Monday 18 August 2014

037) Off With The Sheitel

I was quite surprised when I heard that a family friend had recently decided to stop wearing her sheitel (wig). She said that she never felt ‘spiritual’ wearing something heavy on her head all day.

My wife then made a rather profound observation, although it took a while to resonate with me. “The reason we wear a sheitel is not because of spirituality,” she said, “but because of tzniut (modesty)”. At first, I had difficulty in comprehending her comment because surely everything we do in Judaism is spiritual? And then a host of teachings flooded my brain and it started to make sense to me. Let me share some of these teachings with you.
The Kotzker Rebbe, comments on the verse; “You shall be holy because I your G-d am holy”. He says: ‘Kedusha’ doesn't mean ‘holiness’. It means ‘preparation’1A human being cannot be holy. He can only prepare to be holy. ‘Holiness’ can only come from G-d.
(Amud HaEmet, p71, par 5)

It seems as if many people are under the illusion that if they observe certain practices they will become more spiritual. Most of us would like to think that that is indeed the case. But the Kotzker tells us that we cannot become spiritual, we can only prepare to become spiritual.

In a sense, it may perhaps be compared to falling in love. You may indeed fall in love with someone, but until they love you back you do not yet have a relationship with them. Yet you could quite conceivably live your entire life under the illusion that you do. Similarly we too could live our entire lives under the illusion that we are ‘spiritual’. But spirituality, like love, is a two way street – “You shall be holy because I your G-d am holy.” Spirituality, by definition, needs to be reciprocal.

Ironically, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the master of all things spiritual, makes a fascinating point in relation to prayer:
“Davening”, he says “is meant to be a ‘chiyuv’ - an OBLIGATION - and not necessarily an UPLIFTING experience.” 
(See Sichot HaRan2For the uplifting experience, he reintroduces us to the ancient concept of Hitbodedut; where, in addition to formal prayer, we speak freely to G-d in our own words and in our own time and way.)

This idea is further reiterated by the Kotzker in a most surprising and poignant teaching.
The Kotzker Rebbe once remarked to one of his students: “Cheshbon HaNefesh (meaningful introspection), must be done on the way to shul. Not at shul. At shul we simply get down to the business at hand – Torah study and prayer.”
(Amud HaEmet p 75, par 2)

Let us not fool ourselves into believing that we transform into ethereal lofty spiritual beings when we pray and observe mitzvot and wear our sheitels. If davening is essentially an ‘obligation’ (Rabbi Nachman’s words, not mine), then there is no need to feel that something is wrong should we be left emotionally cold after the experience. I'm also confident that we are guilty of no sin if we complain that our sheitels are sometimes uncomfortable and uninspiring.

Rather let there be full disclosure from the very outset: By keeping Torah and Mitzvot we are only preparing for spirituality. We do not suddenly shed the bonds of earthliness and morph into otherworldly beings.

When spirituality gets misrepresented and over dramatized, as it commonly does, it’s not surprising that so many feel let down when their unrealistic expectations are not met. This is when the sheitels start coming off.
Rather wear a sheitel for ‘modesty’ than for ‘spirituality’. 

Understanding this may help us grapple with the frustration of wondering why we don't hear a choir of a hundred angels singing to us every time we don our sheitels or go to shul.

Our reach into the realm of holiness can only go as far as preparation and groundwork. What happens after that is anybody’s guess.

1. Kedusha lashon Hazmanah
2. The great modern halachic authority, R’ Moshe Feinstein was asked if it is better to daven with a minyan (even if it may be a little distracting), or to pray at home with more kavanah (fervor)? He responded that it is more important to pray with a minyan, which is an obligation, even if one’s ‘spirituality’ is compromised. (Igros Moshe O.C. 3;7)

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