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On Purim Wigs, ‘Modesty,’ and Rabbi Broyde’s Defense of the Sheitel

I actually spent the past hour playing sheitel-macher — combing out a long, blond wig, much the way Tali Farkash described in the article that sparked this blog-debate. See my post here and Rabbi Broyde’s response here I was doing it for my 7-year old daughter because tomorrow is “wig day” in school. No, they are not training the girls to be good married women. It’s just Purim.

It’s quite funny, really. The wig is a fantastic tool for playing with identity, for stepping out of social norms and boundaries and stretching one’s reality and liberation. People use Purim to be who they are not “normally” allowed to be — v’nahafoch hu — and it is great fun. If society allowed us to play dress-up a little more, we might be a jollier people. But now that my daughter is finished giggling about her costume and gone to bed, I have returned here to this very serious debate about whether wigs somehow make women more religious. It’s so funny that it makes me want to cry.

Michael J. Broyde opens his piece with an assertion that I am “mistaken in [my] critique of the wigs that many married Orthodox women choose to wear” — not that he disagrees with me, mind you, rather that I am simply wrong. Rabbi Broyde then goes on to offer several assertions I believe do nothing to rebut my basic argument. In fact, he perfectly demonstrates what I was trying to say.

First he argues that “modesty” — i.e., rules of excessive cover of the female body — is an antidote to belly-button rings, which in turn are an indicator of promiscuity and recreational sex. Really? This line of thinking is full of more leaps than an equestrian track. At the risk of stating the obvious, let me say that there are more than two choices for female attire. There is a whole series of gradations between the sheitel and the music video outfit. There is a lot of variation in between. Women who choose to wear jeans and a t-shirt, who play with ways to put their hair up in a scrunchy or let it flow naturally over their shoulders, who wear leggings to go bikeriding in the park — these are women who, according to this reckoning, are immodest, likely to have sex as often as they eat, and dangerously on the edge of social norms.

This black-and-white view (no pun intended) is particularly disturbing because it leaves out an entire range of female experience. The possibility of women freely choosing the way they exist in their bodies is outside of this dichotomy. It leaves out the very possibility that our clothing decisions are not based on the male libido but simply on our personal preferences. And by the way, not all women who have belly-rings engage in recreational sex.

Both the fervently Orthodox worldview and the MTV worldview involve a sexual objectification of women’s bodies. Both expect women and girls to dress a certain way because we are objects of male desire. Both are dominated by men making determinations about what women should or should not wear based on their own inability to see us as more than a body. Orthodoxy, as opposed to MTV, says, okay, so cover up and then maybe we’ll respect be able to put aside our sexual desire and have a conversation with you. But you know, the Taliban makes a similar argument. It’s a no-win situation for women, and leaves us completely passive and helpless.

Rabbi Broyde goes on to express exactly what I’ve been saying all along: “Women who desire to obey Jewish law while fully functioning in our open and valuable Western society found wearing a hat or a scarf to be a burden” Yes!! Head covering is a burden! Exactly! Women do not want to do it! “Hence, the sheitel became the perfect compromise because it promotes conformity with both Jewish law and Western culture.” Indeed, the sheitel represents the worst of both worlds — conformity to two forms of male gaze on the female body: The rabbinic gaze telling women to cover and the Western gaze telling women to be sensual and youthful. The sheitel is all about women’s obedience to double sets of expectations on the female body, both of them inherently bad for women.

Moreover, the argument fully supports what I originally asserted, that the sheitel represents all that is wrong with Orthodoxy today. Meaningless conformity. I cannot even imagine what Moshe Rabeinu would think if he came down and saw these sheitels. Unrecognizable Torah.

But what makes this so painfully jarring right now is the world context of this conversation. Thousands of people lost their lives this week, and hundreds of thousands more are homeless, many of them elderly. We should be talking and writing about that.I mean, it is so distressing to me that I can blog about sexual abuse, violence against women, agunot, eating disorders, poverty, inequality, the social worker strike and rape, and receive a small handful of comments. No rabbis writing in with great passion about what the Torah view is about the suffering of women. But as soon as I say something as horrifying as, say, sheitels are dumb, suddenly the Orthodoxy community cares and is up in arms. It’s upsetting. From my perspective, Orthodoxy has really lost the plot.

My friend Gal Lusky, dedicated founder of Israeli Flying Aid who goes wherever disaster strikes and sold her house in order to provide emergency rescue aid at Katrina, Haiti and elsewhere, has already dispatched a rescue team to Japan — even though she is $30,000 short of being able to provide the kind of disaster relief she needs to. “Do you know anyone who can donate $30,000?” she asked me. I wish. I can’t help but think, maybe a few women can sell their wigs to raise the money. That is the sort of act that Moshe Rebeinu might possibly recognize as his Torah.


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