In her definitive study of Orthodoxy in America between the years of 1880 and 1945, Jenna Weissman Joselit notes:
What animated and sustained that experience was not a lasting preoccupation with Jewish law (Halachah) or a collective nostalgia for the piety of an earlier, parental generation but rather an ongoing romance with modernity. Instead of shunning modernity, the interwar Orthodox embraced it, deferred to its strictures, and fashioned their institutions in accord with its dictates [p. 20].… Keeping outwardly distinctive practices to a minimum, Orthodox Jews of this era did not publicly demonstrate or proclaim their Orthodoxy. "It was certainly not a time when you showed your Judaism outside," related one rabbi. "It was a time when you kept your Judaism to yourself. There was no such thing as wearing a kippah on the street." The absence of distinctive dress was a hallmark of that era. [p. 21]
In the same book, in her chapter on women, "The Jewish Priestess and Ritual: The Sacred Life of American Orthodox Women," the issue of hair covering for the married woman, is not even mentioned.
He wanted to supplant the widespread aversion to appearing different and "too Jewish" with a strong sense of identity and prideIt was against this backdrop that the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, assumed the mantle of leadership in 1950. By the time of the Second World War, the Lubavitch presence in America was relatively small and depleted, like so many other Chassidic groups. Since there were hardly any young women within the Lubavitch movement in those days, many of the young Chassidim married women from "American" Orthodox homes where the tenets of hair covering were honored more in the breach than in the observance. Even the young women who came with their Chassidic families from Russia were not all committed to this observance, which had declined under the Communist regime.
Through the Rebbe's own words – his correspondences and public addresses – one can trace his systematic campaign to promote and restore the mitzvah of hair covering as de rigueur for observant, married women. It is important to remember that the Rebbe was not the spiritual leader of a select group alone, namely, those that considered themselves Lubavitcher Chassidim. From the published volumes of his correspondence, one can see that from the earliest days of his leadership, the Rebbe's influence extended over the widest cross-section of world Jewry.
During this early period, he sought to establish that hair covering was Jewish law and not an obscure custom that belonged to another age. The Rebbe asserted that Jewish law demanded that all – and not just part – of a married woman's hair be covered. He wanted to supplant the widespread aversion to appearing different and "too Jewish" with a strong sense of identity and pride; still, he was sensitive to a woman's concern with her appearance. For this reason, the Rebbe advocated the wearing of wigs as opposed to scarves, which he recognized as an unattractive, even untenable, option for most Jewish young women in America. The Rebbe worried that most women, even the more pious, would not wear scarves consistently and in a manner that covered all of their hair. It appears that even then, the Rebbe was concerned for the eventual swell of observant women, whose professional and social involvements would preclude covering hair with scarves or hats. Without the option of a wig, many women would not consider hair covering. The Rebbe's encouragement of the wig is an early illustration of how he would characteristically channel the latest modern-day advancements for the purpose of Torah and mitzvahs.
At first, the Rebbe's stance was not popular. Many women simply did not want to cover their hair while others found the notion of a wig utterly foreign and associated it with the most homely of appearances. Displaying patience and uncanny sensitivity to the psychological and sociological issues at play, the Rebbe persisted in his efforts. Eventually, it paid off. By the late 1960s, the Rebbe's ardent promotion of wigs led to adoption of wearing one as the norm in most Orthodox circles.
At first, the Rebbe's stance was not popular. Many women simply did not want to cover their hair An early example of the Rebbe's approach is seen in the following excerpts from a public address he gave, better known as a farbrengen, on Rosh Chodesh Elul 1954:
Wearing a wig has a beneficial impact on children and grandchildren, livelihood and health, as the Zohar states...
...One should not ask: I know of a woman who does not wear a wig and still things go well for her regarding children, health and livelihood, as well as life in general.
