The Law and Economics of Wigs

No, not the 17th-century British political party. I'm talking about the head coverings worn by bald men, Orthodox Jewish women, and yes, even by Whigs.

Jewish law prescribes a strict code of modesty for both men and women, but the law is especially strict for women. In the presence of men (except for their husbands), Orthodox women must wear sleeves to their elbows, skirts (no pants) past their knees, high necklines to their collar bones, and must cover their hair if they are married.

The specific application of the principle of modesty is based on custom: the current set of rules emerged from the secular norms of previous societies. At a certain point in history, it was considered immodest for women to let their hair down in city streets. Although the secular definitions of modesty have changed over time, the religious customs have not.

This leads to some peculiar rules. Even though the purpose of the rule is modesty, the application of the rule distinguishes between a woman's natural hair and a wig, even if the wig is made from human-hair instead of synthetic materials, and even if the wig is just as--or even more--attractive than her natural hair. A woman can even cut off her natural hair before she gets married and use it to make her own wig. Not all Orthodox women wear wigs all the time--some, like my mother, wear scarves or hats--but most have at least one wig for special occasions. These wigs can be incredibly expensive, ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on their authenticity and the designer.

So what does all of this have to do with law and economics?

Well, there are interesting parallels between American constitutional law and Jewish rabbinical law. Take the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, for example. The principle is against cruel and unusual punishments, but the application of this principle depends upon society's understanding of what is considered cruel and unusual at a particular point in history. Perhaps, because of changing social norms or technology, hanging was acceptable 200 years ago, but it is no longer acceptable today. Julian Sanchez had a good post on this issue last year.

So too, the principles which serve as the basis of rabbinical law may still be relevant (modesty, for instance), but the particular application may not be. Just because married women in polite society used to cover their hair out of modesty 200 years ago does not mean that it is immodest for married women to go out with their hair uncovered today. But unlike constitutional law, rabbinical law operates with a much stronger form of stare decisis; contemporary rabbinic authorities are extremely wary of overturning or modifying precedent, out of a sense of humility and caution. So even though the particular application of a principle may not be as relevant as it was in the past, few are willing to challenge it.

Okay, but what does this have to do with economics?

Well, apart from modesty, Judaism also takes idolatry very seriously. Not only are Jews prohibited from worshiping idols, but rabbinic law also prohibits Jews from using an object which was originally created for the purposes of idolatry, such as the wood of an Asherah tree.

Recently, this prohibition against using the fruits of idolatry interfered with the use of wigs among Orthodox Jewish women. Apparently, many of the human-hair wigs come from India, and according to a recent rabbinic ban, "the hair may have been used in Hindu religious ceremonies, which like other pantheistic practices are considered idolatrous in Orthodox teaching."

When I first heard this story, I cynically thought that it must be a conspiracy by the non-Indian wig companies to get all these women to throw away their old wigs and purchase new ones. While I doubt this conspiracy theory is true, the economic intuition behind my theory is quite correct. According to the NY Times article cited above, the wig business is booming in response to this announcement:

Synthetic wigs flew off the shelves yesterday at Yaffa's Quality Wigs in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn. ...

At Yaffa's, business was bustling at 5 p.m. yesterday. "They emptied the shelves already for synthetic," said one saleswoman.

When the Uptown Girl Snood Factory Outlet in Borough Park opened at 11 a.m., a line was already at the door, said Michelle Aaron, the manager. "Thank God, today's been great," she said, noting that it was the second anniversary of her father's death. "He sent me a blessing," she said.

What's amazing about this story is just how quickly word spread and how fast both consumers and producers reacted:

On the crowded streets of the neighborhood, an increasing number of Orthodox Jewish women were seen wearing cloth head coverings, having left their wigs at home. Sarah Klein, a neighborhood resident, said that until the confusion was cleared up, she would leave the house only if she wore a baglike snood. ...

As a result, many of the women felt obliged to put aside their costly wigs, flocking instead to stores that sold acceptable replacements.

"You have to hope whatever you have is good, otherwise you put a thousand dollars in the garbage," said a woman named Mindy, who declined to give her last name for fear of what her father-in-law would think.

The commotion, like so many others that take place every day in New York's myriad enclaves, remained beneath the larger city's radar, but it was of profound importance to residents of neighborhoods like Borough Park, where news of a rabbinical ruling can spread like flame. ...

One of the most respected Jewish authorities in the ultra-Orthodox world, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, issued the Indian hair ban from Israel on Wednesday, prompting some people in Israel to create lists of stores selling banned wigs and to burn Indian wigs in bonfires, according to Ha'aretz, an Israeli newspaper.

