Bonfire of the hairpieces: the global cost of a religious ruling

An Israeli rabbi's ruling that human hair from India is non-kosher has not only rocked Orthodox Jewry worldwide but has also thrown a multimillion-pound industry into crisis. Paul Vallely reports
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The Independent Online

About two weeks ago, a middle-aged rabbi from Tottenham in north London boarded a plane for India with a most unusual mission. His destination was a Hindu temple in the Madras region which houses a massive image of the Vishnu, the blue-skinned, four-armed deity honoured as the preserver of the universe. The temple has 10,000 visitors a week, with an 11-year waiting list to enter its most revered Friday afternoon ceremony. But the act of homage most commonly performed by devotees is the cutting off of their hair. The temple houses 600 barbers who work in shifts round the clock to remove the hair of pilgrims who want to offer their beauty to the god in thanks, honour or worship.

About two weeks ago, a middle-aged rabbi from Tottenham in north London boarded a plane for India with a most unusual mission. His destination was a Hindu temple in the Madras region which houses a massive image of the Vishnu, the blue-skinned, four-armed deity honoured as the preserver of the universe. The temple has 10,000 visitors a week, with an 11-year waiting list to enter its most revered Friday afternoon ceremony. But the act of homage most commonly performed by devotees is the cutting off of their hair. The temple houses 600 barbers who work in shifts round the clock to remove the hair of pilgrims who want to offer their beauty to the god in thanks, honour or worship.

Rabbi Ahron Dovid Dunner watched carefully as the barbers severed the long tresses of the women and men, and saw it fall in a trough, from which it is collected to be sold to foreign buyers. Through a translator, he interviewed barbers, donors and temple guides, making copious notes. Then he reported back. It was a move that has since plunged an international multimillion-pound industry into chaos.

The man who took Ahron Dunner's call was Rabbi Sholom Elyashiv, the leader of Orthodox Lithuanian Torah Jewry, in Israel. Rabbi Elyashiv is one of the most respected authorities in the ultra-Orthodox world. It was he who had rung Rabbi Dunner and asked if he would go to India to check out some disturbing reports.

Among highly Orthodox Jews, a code of modesty forbids women from displaying their hair in public once they are married. Rabbinical tradition has it that a woman's hair is her "crowning glory" and must be covered outside the home. Interpretations as to what this means vary: some merely wear hats in synagogue, others cover their hair in the company of others with a scarf called a tichel; some crop the hair short and the most extreme groups shave their heads. But many Orthodox women wear a wig known as a sheitel. Synthetic wigs cost about £200 but wigs made from top-quality human hair routinely cost £1,000 or more.

About a month ago, reports reached senior rabbis in Israel that most of the natural wigs imported from Europe for their womenfolk were made of Indian hair. This reignited rumours which had been in circulation for years; that hair bought in India had been cut during Hindu religious ceremonies. This would be a serious problem, since Jews believe that there is only one God, where Hinduism is a polytheistic religion which, under Jewish religious law, would be classed as idol worship. Rabbi Elyashiv rang his emissary Rabbi Dunner in London and asked him to go to India to investigate.

"What he found," says Rabbi Pini Dunner, the nephew of the emissary, who runs the Saatchi Synagogue in north London, "was that the cutting of the hair was clearly a sacrifice to a pagan god according to the criteria of the rabbinic texts."

Vishnu is one of many deities within the Hindu pantheon, and, to make matters worse, a god with 1,000 names who, it is believed, will have 10 incarnations, of which Rama and Krishna are but two. Vishnu could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be seen as another name for Judaism's monotheistic God. Jews who wore wigs made from hair cut in his honour were in violation of the Torah (biblical) ban on benefiting from idol worship. In other words, such wigs were decidedly not kosher.

"The question then," says Pini Dunner, "was whether all hair from India came from such ceremonies." What the authorities in Israel decided was that there was no way of knowing. "Under rabbinic law, in cases of uncertainty you give it the benefit of the doubt. But when it is a Torah ban, the rule is when in doubt, do without'."

On Wednesday last week, Rabbi Elyashiv issued a ruling that all wigs from India were non-kosher. Back in London Rabbi Ahron Dovid Dunner went a step further. Since wig makers often presented Indian hair under the label "Made in Europe", all wigs made from human hair should be rejected until their provenance could be fully established.

Across the world uproar has ensued. Men came home from synagogue to ask their wives: "Where is your wig from?" A panic flashed around the world from Israel to New York, India, Toronto and London. The international wig industry was thrown into crisis; it sells to the theatrical, medical and black communities too but Orthodox Jews represent a significant proportion of its business, especially at the pricier end of the range.

