Halacha-Shaming is Counter-Productive, in Addition to Just Plain Wrong

December 21, 2017

There’s been a little bit of buzz lately about sheitels; in particular, whether certain sheitels, of certain styles or cuts, conform to certain standards of halacha and hashkafa.

Notice, I didn’t say whose standards.

As outlined here, the debate about whether or not a wig constitutes an appropriate head covering for a married Jewish woman goes back centuries. It is rooted in fundamentally different perspectives on the basic obligation to cover hair, and has become further complicated in recent years by the availability of more realistic – and attractive – wigs. Some halachic perspectives permit any head covering at all; others forbid wigs as inherently not satisfying the Torah obligation to cover; and still others take one of a number of “in between” approaches.

On one hand, the bottom line in this as in any area of observance is that any individual’s personal practice lies with him or her alone, in consultation – or not – with whatever halachic/hashkafic authority chosen by that individual. It is nobody else’s business.

Or is it?

We have been reading the story of Yosef in shul for the past few weeks, and while there are many themes and lessons running through this narrative, certainly a central one is the way the brothers learn to take responsibility for one another. In particular, Yehuda steps up to the plate and offers himself as “eiravon” (guarantor) for Binyamin, finally gaining Yaakov’s trust so he would allow Binyamin to travel back to Egypt with the others to purchase more food. And indeed, Yehuda follows through: when Yosef threatens to keep Binyamin with him, Yehuda comes forward and reminds this harsh Egyptian ruler of his father’s deep connection to Binyamin, explains that he made himself “areiv” for him, and begs to be taken in Binyamin’s place. It is at this moment, seeing how Yehuda has taken responsibility for his little brother – another son of Rachel – that Yosef can no longer contain his emotions, and reveals his identity to his brothers.

One hopes that none of us will ever find ourselves in a situation like this, but there are myriad ways in which we do – or should – take responsibility for one another in daily life. In fact, the same Hebrew root, ע.ר.ב., is used to describe the responsibility each Jew has to ensure that each other Jew has fulfilled every one of his (or her, according to most authorities) halachic obligations. (See, for instance, Rosh Hashana 29 with Rashi “though he has fulfilled, he fulfills for othersand the Mordechai on Pesachim 101a, “in order to fulfill for his children and household.”) It is on the basis of this notion of mutual responsibility that we allow an individual who has already satisfied his own obligation – recited kiddush, for instance – to do it again on behalf of someone who has not, without concern for taking G-d’s Name in vain by repeating the blessings. If you have not fulfilled your halachic duty, neither have I.

So, maybe it is my business if there are Jews who are not fulfilling an obligation properly, in accordance with my view of halacha. After all, if they aren’t doing what I think they should do, then on some level neither am I, and it is my responsibility to make sure they do so. Right? And in fact, there is an explicit mandate in the Torah to offer rebuke (Leviticus 19: 17). If I see something, I should say something, right?

Indeed, Rav Ovadyah Yosef instructs his readers to publicize his strong halachic opposition to wigs, writing:

The essence [of the law] is like the words of the majority of all the Acharonim mentioned above, to forbid this, and it is a great mitzvah to publicize the prohibition to the many – especially to Sefardi women, whose practice from the early days was to forbid [wigs], and only recently they have begun to learn from those who permit it for themselves against the will of the Sages…. It is a mitzvah to let them know that this is a serious breach in the fence of modesty of proper Jewish women… (And how greatly should one caution publishers of religious newspapers, who have accepted it as permitted for themselves to publicize places that sell wigs, and cause many to stumble by this.) (Yabia Omer, section 5, Even HaEzer siman 5)

But here, we have a dilemma on several levels. First, this is not the only halachic viewpoint. “Aseh lecha rav,” “make for yourself a rav” (Avot 1:6). While Rav Ovadyah Yosef is the accepted posek for many Jews, there is no reason to assume everyone must follow his pesak on this or on anything else. As he himself says, his words are directed especially with regard to Sefardi women – those whose traditions, he feels, dictate the approach he lays out. There are many other halachic authorities, however – and not all are Ashkenazi – who rule differently. Teaching various opinions, or even just one’s own, is a great idea. Telling people who didn’t ask that they must do it your way, especially when there are other valid opinions? Not so much.

