Sunday, October 14, 2007

There was a young lady of title,
Who insisted on wearing a sheitel,
Of religion as such
She didn't know much
But thought that a sheitel was vital.

A sheitel is a wig used by orthodox Jewish women to cover their hair. These women use the wig to cover their hair for religious reasons. The wearing of a sheitel is an Ashkenazi tradition. But more and more, from time to time, in gatherings such as weddings or Bar Mitzvahs, I notice that Sephardic Jewish women are beginning to wear them too.

My friend and I like to play a game of identifying the sheitel. She is much better at it than I, and she is able to point out the most subtle sheitels amongst the crowd. I am told that these wigs can get quite expensive, some selling for over $10,000. In some circles in New York, the quality of a sheitel has come to be somewhat of a status symbol. A woman here in Great Neck is distinguished by the Louis Vitton bag that she carries, the Mercedes Benz that she drives and the sheitel that she wears!

But you, dear reader, might think fondly of a woman who wears a sheitel. After all, wearing a sheitel is to fulfill the Jewish Halachic law and a sheitel is a symbol of modesty, right? So what could possibly be wrong with the sheitel?

It is my purpose to review the Jewish laws that have led the orthodox community to embrace, indeed to require, the wearing of sheitels by women. I want to review the logic used in arriving at the conclusion that exposing one’s own hair is not appropriate. And I want to expose some of the orthodox rabbinic views on women and women’s issues.

If you asked an Orthodox Rabbi to point out the source for the Halacha of sheitels, he is likely to point to the biblical story of “The Sotah”. Now I am almost sure that the reader - even if educated in a Yeshiva - has not learned the biblical story of “The Sotah”. In fact, it is interesting to me how certain stories in the bible are very familiar, being repeated over and over by the rabbis, while other stories wane in the shadows of obscurity. How often, for example, do we hear that there are 613 ‘Mitzvahs’ or good deed yet we are never told that one of those 613 Mitzvahs is to hunt down a certain people called the ‘Amalekites’ and murder them? But I digress. Here is the biblical story of ‘the Sotah’ (Numbers 5:11):

Hashem spoke to Moses, saying:

"Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them - Any man whose wife shall go astray and commit treachery against him: and a man could have lain with her carnally, but it was hidden from the eyes of her husband, …
and a spirit of jealousy had passed over him and he had warned his wife… The man shall bring his wife to the Kohen.
"The Kohen shall bring her near and have her stand before Hashem: …
The Kohen shall have the woman stand before Hashem and uncover the woman's head, and upon her hands he shall put the meal-offering of remembrance -- it is a meal-offering of jealousies, and in the hand of the Kohen shall be the bitter waters that cause a curse: …
"The Kohen shall adjure the woman with the oath of the curse, and the Kohen shall say to the woman, 'May Hashem render you as a curse and as an oath amid your people, when Hashem causes your thigh to collapse and your stomach to distend: …
And the woman shall respond, 'Amen, amen.': …
He shall cause her to drink the water, and it shall be that if she had become defiled and had committed treachery against her husband, the waters that cause curse shall come into her for bitterness, and her stomach shall be distended and her thigh shall collapse, and the woman shall become a curse amid her people:
But if the woman had not become defiled, and she is pure, then she shall be proven innocent and she shall bear seed:
"This is the law of the jealousies, when a woman shall go astray with someone other than her husband and become defiled:…
“The man will be innocent of iniquity, but that woman shall bear her iniquity.”

It is clear that the above passage is describing what happens when a woman is accused of adultery. Her husband brings her before a Kohen, and the Kohen gives her an elixir made up of ‘bitter waters’ to drink. The Kohen curses her and forces the woman to say ‘Amen’. If she in fact is guilty, her thigh and uterus explode; if she is innocent, then she presumably becomes pregnant.

This is an interesting passage, isn’t it?

Now I have said that the purpose of this article is to talk about the religious concept of Sheitels. Believe it or not, this concept derives from this passage, and in due time, I shall relate the relevance to the reader. But I can simply not resist the temptation to digress a bit and comment about the passage itself.

Forget about the demeaning nature in which women are portrayed in the above passage, forget the outrageous fact that the man involved in this adulterous affair is considered innocent, and by all means forget the sexist nature of this passage. My question simply is why do we not do this presently? I see numerous television shows or courtroom reports where a husband is attempting to find out whether his spouse is cheating on him – why doesn’t he simply go to the local Kohen? The Kohen could simply have the woman drink this ‘bitter water’ and determine her guilt or innocence. Who needs DNA testing when we have the Kohen with his concoction that can distend a guilty uterus?

One might think that this drink would be very sought after indeed: What happened to this valuable drink? How did the Kohen come to lose this amazing bitter water? When in the history of Jews did the Kohen lose the recipe for this drink? Or if we have such a recipe, why do we not use it anymore? If you think that the story is a bit weird and difficult to swallow, remember that it is contained within the very scroll that you rush to kiss every Shabbat.

But let us return to the subject at hand. How do religious Jews justify the wearing of sheitels based on this passage? I do not see the word Sheitel mentioned, nor is there anything about wigs said. I must admit I was miffed.