In New York it is not uncommon for ultra-Orthodox women to spend $3,000 on a wig. "The law is about modesty," explains Rabbi Dunner. "It does not say that women have to present themselves as unattractive in public - only that the hair is covered as a sign that a wife's beauty is exclusively for her husband. But it must not make her feel uncomfortable or belittled. That's not the Jewish way."

In the United States, the Orthodox wig market is thought to be worth about $60m a year. In Israel, the market among the haredim, as the ultra- Orthodox are known, is about half a million strong, though they spend a lot less per head. In Britain there are thought to be as many as 10,000 Orthodox wig-wearers.

All of these have been thrown into a panic. Wig shops have been besieged by frantic customers phoning to check where their wigs came from. Many then refused to accept the retailers' reassurances. "Can you believe a wig seller?" has become the new Orthodox mantra. "Our phones have been ringing off the hook," said one retailer in Canada.

In Israel, outraged wig owners demanded that the sellers of wigs made from Indian hair be tried in a religious court. Teachers in the ultra- Orthodox Beit Ya'akov school system were told that if they would be fired if they went to school wearing a wig. In the religious city of Bnei Brak people even started collecting Indian wigs and throwing them onto bonfires. "My God, what's that terrible smell," asked one woman in Israel, on the phone to a friend in London, fearing some terrorist attack. It proved only to be human hair wigs burning.

The wig crisis also became a focus for political point-scoring. The religious Zionist camp of Jews of Middle Eastern origin, who prefer hats or kerchiefs to the wigs of the haredim (mainly of European antecedents), chipped into the debate. Angry zealots began making lists of shops which continued to sell the outlawed Indian hair wigs, threatening to launch a boycott.

In New York, synthetic wigs flew off the shelves at Yaffa's Quality Wigs in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn which is home to many ultra-Orthodox Jews. This is an area where rabbinical rulings spread faster than gossip. So strict is their interpretation of Judaism's stance against idolatry that even portrait photographs are considered "graven images" and prohibited. Here the previous traditional wisdom, that human hair not only looked better but lasted longer, has been overturned. "They've emptied the shelves already for synthetic," The New York Times quoted one saleswoman as saying.

Once the synthetic wigs were gone, queues began to form outside the doors of places selling alternative head coverings, such as the Uptown Girl Snood Factory Outlet. An increasing number of Orthodox Jewish women have been seen wearing cloth head coverings. Teachers at a local girls school turned up for work in snoods. And wig makers have been advertising in the local Yiddish press with desperate assertions that their hair is definitely not Indian.

Yet that was not all. On Monday evening, hundreds of people gathered at a crossroads in Williamsburg, another Brooklyn suburb which is home to a large Orthodox community. They piled women's wigs on the pavement and burnt them in a series of fires. Throwing the tainted headpieces into the garbage, or even burying them, was an insufficient act of disgust, local people said. They had to be burnt. Some of the 300 wigs tossed into the flames were still attached to mannequins' heads.

The emotional temperature rose too, as police stepped in to control the crowds. One man who darted through the police lines to throw another wig on to the fire was led to a waiting patrol car. A woman was charged with disorderly conduct. At midnight more than a dozen fires were still burning.

In Stamford Hill in London the response has been more measured though Orthodox women there have been complaining about a hike in the price of alternative head coverings.

Not everyone in the Orthodox community has been seized by panic. In America, Rabbi Yisroel Belsky, a leading authority on Jewish law for the Orthodox Union in the United States, has temporarily accepted Rabbi Elyashiv's ruling but has promised he will offer his own interpretation after some study. Much turned, he said, on whether it was possible to discern just what the Hindu hair-cutters and donors had in their minds when they made their offerings, because that had a bearing on whether their acts were idolatrous. It might be that the issue could be resolved without a ban.

There may, in any case, be more to all this than immediately meets the eye. Some outside commentators have suggested that the current crisis is a reaction to the weakening of the social control once exerted by the rabbis in the wake of the rapid expansion in the world of the haredim. Most other Jews simply look on bewildered.

To them, as to the secular world, it is all an reaffirmation of the conviction that ultra-Orthodox religious believers are an extremely weird bunch. But Rabbi Pini Dunner is unfazed by that. "To a secularist all religion is strange, and because Judaism is defined by the things you do as much as the things you believe, then much of what we do will be deemed strange. But when you believe in God then the things that control your life go beyond the preoccupations of secular materialism."

If the rest of the world thinks the wig crisis is bizarre, he shrugs, he can live with that.

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