The media had a grand time recently when tens of thousands of Jewish women stopped wearing their wigs out of concern they might contain hair that had been offered to an idol. The more revealing story, though, lay not in the deep dedication to the Second Commandment but in the feeding frenzy of the Fourth Estate.
The facts of the wig-shunning are simple enough. Halacha, or Jewish religious law, considers a married woman's hair to constitute a beauty reserved for her own eyes and those of her husband, and so an assortment of head coverings including wigs, made either of synthetic or human hair are worn by observant married women.
What happened of late was the realization that much hair from India which in turn constitutes a good chunk of the human hair market is shorn as part of Hindu religious rites. Since Hinduism is polytheistic and venerates physical objects, it has the halachic status of idolatry; and idolatrous offerings are forbidden for use in any way by Jews. A respected rabbi went on a fact-finding mission to the Tirubati temple in India, where 25,000 pilgrims are said to arrive daily to cut their hair. He reported his findings to a preeminent senior halachic decisor in Israel, who ruled based on the facts presented that wearing wigs made from Indian hair indeed seemed to present a halachic problem.
As that information was publicized, Orthodox Jewish wig-wearers responded by eschewing their hairpieces until they could ascertain the wigs' provenance, or until religious authorities could sift through all the facts and pertinent halachic principles. Wig stores catering to Orthodox women researched their wares' pedigrees or cancelled orders until they could ensure that the hair they were selling was halachically acceptable.
Then came the deluge. The New York Times placed the story on its front page, and then ran a follow-up piece, which termed the happenings an "emotional upheaval." The Jewish Telegraphic Agency described the situation as an "uproar" and quoted an observer who called it "mass hysteria." The editorial features editor of The Wall Street Journal mocked the Jewish women's reaction as an "absurdity" and suggested that they had been coerced by "Orthodox rabbis (all male)." Other media took similar approaches to the goings-on.
Those of us in the Orthodox community were amused though rather surprised by all the attention. Obviously, we took the issue seriously, but there was little sign around us of armed uprising or end-of-the-world hysteria. The women among us selflessly and responsibly put aside their wigs in favor of other head-coverings until they could ascertain their "kosher" status, and those wigs that did not meet halachic standards were discarded. To be sure, the wig story was the talk of our own global village, but what we read about ourselves in the larger world's press seemed like so much yellow journalism and purple prose.
Not long ago, all of us Americans were being warned about anthrax. After germ-laced mail was discovered here and there, we treated our mailboxes like terrorist-lairs. Some of us wore rubber gloves to bring in the bills and flyers; suspicious letters were reported to the authorities. Hazmat-suited investigators gingerly entered places suspected of contamination in Washington, New York and elsewhere.
The media, of course, well covered that heightened state of concern for that invisible menace. But the caution those days was not characterized as hysteria, nor were there many words of mockery or disdain for the precautions taken.
The contrast between the media's treatment of one population's concern for a biohazard and another's concern for a major religious principle highlights the unfortunate fact that, to the press, religion is silly.
To most people, though, religion indeed matters.
We've certainly seen the negative side of that coin of late, with mass-murderers clearly motivated by warped but undeniably religious concerns. But even as we confront the fact - and it's hardly a new one - that religious devotion can lead to evil things, we must not fall prey to treating religious devotion, inherently, as suspect.
Judaism's core teaching is monotheism; devotion to that ideal can be expressed in myriad ways - from the daily proclamation of G-d's one-ness in the Jewish credo "the Shma" to the refusal to use an item that may have been used in a polytheistic rite. To believing and observant Jews, such things are parts of the highest human achievement: service to G-d.
The press' treatment of the wig controversy in the Orthodox Jewish community did not adequately recognize that fact. That lapse may have been a manifestation of the reality revealed in a recent Pew Research Center survey. A mere 12% of self-described "moderate" journalists said they thought belief in G-d is a necessary underpinning of morality. Among self-described "liberals," the figure was a mere 3%.
While the journalists polled were not asked if they themselves believe in a Divine Being, one might be forgiven for surmising what the result of that question would have been.
Or for imagining that it might well have helped explain why so much of journalism today has so jaundiced a view of anything religious.