Orthodox Wig Controversy Likely To Ebb, Rabbis Say

By Steven I. Weiss

Published May 28, 2004, issue of May 28, 2004.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The Indian hair at the heart of the enormous Orthodox wig controversy will, in the end, probably be ruled non-problematic, according to several prominent rabbinic sources contacted by the Forward.

Though many leading Orthodox rabbis remain reluctant to speak on the record about the issue, two prominent rabbis — Rabbi Moshe Tendler of Yeshiva University, and Rabbi Yitzhak Abadi, a former leading adjudicator in the ultra-Orthodox community of Lakewood — have publicly declared that the wigs made of Indian hair may be used, and others admit that the issue is likely to subside with similar rulings.

The hullabaloo emerged earlier this month when certain wigs, worn by married women as part of Orthodox law and custom, were noted to contain hair shorn as part of a ritual in Hindu temples. While Orthodox rabbis have been aware of the source of the hair for decades, the status of the hair was the source of a renewed questioning when a rabbinic emissary presented Rabbi Yosef Sholom Elyashiv with evidence that he claimed would categorize the Hindu practice as idolatry, according to Orthodox standards. Elyashiv then reportedly ruled that wigs with hair originating in India could not be used, as deriving hana’ah, or benefit, from objects used in idolatry is a violation of biblical law. Previously Elyashiv had ruled Indian-hair wigs to be proper for Orthodox use, and based his new ruling on findings that presumably conflicted with facts he’d been aware of previously.

A number of rabbis will, indeed, likely remain faithful to Elyashiv’s ruling. But according to sources, several rabbis were skeptical about Elyashiv’s decision from the start, but silenced themselves in what colleagues described as a response to pressure from the right.

For example, Rabbi Dovid Ribiat backed away from a letter he authored on May 14 that summarily dismissed the controversy,

Ribiat told the Forward that the letter was a private communication to a few people. But within days, it was e-mailed worldwide. Ribiat later said that the letter was rife with inaccuracies and that it “wasn’t credible” enough to warrant press attention. Ribiat did not provide the Forward with an example of any specific inaccuracy in his letter, and rabbinic colleagues characterized Ribiat’s change in tone between his letter and subsequent retraction as a result of his having felt pressured by an effort to keep rabbis on-message with Elyashiv’s initial letter.

Similarly, Rabbi Yisroel Belsky, a consultant to the world’s largest kosher-certification organization, the Orthodox Union, was originally quoted in the New York Times as saying that he would stand by Elyashiv’s interpretation until he could “study the matter and consider his own ruling.” The O.U. was quick to respond with a statement from its executive director, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, calling on Orthodox Jews to consult with their local Orthodox rabbis to ascertain a proper avenue of action. Belsky subsequently embarked on a fact-finding trip to India. It was unclear this week whether Belsky had returned, and phone messages left at his home were not answered.

Meanwhile, some within the Jewish community at large had wondered about a potential Hindu backlash owing to dissatisfaction with being referred to as idolaters by Orthodox Jews. However, Rabbi Israel Singer, the president of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, said his group “has been in contact with Hindu leaders to clarify some misunderstandings that have arisen,” and that Hindu leaders “didn’t take [the idolatry terminology] seriously.”






Find us on Facebook!
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • Does Israel have a racism problem?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.