This essay will explore the ritual of female hair shaving in Hasidic Judaism. Ethnographic work was carried out in ‘armchair anthropology’ style by exploring ritual practices through TV show, ‘Unorthodox’. Hair shaving will be examined initially to discuss meanings behind this ritual practice. A moment will also be taken for reflexivity on this style of research. Following this will be a discussion of ritual theory and the embodiment in society. Specific theories include cognitive anthropology and trauma to explain how intense ritual practices have an impact on long-term memory and lifestyle experience. Ritualisation also works to reveal the complex relationship between Judaism and undergirding gender hierarchies.
Unorthodox, set in New York City follows the life of Esther Shapiro during her rites of passage into marital life. Esther’s life is complex, as she is immersed into her religious life, yet the show highlights how she also longs to leave it.
The hair shaving ritual is a poignant rites of passage that Esther must go through after her wedding. The wedding itself was a momentous celebration consisting of various rituals. Esther looked happy during the wedding and a special aura was created in these scenes. After the wedding, the show directly cuts to hair shaving as it is the first ritual performed after marriage. There is a stark difference in the experience of wedding and post-wedding rituals. During hair shaving, Esther is crying, whimpering and panting almost seeming to have a panic attack, while the younger, unmarried girls watch in horror. In the build up to this marital rites of passage, Esther takes classes on being a good wife and she learns her purpose in life is procreation. In these classes, she is seen to have a very weak understanding of sex and her body, demonstrated in her confusion around the ‘hole’ for sex. The expectations of marriage, as well as the gender prejudices of this ritual are embodied during this hair shaving ritual. There is a symbolic loss of both freedom and identity presented in the show as Esther’s hair falls to the ground. Her experience is traumatic and difficult to watch.
Hair shaving is a crucial element in marital rites of passage as it highlights deep-rooted gender prejudices in the community and an expectation of unwavering desire to conform to ritual practices. In Hasidic Judaism, hair is considered ervah, which means private as hair may allude to sexual attractions. The hair must be shaved or covered by married women to maintain modesty and privacy in marriage life. This presents a sense of inequality in the experience of women through male asserting rituals that have historically removed female freedom, creating a space where the goal of women is to create and raise families.
Unorthodox provides a detailed account of Hasidic Judaism, but is also seen through the eyes of someone who wants to leave this community and not from someone with no doubts. The show has a clear cinematic perspective that orients itself towards a view of religion being too dominating and governing over an individual’s life. Esther also ends up running away from her community, highlighting an isolating feeling provided by ritual, which furthers the narrative voice the show has taken on. It is important to recognise the specific narrative tone created in a TV show, as it is not an objective account of social experience. However, at the same time it cannot help but reveal themes of intense ritual demand, which Esther describes by saying, “God expected too much of me”.
Cognitive anthropology and physical embodiment can play a part in developing the analysis of such a ritual. This will regard the way that intense ritual practices influence both lasting memory and lifestyle experience. Whitehouse’s theories of cognitive anthropology deploy two models of religiosity: 1. Doctrinal and 2. Imagistic. In considering the nature of the hair shaving ritual, Imagistic religiosity will be used for analysis. Whitehouse explains how in imagistic religiosity the "rarely performed and highly arousing rituals invariably trigger vivid and enduring episodic memories among the people who participate" (2008, 110). He refers to this kind of ritual as one that produces ‘flashbulb memory’; the deep penetration of ritual into memory through extreme embodiment or traumatic ritual experience. This theory applies to hair shaving as it starts to reveal how intense and traumatic rituals impact both memory and lifestyle. Hair shaving is a prominent change to Esther’s life as it signifies a change in freedom and in self, creating a flashbulb in her memory as this is an experience that will be permanent in her life. Flashbulb memory is also used in Whitehouse’s work on ‘rites of terror’, which “may be seen as part of a nexus of psychological and sociological processes, in which specific dimensions of concept-formation, feeling and remembering, are linked to the scale, structure and political ethos of social groups" (1996, 6), using theory to reveal deeper realities of Hasidic Judaism and the way that ritual is able to govern the social lives of a community. The ritual theory emphasised in Whitehouse’s work highlights how intense sensory and episodic experiences in Hasidic Judaism enforce a grounding of memory and influences those who practice, to center their lives around their religion.
