Ruling on ‘idolatrous’ Wig Hair Creates Frenzy in Orthodox World

When word reached a fervently Orthodox enclave in Beit Shemesh, Israel, that wigs made from Indian hair may not be kosher because of the hair’s heathen origins, pandemonium erupted.

Women replaced their $2,000 wigs with $5 kerchiefs, simple snoods and synthetic-hair substitutes as they waited to hear the final word on a religious ruling that has created chaos in the Orthodox world, where many married women cover their hair as a sign of modesty in conformance with Jewish law.

“There are humongous things going on here,” said a fervently Orthodox woman who lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh. “I know a girl who just spent $2,000 on a sheitel and was told it was no good,” she said, using the Yiddish word for wig.

The controversy reached a fervor last week when Rabbi Shalom Elyashiv, one of Israel’s pre-eminent authorities on Jewish law, or halachah, instituted a ban on wigs made from Indian hair out of concern that the hair’s original owners had used their hair for idolatrous Hindu religious ceremonies.

The hair is bought after Hindu women, who never before have cut their hair, shave their heads at the Tirupati temple in India as a sign of religious reverence. Jewish rabbinic authorities are divided over whether the hair itself is used in idolatrous worship or whether the haircut is what is ceremonially significant — and whether the hair is then forbidden according to Jewish law.

Many anxious women also were uncertain whether their wigs contained Indian hair or were made of “kosher” hair from Europe or elsewhere in Asia.

“On the one hand it’s comical, but on the other hand it’s a serious issue,” said Chaim Waxman, a sociologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

“We’re not used to thinking in terms of idolatry, because for 2,000 years monotheism prevailed in the Western world, where Jews lived,” Waxman said. But “if in fact Hinduism is idolatry, and if in fact the cutting of the hair is part of the ritual, then theoretically it could be a problem.”

This is the recall story of the Orthodox community, observed Jeremy Stern, a fervently Orthodox Jew who lives in Israel. Just as the recall of Firestone tires in 2000 caused anxiety in the general public due to safety concerns, this episode is causing fervently Orthodox Jews to act out of religious concern.

When some Jews in Israel and Brooklyn started burning their wigs — believing they were following the religious injunction to destroy idolatrous religious objects — it added fuel to the fire. Wig makers hastened to find religious authorities to compile lists of wigs whose provenance was not under suspicion, and they posted them on the Internet.

“In general, the mass hysteria has a lot to do with the communications today, with all the faxes and the e-mails. In the old days, a thing like this would take such a long time,” Stern said. “The Internet has really made everything a global shtetl.”

Meanwhile, Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn to Bnei Brak are debating the intricacies of Hindu worship at a temple halfway around the word.

“The haircut is part of the avodah, not the hair,” said Elliott Brill, a fervently Orthodox New Yorker, referring to the religious service at the Indian temple. “They don’t cut their hair their whole lives until they get to the temple.”

Rabbi Nochem Kaplan, director of the Central Committee of Chabad Rabbis of America, said his group appointed a six-person rabbinical task force to look into the matter.

“Some serious questions were raised and they need to be dealt with in a serious way,” he said. “Somebody from India is coming here. There have been numerous calls and correspondence from India. It’s fact finding more than anything else.”

For many people, a lot of money is at stake.

Human hair wigs can be expensive — custom-made ones sell for more than $2,000, and even low-end synthetic wigs can cost several hundred dollars — and wig-making is big business in the fervently Orthodox community. Aside from wig manufacturers, there are wig importers, weavers, cleaners and sellers.

But the controversy is about more than just money.

Aside from the obvious religious issues involved, anti-wig forces in the fervently Orthodox community are using the brouhaha to bolster a century-old argument against the use of wigs.

“This issue touches upon a debate at the heart of haredi life,” said Menachem Friedman, a sociologist at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, using the Hebrew word for fervently Orthodox.

The uproar owes much to the origins of Jewish wig-wearing in the late 19th century, he said. Up until then, only a few upper-class, observant Jewish women wore wigs, while other women covered their hair with hats, kerchiefs or shawls.

But a rise in the standard of living, coupled with technological advances that made wig manufacturing more feasible and affordable, resulted in an upsurge in wig-wearing among Orthodox women.

The new ubiquity of wigs presented Orthodox rabbis with a dilemma.

“The goal is that the women will be modest. And how do you do it? With head coverings,” Friedman said. “But when the woman is more erotic wearing a particular kind of head covering, that presents a problem.”

Many rabbis sought to ban the wigs, but that would have meant hurting a lucrative Jewish business and declaring that the women who had worn wigs for generations — including the rabbis’ own ancestors — had sinned. Most rabbinic authorities therefore did not oppose them.

“They don’t want to delegitimize the previous generations, and this is a significant Jewish business,” Friedman said.

But the controversy over the Indian-hair wigs has breathed new life into the anti-wig crusaders. Rabbinic proponents of wig wearing have stayed quiet largely because they recognize the problem inherent in advocating head-coverings that make women more, rather than less, attractive, Friedman said.

“A lot of people are anti-sheitel, and they’re definitely pushing it along,” said Brill, whose company, Lacey Costume Wig, manufactured wigs for Orthodox women until 15 years ago, when his business shifted to wigs for the stage. “They consider sheitels bourgeois and not a real head covering.”

Brill said women have phoned him in tears over the controversy.

In Cleveland, a fervently Orthodox school closed for a day because the female teachers didn’t know what to wear over their hair, Waxman said.

One fervently Orthodox woman in Ramat Beit Shemesh said she felt embarrassed wearing her wig in public — even though it’s made from European hair — because people looked at her as if she were a heretic.

“People you would never have seen walk out of their house with anything but a wig are now wearing snoods, tichels,” she said, using a Yiddish word for kerchief. “It’s almost comical.”

Freeda Kugel, who lives in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, runs a company that manufactures European-hair wigs. Freeda Wigs employs 200 people and produces 600-700 wigs per month, mostly for customers in the United States.

Though many wig wearers say Caucasian hair is the best quality, followed by Indian and then Korean hair, Kugel said she always wanted to work with Indian hair.

“The Indian hair is nice and it’s cheaper, and I could not get hold of this hair. Now, thank God that I didn’t go into it,” she told JTA.

Despite the uproar, Orthodox community members say most people are taking a more reasoned wait-and-see approach.

“The guidance that we are giving is that currently those women who have determined that their wig comes from India should not wear it pending a definitive ruling from Israel,” said Rabbi Basil Herring, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, an Orthodox rabbis group, explaining that Elyashiv’s ruling was a tentative one. “At the same time, they should not destroy them.”

“Wear a synthetic wig for a couple of weeks, or a wig from Europe,” Chabad’s Kaplan advised. “It’s not that big of a deal.”

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