2/07/2008

Burka Sighting

My wife saw a woman wearing one of the new Jewish burka-style clothing. Totally candid, not posed or anything, just walking down the street in Ramat Beit Shemesh.

She's still freaked out by it. I am, too, though in a much less visceral way. I get terrified that it's really all like this, that everything we do developed like this, that some group once decided to take "and you shall bind them as a sign to your hand" literally, and so we now strap leather boxes to ourselves. We also shake twigs and circumcise our males; and the only reason that we consider one to be sane and the other to be crazy, is because we have an ancient tradition that these latter things are what God wants us to do, and no tradition regarding the former (textual interpretation can both promote the former, see below, or discourage the latter, with the exception of circumcision).

But when I look at these newfangled practices, it gets me worried that our collective memory is a very fragile thing. How long will it take for practitioners of this custom to forget that they were once a fringe group of whackos? How long did it take for double-head-coverings and upsherin to be read back into traditional narratives, and for the memory of their absence to be erased? Memories, amongst many segments of Judaism (and believe me, it's not just chareidi), are being manufactured and altered all the time. I find that terrifying, because it generates real uncertainty about the authenticity of the narratives around which I organize my life and which I am attempting to perpetuate through my children and students. But who says that I didn't receive these narrative through some gullible or ignorant ancestors, who, when some religious figure told them that 'this is your tradition', they bought into it. And what if they were taken to an isolated community, or if others were kept out of the community, so that alternative narratives could not be heard? To tell you the truth, it scares the hell out of me. I've come up with an apt metaphor for this problem, which is essentially an application of the famous 'Ship of Theseus' philosophical problem, but with the added dimension that someone might be trying to sell a new ship and pass it off as that of Theseus. I hope to write about it soon.

Interestingly, the source for the newfangled burkas is a statement of Rashi which he himself says is not peshat. Bereishit 38:15 states that Yehuda did not recognize Tamar, because she had covered her face. It is clear from the previous verse ("and she removed her garments of widowhood, and covered herself with a veil, and wrapped herself"), that the 'burka' that Tamar wore was actually her prostitute get-up.

Rashi explains the peshat and then quotes a Midrash (perhaps he was bothered by the fact that the Torah repeats the news that Tamar covered her face) that states that Yehuda 'did not recognize her because she covered her face' when she lived in his house. She was so modest that her own father-in-law had never even seen her face. This midrash has now been transformed into normative practice by a scant few.

Note that I put an 'Ezra' tag on this post. Ha-maven yavin.

Post a Comment