Photo:  Rabbi Moshe Leib Rabinovich, Grand Rabbi to thousands of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn, NY.
Pictured in his traditional fur hat (Shtreimel)

Why is Hairstyle So Important in Religions?

In Roman Catholic Christianity, many women still cover their hair when they enter a church.  Are women to be shielded from the gaze of male parishioners? Of randy priests? Of God himself?  Does this practice hark back to the Original Sin myth, when a morally corrupted Eve tempted Adam to eat an apple from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil?

Catholic monks who belong to certain monastic orders have their hair cut in a “tonsure” — e.g., shaved at the crown of the head and fringed by a ring of short hair.

Mennonite and Amish women wear a small head covering or bonnet, but much of their hair is still visible. The men are usually clean-shaven until they marry, and then grow a beard.

In Orthodox Judaism, married women in public must completely cover their hair with a headscarf, hat, or wig. The head covering is a sign of a woman’s married (and unavailable) status. Some say that a woman’s hair is considered to be a sexual attraction, and as such should be viewed only by her husband and immediate family members.

Orthodox Jewish men must wear a hat when outdoors in public. Both Orthodox and observant Conservative Jewish men should cover their heads with a skullcap called a kippah (a.k.a. yarmulke) at all times. Highly observant Jewish men also wear their sidelocks (peyot or payot in Hebrew) long, because the Book of Leviticus 19:27 says “Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard.” 

In observant Islam, girls and women at the age of puberty (9 to 13) must cover their hair, neck, and ears with a scarf (hijab) when they are in public.  In Islam, the suppression of females starts very early. The hair of young girls and women is considered to be a sexual temptation to men. The suppression of Islamic females starts very early in the Middle East and Afghanistan, often including denial of education beyond elementary school.

Sikh men never cut their hair and they cover it all with a turban.  According to Sikh custom, hair is part of God’s creation, something that should not be altered, and many Sikhs believe that keeping their hair long allows them to take their minds off of their appearance and be more focused on God. Sikhism is an offshoot of Hinduism and is practiced largely in India.  (See our Essay, Evaluating Hinduism)

In Buddhism, hats and other head coverings are not an issue. However, female Buddhist monastics often wear a shaved head and shaved eyebrows. (See our Essay, Evaluating Buddhism)

Taoist men and women have no rules about hats or scarves. Taoist priests usually wear modest black hats signifying their office. (See our Essay, Evaluating Taoism & Zen.)

(I think I have the above statements correct, but there are surely countless exceptions and variations.)

Our central question, our central challenge, is this: Why do any of these hair treatments and concealments exist in the modern age?  Is it so important to advertise one’s faith to outsiders?  Hair treatments are certainly not a part of Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Mainline Protestant Christianity, Existentialism, Unitarian Universalism, or our own Practice of Continuing Creation.

— J.X. Mason, 9-12-23