More fundamentally, though, one has to remember that “publicizing a prohibition” is no simple task. We live in a world where, on one hand, the internet makes it possible to publicize halachic opinions, along with any other opinion, to a degree that would have been unimaginable even a few decades ago. One can easily write an article, or design a flier with some attention-grabbing photos and catchy wording, to share halachic “rebuke” with millions of people within moments. Sounds like a great way to take responsibility for one another and work to build universal halachic observance – right?

On the other hand – we also live in a world where people don’t like to be told what to do. The very notion of halacha and binding obligations is antithetical to many people’s deep-seated philosophy, and even those who subscribe to halacha in general often prefer autonomy in determining how to observe its details in their lives.  So who is going to be impressed by your catchy little flier or your blog post? Only those who already agree with you. What good does that do?

In thinking about what exactly bothered me about those “sheitel-shaming” fliers, a few things came to mind. I wondered whether the person behind the fliers could actually have a point, whether maybe more thought should indeed be given to the style of a sheitel and how it aligns with one’s halacha and hashkafa. It’s a good question. I wondered whether maybe many of us indeed don’t think about those things enough, and instead allow ourselves to be swept along with current fashions, giving only minimal thought to what we perceive as the spirit of the law. Yet, those fliers disturbed me to the core of my being because: (1) this area of halacha is too complex, and maybe even subjective, to be reduced to a few catchy lines; (2) few people will ever be persuaded by an anonymous, insulting flier, and most importantly, (3) the same Torah that is understood as obligating married women to cover their hair is much more explicit when it tells us to be good to each other. (Leviticus 19:17)

The same Torah that says “you shall surely rebuke your fellow” continues “but don’t bear sin because of him”; as the Talmud explains, “rebuke” does not mean “shame” (Arakhin 16b) and we bear responsibility for a grievous sin when we cross the line from the former to the latter.

In fact, the same Rav Ovadyah Yosef who advocates publicizing the prohibition, as he sees it, of wearing a wig as a hair covering, also cautions men not to be rash or obnoxious about it: “[a husband] should not rush to break down his [home and family], G-d forbid… but it is upon him to try to convince [his wife], in pleasant ways… perhaps she will improve her way…with soft language and gently, so that it can be accepted… and peace is great.”

I am disgusted by the public shaming of women who are simply trying to follow halacha, as they understand it, in their personal way. I am, in fact, disgusted by the underlying cultural forces – both religious communal forces and secular, internet-driven, forces – that lead people to take this sort of approach.

I am also perplexed at the very idea that someone apparently thought this would be effective in accomplishing his or her goals.

And I am saddened by the missed opportunity for real halachic discourse. If we are indeed to be responsible for each other, let’s start by simply being responsible, by through what we want to accomplish and how to do that with respect.

We don’t need more people telling others what to do. We do need more people ready to explore Torah study, to delve into what the Torah says and what the Rabbis say and how the two relate to each other and “what if” this and “what about” that and how does it all factor against a million other questions. That’s halacha; that’s mesorah. One-liners aren’t. One-liners are flippant and often rude, and carry a serious risk of turning off one’s intended audience, making them unwilling to listen. “You’re trying to tell me what to do? Forget you; I have my practice/rav, and I don’t care about anything else.”

Sometimes, the very people who are so zealous to spread what they think is the appropriate perspective make it impossible to teach that perspective as a legitimate halachic path, shutting down discourse before it starts.

If one thinks there is an important point that is being missed, one owes one’s audience the respect to frame it appropriately and clearly, with consideration of possible merits in other perspectives. Only then can one hope one’s audience will respond with respect for what may indeed be a valuable lesson.

The mitzvah of rebuke is real, and the mitzvah of Torah study is real and beautiful and deep. I dream that the many can rise above the polemics of the few, to truly learn together and elevate our connection to Torah and halacha.


Related content from Sarah Rudolph in OU Torah: Are There Halachot of Sheitels?

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.