This memory and lifestyle embodiment of ritual is also highlighted in Clark’s work on encultuartion. Clark uses ethnographic work of American patriotic celebrations as a form of ritual to show how initiates "seem to treat ritual as if it were an embodied indication that is resonant with and indicative of values" (2017, 29). This theory is used for rites of passage experiences and explains how initiates embody physically and through senses to perceive and adopt values of their society. It is the embodied experience that solidifies much of what ritual is. Social life changes when this physical embodiment becomes part of life as something so that should be so unquestioned. This is the irony. Esther physically embodies intense ritual practices, which teaches her about the values upheld within her community - a fundamental part of Clark’s argument - however these are values Esther does not want to be part of. Clark’s work on rites of passage can therefore strongly link to Whitehouse’s work on rites of terror, examining the repercussions of intense and harmful ritual practices on the individual experience. Rites of passage as described by both theorists is not always a smooth journey, evident in Esther’s experience. “Hurtful bodily acts elicit a sacrifice of self and a bending of the individual towards the collective will” (Clark 2017, 29), demonstrating an expectation to perform ritual without hesitation and “this added demand serves to subdue the instinctual human drive to avoid pain, a submission that furthers an implied sense of self being submerged to the collective." (Clark 2017, 29). A sacrifice of the individual to the societal collective and inherent social expectations bring to life the reality of what Esther is going through in her rites of passage, or as Whitehouse would put it, rites of terror. These ritual expectations must be met and to not associate with these standards is to reject society itself and not become a certified cultural member.
Ritual as the further integration into society is what Catherine Bell would call ‘ritualisation’, which will examine the relationship Judaism has to gender hierarchies. Ritualisation is described by Bell as a power relation, and as a way for one social body to come to dominate another. This theory unpacks gendered power dynamics in this ritual practice and within the religion as a whole. There is an assertion of male dominance in Hasidic Judaism practice, creating a space where women do not have the freedom of the world in the same way that men do. Women have a very domesticated role, which Esther mentions when she is in Berlin, "I have no money, no education!" implying the deep removal of social freedom in a Hasidic woman's life. Ritualisation embellishes how institutionalised prejudices within religion come to life, which have an immensely complicated relationship with feminism. In a critique of Durkheim’s ‘collective effervescence’, Stephen Lukes argues that ritual practice "do not so much unite the community as strengthen the socially more dominant group through a 'mobilization of bias'" (Bell 2017, 119), referencing how social hierarchies are formed through ritual often being completely unquestioned. This highlights how gender hierarchies can stay alive for generations, especially considering how Hasidic Judaism is so isolated from other communities within New York (featured in the show) that attack these social inequalities. Intense ritual works to strengthen social dominance, showing how underlying politics of dominance and inequality in the group consciousness are created and surfaced by ritual.
This essay has discussed the ritual of female hair shaving in Hasidic Judaism through ethnographic work of ‘Unorthodox’. It has used theories from Whitehouse, Clark and Bell to examine how intense ritual practices change the social lives of those who practice it. This change is seen through memory, lifestyle and the embodiment of gender hierarchies.
Bell, Catherine. 1992. Part II - The Sense of Ritual. In Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. Oxford University Press.
Clark, Cindy Dell. Enculturation Incarnate: Ritual Sensoria in U.S. Patriotic Holidays. 2017. Ethos. 45 (1): 24–47
Unorthodox. 2020. [film] Directed by M. Schrader. United States, Germany: Studio Airlift.
Whitehouse, Harvey. 1996. “Rites of terror: emotion, metaphor and memory in Melanesian initiation cults” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute N.S. 2: 703-715
Whitehouse, Harvey. 2008. “Modes of Religiosity” Council of Societies for the Study of Religion Bulletin 37(4): 108-112.