It turns out that the great rabbinic sages actually read the passage of “The Sotah”, and used deductive reasoning. In other words, they ‘derived’ the Halacha of Sheitels from this passage. How, you ask? Let us see their reasoning:

The rabbinic sages point out that in the passage the Kohen uncovers the woman’s hair. They then derive that if the Kohen had to uncover her hair, then it must have been covered in the first place. If this is so, then women normally must have been covering their hair. If this is so, then woman MUST cover their hair!

Let us review the logic:
1. The hair of the woman in ‘The Sotah’ story was uncovered by the Kohen
2. If her hair was uncovered, then it must have been covered to begin with
3. If her hair was covered, then it must have been covered all the time
4. If her hair was covered all the time, then ALL women’s hair must have been covered at all times
5. Therefore all women must have their hair covered!

Talmudic Rabbis go even further. They state that a woman’s hair is akin to her private parts. Thus, just as a woman would not expose her breasts to the public, she cannot expose her hair either. The Rabbis declare further that men are not allowed to pray when a woman has exposed her hair in the synagogue. More modern rabbis have written instruction manuals on what to do if there is a woman in a room or synagogue while they are praying. Their advice to men is to either politely tell the women to leave, or at the least, not to look at the women.

Interestingly, unmarried women’s hair need not be covered at all. Even in the Talmud, exposed hair by unmarried women is allowed. I have not been able to understand why this is so, and I have tried! I once asked a Rabbi: if exposed hair is akin to an exposed breast, why are unmarried women allowed to expose their hair? He merely looked at me scornfully as if I were a troublemaker.

In any case, we can conclude that women (at least married women) must cover their hair because of the story of ‘The Sotah’. Never mind that the story is discredited in that there is currently no remnant of the mentioned ritual; that there is no “bitter water” available; and that there is no forum in which to perform this ritual. Women must still abide by this story nevertheless. It is as if the Rabbis are saying “forget about the reality that the story has proven false. Abide by it anyway!” Personally, if I were a woman, I would only agree to cover my hair if a Kohen could produce the uterus exploding water. “Keep your business out of my hair until you can show me that your water can collapse a thigh”, I would say!

But seriously, does it follow that just because a woman’s hair was uncovered in that act of judgment then all women’s hair must from then on be covered? Maybe the fashion of the time three thousand years ago was to keep hair covered. Does this mean that we must keep with that fashion even now? Should we wear exactly what they were wearing too? Thank goodness the story does not describe the color and the dress this woman was wearing, or else, the rabbis would have required women to wear that dress as well!

A more respectable argument for covering of hair could have been made on grounds of modesty. The rabbis could have said that modesty in dress includes covering hair. Certainly those women who wear hats or otherwise cover their hair tend to be less flamboyant then those who flaunt their hair. An argument could have been made that a dignified woman should cover her hair out of modesty. Unfortunately, when asked, Rabbis always point to ‘The Sotah’ story for justification for this law, and only add the modesty issue as an afterthought.

But for better or worse we have this Jewish law – that women should cover their hair. So where does a Sheitel enter the picture? Does covering one’s hair with someone else’s hair fulfill this Halacha? If god required us to cover our hair, do we believe that it would be acceptable if we covered our hair with someone else’s hair? Is this not cheating?

That Rabbis who liken exposed hair to exposed breasts, and who condone the wearing of a wig – would they then condone exposing a breast with a silicone implant? Or would they like to see women wearing bikinis that have realistic breasts painted on them giving the impression that the women are walking naked on the beach?

If realistic Sheitels mimicking women’s natural hair so well that a man is never sure whether he is looking at a woman’s real hair is justified, then why would realistic looking bikinis with private parts painted on them not be justified?

If modesty is the reason why women are asked to wear a wig, then why are the wigs made so realistic? What happens when the wig is deemed more attractive than a woman’s own hair? How is an imitation of a body part more modest than the body part itself?

Have I made my point?

At the outset, I knew that it was not going to be difficult to debunk a law that compelled women to shave their heads and wear wigs. At the gut level, this practice is so demeaning, that if it were not real and not occurring to my friends, it would be eerily comical. When I began to research the laws concerning Sheitels, I became convinced that these laws are holdovers from the era when sexism and perceived inferiority of women were commonplace.

What puzzles me, though, is that we continue to submit ourselves to these laws. We continue to snicker and murmur about these halachas, yet we continue to obey them. Or if we do not obey them, we comment on the so and so Jew who has taken things too far. But the root of many of these laws is the same. The same group of Rabbis who state that women must wear wigs also declare that we couldn’t have a microphone in the synagogue. They are the same Rabbis who state that we cannot sit in our cars and drive in order to visit our families. They are the same Rabbis who say that you may not eat at yours daughter’s house, lest her house not be Glatt Kosher. If they can produce an absurd law of the Sheitels, they can produce other laws too. The same Rabbis!

Is in not up to us to evaluate these laws – to check them against logic and common sense? Are we not ultimately responsible for our lives? Must we always wearily shrug and obey blindly? Is our faith so pervasive that we as men are compelled to ask our wives to shave their heads and place someone else’s hair upon them?

Burn your Sheitels!