Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Coney Island Wig Controversy

There is a story going around the blogs about a wig store in Flatbush, across the street from Yeshiva Chaim Berlin (on Coney Island Ave.), that has pictures of models wearing wigs in its window. It seems that after people have unsuccessfully requested the store to remove the pictures, R. Aharon Schechter, the rosh yeshiva, wrote a letter advocating a boycott of the store. The letter in Hebrew and English can be found on Yeshiva World (link).

I've seen the pictures and they aren't particularly lascivious. They are of women from the shoulders up. However, like most of the marketing in the Jewish wig industry, the pictures are intentionally provocative. My family receives wig catalogs and advertisements in the mail and I am often shocked at both the irony of attempting to sell modest headwear in an immodest way and the cleverness of the photographers and models in being seductive without being revealing. There is an halakhic issue with looking at pictures that cause improper thoughts, even if there is nothing inherently immodest in the pictures.

And here is the problem: Click here to read moreAcross the street from the store is a large group of boys from the age of 13 through the mid-20s who are trying to dedicate their time to learning Torah and fulfilling mitzvos, while their raging hormones are telling them to do otherwise. Ordinary measures do not suffice when dealing with boys and men like that, who have no legitimate outlet for their natural desires. For them, even more than for the rest of us, these pictures are extremely provocative and damaging.

We live in an open society and it is almost impossible to avoid seeing people and pictures that are provocative even if not revealing. However, a yeshiva is supposed to be a haven for Torah studies and these pictures do, I believe, invade that safe zone.

But here is the dilemma: The yeshiva is situated on a commercial street in the middle of a residential neighborhood (in which I lived for a number of years). The store does not sell to yeshiva students but to residents of the local neighborhood and greater Flatbush. It just happened to have found a good commercial location across from the yeshiva. So who has the right to control what the students and passersby see? I don't think the yeshiva has a halakhic claim (although I could be mistaken on that), but this issue is about more than that.

It seems to me that the store can be more sensitive to the yeshiva that is right across the street (and was there first!). No one is asking it to relocate but just to change the its window dressing to something less provocative. Certainly, the store owner is concerned that this might impact his business and he might have contractual obligations to his suppliers that he show their advertisements. But can't something be amicably worked out to everyone's mutual benefit?

As the issue currently stands, that has not happened and R. Schechter has asked his followers to boycott the store. However, in my estimation, this boycott will not work and the store will not suffer financially in any way from it. But I understand R. Schechter's needs and sympathize with his position. However, I am quite surprised by the strong language he used in his letter and the lack of sympathetic language for the store owner's plight.

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