No reader would be faulted for thinking that the title of this column is a spoof. After all, Reform Judaism, like liberal Christian denominations, is exquisitely sensitive to women's equality. Thus, Reform Judaism was the first major Jewish denomination to ordain women, and the first to have its seminaries discourage referring to God as "he."
One would think, then, that the last thing the head of a movement devoted to women's equality would endorse is the covering of women's faces with a veil. This is one of the most dehumanizing and degrading practices that has ever been foisted on women.
That is why it is noteworthy that Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the head of Reform Judaism, in a speech before hundreds of American Muslims at the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), said: "Why should anyone criticize the voluntary act of a woman who chooses to wear a headscarf or a veil? Surely the choice these women make deserves our respect, not to mention the full protection of the law."
In the long history of women's inequality, it is difficult to name almost anything more anti-woman, dehumanizing and degrading than the veil. We know people by their face. Without seeing a person's face, we feel that we do not know the person. When we read about someone in the news, whether known for good or ill, we immediately study the person's face. One can have one's entire body covered, and it means nothing in terms of whether we feel we know the person. But cover a person's face, and the person might as well be invisible.
Indeed, the veiled woman is intended to be invisible. That is precisely the goal of the veil.
In light of the veil's dehumanization of women, how could anyone, especially a rabbi on the left, say he respects a woman choosing to wear a veil?
The rabbi could offer only two possible responses.
One possibility is that he does not think the veil degrades women. But it is almost impossible to imagine any non-Muslim holding such a position. On the other hand, he did lump the veil along with headscarf, as if covering one's hair and covering one's face were in some way analogous. Still, it is hard to believe that the rabbi equates hiding one's face and hiding one's hair.
So the rabbi is left with one other explanation: that he used the word "voluntary." But that explanation indicts him as much as does the first explanation. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of fundamentalist Muslim culture -- whether in the Muslim world or in the West -- knows that, given the social, religious and familial pressures on women to wear a veil, the veil is not worn voluntarily in any meaningful sense of the word.
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