of regal bearing.
A person’s face, however, is one area which should always be revealed. The Hebrew word for face, "panim," shares the same root as the word "p'nim," which refers to one's "inside" or deepest essence, the soul. This teaches that while the physical body masks one’s essential soul, the face reveals the soul, as it says: "The wisdom of a person illuminates his face" (Ecclesiastes 8:1). A woman covers her body so that the beholder can focus on her true royalty, the regal soul which shines from her countenance, her face. Revealing the rest of the body causes others to focus on her physicality and deflects attention from her true essence. In many cases, this causes the spiritual essence to retreat deeper within herself, taking a back seat to the physicality which she attempts to expose as her real self… when in fact her real self is hidden.
The Talmud discusses the amount one must pay if he had embarrassed a Jewish woman. One opinion is that it depends on her standing: if she is a rich woman, the penalty payment would be high. However, the Talmud concludes that every woman deserves the same payment because "all Jews are the children of kings," and to cause a Jewish woman embarrassment it a slight to her regal bearing. (Bava Metziah 113b)
My understanding of the Muslim mode of dress, such as the niqab, is diametrically opposed to all the above. When you force someone to cover their face, you are making a statement that there is no deeper essence to be shown. This person is completely a non-person, totally subservient to men. I was recently dumbstruck when I saw an interview with a leading sheikh expounding, unabashedly, on the virtues of the Muslim practice of beating wives. He explained how this is a husband’s religious obligation when his wife is acting out of line. (He did say that the stick used shouldn’t be too big and heavy.) With a straight face, even with a smile, he went on to explain that one should not beat his wife for just any transgression; it is reserved mainly for when a wife is unwilling to submit to intimate relations. This, together with laws forbidding women from driving, voting, working, etc, show how Muslim woman are viewed as non-entities or lower-caste than the men in control; hence covering her face.
None of this is related to the Jewish mode of dress, based on a Jewish woman's status as "daughter of the king.”