Rabbi Elyashiv's ruling was posted on at least one Israeli news Web site, and word quickly circulated in Brooklyn. But the worry was not universal. Many communities, like the large Satmar community in Williamsburg, were awaiting their own rabbis' rulings. ...

Many women, rather than risk wearing Indian hair or out of confusion born of rumor, simply abandoned their human hair wigs. ...

Others in the neighborhood said teachers at a local girls school were now appearing in snoods. Meanwhile, wig manufacturers are sitting on huge inventories of merchandise; private makers are not even returning calls, for fear they may end up violating the rules. Some wig makers have advertised in a local Yiddish paper that their wig hair is not Indian, residents said.

The ban was issued Wednesday and the article was written Friday. In the span of less than two days, a message traveled halfway around the world and has already affected the wig market dramatically. It's amazing how quickly consumer preferences can change, based on factors like reputation and taste, even when non-Jews would probably consider these preferences to be entirely irrational.

The blogosphere's reaction to this story has been interesting, albeit somewhat disappointing, at least on Brad Delong's blog. Delong sarcastically observes, "Do we need to convene a WTO panel to assess whether under WTO rules India is allowed to impose trade sanctions on Israel in response?"

Delong was just joking, but his sarcasm blurs the distinction between the public and private spheres. Although it is true that the separation between Church and State (Synagogue and State?) is much weaker in Israel than in the U.S., this rabbinic proclamation is hardly a government-imposed trade sanction. One cannot object on free-trade grounds to changing consumer preferences based on religious observance.

In Delong's comment thread, an anonymous writer who self-identifies as both Hindu and Indian-American claims that the Jewish women mentioned in this story are "eager to discriminate against people of other religious backgrounds on the flimsiest of pretexts and in the ugliest of ways" and that "given the ugly history (and present reality, for that matter) of racial and religious discrimination against Jews, they should know better." "All of this is ugly and vile, period." "I am... opposed to the sort of religious bigotry on display here."

This person continues,

[T]he response to this on the part of some Orthodox Jewry has *not* been to say, "Wait a second. Okay, the wigs our women have been wearing may have been consecrated in religious ceremonies that we find objectionable in some way. Now that we are aware that this is a possibility, we need to be sure that the wigs we use, be they from India or from Europe, are not ritually unclean from Catholic, Orthodox Christian, or Hindu ceremonies, as all of those religions are guilty of idolatry -- they have graven images of Christ, or Krishna, or Ganesh, or whatever in their temples or churches or cathedrals. We need specific assurances from everyone, and until then, the women have to wear headscarves or hats. And we shouldn't necessarily assume that all Indian hair was cut in a Hindu temple, in the course of a religious ceremony."

Further, at least on the part of some of the Orthodox Jews involved, their response was not "Okay, these wigs are unusable by us, but let's not gratuitously insult anyone by openly burning them in bonfires. After all, these women gave a very personal part of themselves to make these wigs. Let's just throw them away or donate them or sell them to someone else."

Had this been the response, I would have had no problem. ...

I have no problem with orthodox Jewish women shaving their hair and wearing wigs. I have no illusions that there isn't a lot of ugliness in orthodox Hinduism (or Christianity, Islam, Judaism, etc.).

But the *specific* response on the part of some Orthodox Jewry to the revelation that some hair from India may or may not be ritually unclean ("One of the difficulties, he [Rabbi Yisroel Belsky] said, was discerning just what the Hindu hair-cutters had in their minds when they made their offerings, because that had a bearing on whether their acts were idolatrous") is ugly. And vile.

Now, I can sympathize with this person's attitude. Both the practice of married women covering their hair and the visceral reaction to perceived idol worship must seem strange to mainstream American sensibilities. And I am very sympathatic to feminist criticisms of these kinds of modesty laws. But I do not see this as "anti-Indian" or "anti-Hindu" any more than a consumer boycott of British beef during the mad cow scandal would be considered "anti-British." And if Americans decided to burn any meat imported from Britain just to be on the safe side, I don't see this as entirely different from religious Jews burning what they consider to be idols in bonfires, especially since idols are viewed as spiritually unclean with the potential to contaminate other things, and their destruction is scripturally required:

It is a positive commandment to destroy idolatry, associated accoutrements and all that is made for idolatry, for it is written, "You shall completely destroy all the places, et cetera", and it is further written, "But you shall deal with them in this way: you shall destroy their altars, and break down their images, and cut down their asherim, and burn their carved idols with fire".

Further,

It is forbidden to derive any benefit from any idol, its accoutrements and anything sanctified to or made for it, for it is written, "Nor shall you bring an abhorrence into your house".
- Ibid

Strange for American sensibilities, yes. Ugly and vile, no.

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