First of all, we do not know what transpires in the life of another, what types of travails he or she is undergoing; no one tells the other about all that takes place in one's life. Second of all, we are not to look at what is transpiring in others; we are to do that which G‑d commanded us to do.
We are a minority among the nations. Should we also draw the corollary that since there are more Gentiles than Jews in the world, and things are going well for them, that we are to imitate their ways? Were we to act in such a manner, the Jewish people would have ceased to exist, G‑d forbid, a long time ago.
When a Jewish woman walks in the street without a hair covering, there is not a discernible difference between her and others. However, when she wears a wig, one can tell that here is a Jewish religious woman.
It is not necessary to go in the streets loudly proclaiming, "I am religious"—but...of whom is one embarrassed? One's friend? Were they to [point to her] and say that this is a religious Jew—what is the shame in this matter?
Does such conduct require much self-sacrifice? If, heaven forfend, there is a lack of food to eat, the children are hungry, and it is necessary to keep Shabbat in one's labor and business—this requires great self-sacrifice. And still, without a doubt, Shabbat is kept...
...The difference between a wig and a kerchief is the following: It is easy to take off a kerchief, which is not the case with a wig. For instance, when one is at a gathering and wears a wig, then even if President Eisenhower were to enter, she would not take off her wig. This is not so with a kerchief which can easily be removed...
...In the past, the custom was to completely cut off or shave the hair [and cover it with a kerchief]. Later on, the wearing of wigs became widespread custom—especially today, when one can buy wigs in many colors, which may look even nicer than one's own hair.
Let the woman ponder this matter. It doesn't take an hour or even a half hour of contemplation. Why doesn't she really want to wear a wig but only a kerchief? Because she knows that a wig cannot be taken off when she is walking in the street or at a gathering, while a kerchief can be moved all the way up and sometimes taken off entirely.
The Rebbe went so far as to state that wigs might even be more attractive than one's own hairIt is possible that she will say that she will wear a kerchief properly. If she does so, then surely it is well. But…why place oneself in the path of temptation? We beseech G‑d prior to our prayers, "Do not bring us to temptation."
Clearly, the Rebbe wished to inspire women to wear wigs and to stand firm in this observance in the face of social pressures. A more careful reading, however, uncovers additional nuances worthy of mention. First is the Rebbe's attentiveness to how profoundly a woman's identity is linked up with her appearance. He understood how critical a factor this was in a woman's decision regarding hair covering. The Rebbe's farbrengens were serious affairs, in which he discussed, for many hours, facets of Torah and shared profound insights. Attending the aforementioned gathering were hundreds of men and very few women, yet the Rebbe did not seek to obfuscate this important issue in halachic or philosophic polemic.
The Rebbe went so far as to state that wigs might even be more attractive than one's own hair. At the time, it was meant to encourage and educate women who were of the opinion that all wigs were aesthetically lacking. In comparison to what women might have worn in earlier generations, the new wigs, the Rebbe said, were attractive.
Today, when the highly sophisticated, proliferating wig industry offers truly beautiful options in synthetic and human hair alike, it is instructive that the Rebbe had no objection at all to wigs that enhanced a woman's appearance; on the contrary, he encouraged women to take advantage of their availability. Even today, there lingers in many minds the erroneous notion that hair covering is meant to detract from a married woman's attractiveness (which leads to the ubiquitous question as to why covering one's hair with an attractive wig is helpful). The Rebbe's words shed light on the appropriate approach to this mitzvah.
The Rebbe received a legendarily heavy volume of mail every day, among which were letters from women and men regarding their apprehensions about this observance. In other cases, the Rebbe raised the issue himself. Either way, his words on the subject were filled with a sense of import and urgency as seen in the sample below:
Because your wife has resolved to wear a wig, and to do so gladly, and will not be bothered by those who may scoff at her observance, her merit will be great, specifically as she is of the first in her neighborhood to return to this custom of modest Jewish women and it is well known how our sages valued and praised the ability of an individual to teach many through example.
It may be that in the interim it is difficult to commit to this because of the expenses involved. I want to inform you that there is here (administered through the Lubavitch office) a specific free loan fund for this purpose, which can be repaid over a lengthy period of time, in order to facilitate these purchases by anyone. It is not a good idea to delay this matter. As soon as you get this letter, write me with the name and necessary amount to issue a check; it will be sent out immediately and may G‑d grant you success.
As was his way, the Rebbe urged those who were committed to the observance of this practice to likewise encourage their peers: "You should also see to it that others act in like manner, explaining to them that this is the path and segulah to health, sustenance, and true nachas from children. And G‑d should help that you report good tidings in this respect to me."
As was his way, the Rebbe urged those who were committed to the observance of this practice to likewise encourage their peersFrom the following letter, it is evident that resistance to hair covering took many forms. For this correspondent, the problem is less pragmatic and more theological in nature. Interestingly, the Rebbe did not respond to her challenge by providing philosophical or mystical reasons for the mitzvah. For many women (and men), no reason will ever be compelling enough. Rather, the Rebbe stressed that observance of all mitzvot (including hair covering) is first and foremost predicated on one's subservience to G‑d's will:
In response to your letter of the 13th of Iyar in which you ask how one is to explain the necessity of hair covering (for a married woman): One wonders at the very question, especially since we now find ourselves in the days of preparation for receiving the Torah, which was only received by the Jewish people through their prefacing "we will do" to "we will hear."
It is self-understood and plain that man's belief in G‑d forces him to intellectually accept G‑d's commandments without seeking reasons for them in human intellect. For even simple common sense, if it is but healthy and sound, understands that it is impossible for a finite being to comprehend the infinite.
Indeed, it is a principle of faith among all the Jewish people, believers, children of believers, that G‑d, His understanding and will are truly one and infinite, while man is finite in all aspects of his being.
In addition to the above, when one takes into account the explicit reward received for hair covering (Zohar), then even if one were to be extremely doubtful of this, G‑d forbid, it would still be worth covering the hair. This is most assuredly so, as the words of the Zohar – as part of our Torah of Truth – are completely true, perpetual and everlasting in all places and all times.
In 1957, at a farbrengen held on the holiday of Shavuot, the Rebbe took this discussion in a new direction:
One of the most essential aspects of a Jewish woman's comportment that has a profound effect on her sons and daughters is her modesty…. "The entire glory of the king's daughter is within" (Psalms 45:14). Thus, we find in the Talmud (Yoma 47a) concerning the exceptional modesty of Kimchit: Kimchit had seven sons, all of whom merited to serve as High Priests. The Sages asked her, "What have you done to merit this?" She answered them: "The rafters of my house have never seen the plaits of my hair."
One should not think: Must I act with such a tremendous degree of modesty that my children will become High Priests? It is enough for me if my children grow up to be only regular priests. Does it not say that all Jews are holy!
But if a woman is granted the ability to train her children to become High Priests (i.e., that they achieve the maximum of their spiritual potential), it indicates that this is her responsibility.
The Rebbe underscored the profound effect of a woman's modesty upon her children—in effect, he spoke directly to the maternal instinctThe Rebbe underscored the profound effect of a woman's modesty upon her children—in effect, he spoke directly to the maternal instinct; even a woman who was adamantly opposed to this practice might give it new consideration in light of the great spiritual benefits to her children.
While the Rebbe's position was seen as stringent by many, there were those who considered his stance lenient. There are communities where wigs are not deemed halachically acceptable at all, based on their similarity to a woman's hair. In others, women do wear wigs but cover them partially with a scarf or hat so as to signal that they are covering their hair. The Rebbe believed that there was no halachic obligation to cover the wig.
The Rebbe received queries from women who came from families or communities with long-standing traditions of completely covering hair with tight kerchiefs and/or wearing a double covering (i.e., a hat over a wig). In each case, the Rebbe patiently explained his position while encouraging them to continue in their family or community custom. In the letter below, we can see the twin tensions at work in the Rebbe's response:
I have already stated my opinion that in present times, covering one's hair with a kerchief will not endure [and eventually the person will cease covering her hair]. The reason for this is that when wearing a kerchief, the woman is constantly put to the test—whether to cover all her hair or just part of it, etc., so that she not be embarrassed by those who scoff at her (although quite often this feeling may merely be a figment of imagination).
This is not at all the case with a wig; it is impossible to remove the wig [easily].… As to her wearing an exposed wig (a wig with no hat or other covering over it)—for the past several generations, this practice has become widely accepted. Understandably, however, it is necessary to ascertain the custom of your place so as to ensure that this does not constitute breaking a precedent, G‑d forbid.
In 1960, the Rebbe replied to a woman who wrote to him, concerning her difficulties in covering her hair with a wig while the other women in her community did not. In his response, the Rebbe pointed out that the homogeny of the American landscape was giving way to a new appreciation of, and pride in, diverse religions and ethnic cultures. Aside from his message concerning the importance of "fear of heaven," he urged her to take heart from shifting societal winds:
In response to your letter where you write about a wig—that in the religious community where you now live this is not the custom. Consequently, you are embarrassed that they may laugh at you if you wear a wig:
We readily observe that wearing a hat or even a kerchief leaves part of the hair uncovered, at least for a short while, causing one to transgress a major prohibition.... The importance of having one's hair covered at all times is also understood from the reward that results from fulfilling this command in the manner commanded. In the words of the holy Zohar, it causes us to be "blessed with all blessings, blessings of above and blessings of below, with wealth, with children and grandchildren."
As regards to your writing that they may laugh at you and you will be embarrassed: Recently, even American youth have begun to honor and respect specifically those who stand firm in their faith. They do not feel embarrassed by those who scoff at them and their world outlook. To the contrary, they respond with scorn and derision to those who simply follow the majority without having any principles of their own.
The Rebbe himself offered numerous couples financial assistance for wig-buyingSurely you are aware that the entire four-part Code of Jewish Law opens with the statement that one should not be embarrassed by those people who scoff at one's service of G‑d. Moreover—and this, too, is quite simple and understandable: "G‑d fills heaven and earth" and man finds himself in His presence in all places and at all times. This is not so with regard to people; even those who live in close proximity are not always nearby. How can one not be embarrassed, Heaven forfend, before G‑d, and be embarrassed by mere mortals?!
Another way in which the Rebbe championed this cause was in conversations with brides and grooms, their parents, and others who would come to him for private audiences. According to numerous accounts, the Rebbe urged young couples to make buying a wig a high priority in pre-wedding planning. The Rebbe made a point of reminding the bride to buy the most beautiful wig she could find and to some, he specifically stressed the need for two, so that if one were being washed, the other would be available. In some cases, the Rebbe even made the groom responsible for this purchase. The Rebbe himself offered numerous couples financial assistance for wig-buying, and on at least two occasions, he gave an outright gift of the entire cost of the wig to individual women.
During the first decade of his leadership (1950–60), the Rebbe served as the officiating rabbi at numerous weddings. Among the conditions he set for officiating was a commitment by the bride that she wear a wig after marriage. It was a great honor to have the Rebbe lead the ceremony, and from such an honor, many young women found the inspiration to start wearing wigs.
It is hair covering as a segulah, a source of blessing, that was the hallmark of the Rebbe's approach. In each of the aforementioned examples, and in hundreds of instances not cited, the Rebbe underscored the unique way in which this particular mitzvah serves as a conduit for bringing blessing to one's home and family, specifically the blessings of children and prosperity. The Rebbe never tired of quoting the words of the Zohar; it was, after all, his life's mission to bring blessings from below (material) and blessings from above (spiritual) into the lives of Jews. May we be so blessed always.