The Magical Disappearing Woman

It is always good when Cross-Currents reflects a diversity of opinions. I am, though, as troubled as Rabbi Gordimer by this discussion of, and condemnation of, a “trend” to “deny the existence” of women. No one, on any side of this issue, is pretending that women do not exist, or intending to shove them to the side because their photographs are not featured. And, of course, Cross-Currents currently has multiple photographs of women on the front page — I am just defending the policies of those who make different choices than we do.

As far as it being a trend, a change… I don’t see it. I tasked two of my younger children with looking through a stack of Jewish Observer magazines, probably violating labor laws in the process. They eventually came up with photographs of Sara Schnierer and Rebbetzin Vichna Kaplan, a”h. If Der Yid (the Satmar paper) ever had a picture of a woman, I’d eat my shtreimel… if I had one. I can’t say for certain, but I have no recollection of ever seeing a woman’s photo in any newspaper or news-magazine serving the charedi community. If this is new, I’m unaware of it.

Second, this is about market forces, not coercion. I spoke with the editor of one of the charedi journals — one of whom, Ruth Lichtenstein, is a woman. I will use the male pronoun, but I am certain that this individual spoke for all of them. He told me that if he chose to print pictures of women, he might as well shut down now rather than waiting for bankruptcy. No one is threatening him. He isn’t concerned that people will storm his office or put up posters. They will simply stop buying. So would we prefer that there be no charedi newspapers, or that individuals be coerced to continue purchasing their copies?

I deliberately chose a photograph of the Women of the Wall, and not only because it features prominently in the oeuvre of Shoshanna Keats-Jaskoll, the writer of the piece favored by Rabbi Adlerstein. What I chose not to do is feature the woman who describes herself as the “face” of Women of the Wall. She expresses how she was shocked that out of all the “hundreds” of women who join WOW (quite a debatable assertion, that), she kept being targeted by cameras. Yes, she wears tefillin, but so do several others. That’s not why she in particular appeared dozens of times in newspapers around the world.

Needless to say, Ms. Keats-Jaskoll has never criticized the blatant objectification of women inherent in the fact that Ms. Wiese was unwillingly selected as the public “face” of a group supposedly promoting the rights of women, based solely upon her physical appearance.

Neither are women who seek public office left to their intellectual credentials. The appointment of one minister in the new government of Israel caused a spate of such sexist remarks about her appearance that a feminist cried out that she was forced to defend someone whose policies she opposed. Another Israeli MK was assigned a nickname on a list of attractive politicians that, while not precisely “foul,” is certainly unfit for Cross-Currents.

And that — besides relating to Rabbi Gordimer’s excellent piece — also leads to the second point made by the editor to whom I spoke. Yes, he agrees, you could print pictures of elderly Rebbetzins and few would object. A picture of a teenager in a sleeveless top is just as obviously out of the question. But where should we draw the line? If a frum publisher is cognizant of Rabbi Gordimer’s point about dealing with people rather than malachim, printing a picture of “Joan Smith” implies that Ms. Smith is unattractive — a contention that Ms. Smith and her supporters might find objectionable as well.

At the end of this day, it all returns to market forces. It is obvious that we at Cross-Currents do print pictures of women, probably because we are published on an (a) English-speaking (b) website which means our readers, like we ourselves, are probably not in a demographic that finds them objectionable. But to assert that choosing not to print pictures of women is bigotry, done to “devalue” them, is not only wrong but diametrically opposed to the actual intent of that policy.

If someone wants to create a charedi journal with pictures of women, bevakasha! We’ve come a long way since the Jewish Press was the closest thing to a frum English-language weekly. Otherwise, we are simply telling other people that they should change their standards to meet our preferences, which is no more appropriate when it comes to Chasidim, Israeli Charedim, or even American Charedim, than to anyone else.

You may also like...

19 Responses

  1. Ben Waxman says:

    We’re I to say “Sorry, I can’t rent an apartment to chareidim because that will lower the overall value of properties in my building” everyone would rightfully call me out for my racism.

    • Yaakov Menken says:

      Ben, are you suggesting that single-gender dormitories exist due to bias? The two issues have no connection; let’s try to keep to the topic.

    • Tal Benschar says:

      You remind me of an event that occured a few years ago. Some religious students (and we are not talking Charedim, either) at the Technion requested that one hour a week be set aside in the school gym for men only so they could work out without having scantily dressed women around. The reaction was the same as if they suggested that the Ayatollah Khomeini be appointed Dean.

      On one site, I commented that I had done a quick search, and found at least a dozen women’s only gyms in Tel-Aviv alone. Why is that acceptable but one hour for men’s only gym is one step away from Iran? I never got an answer.

  2. Moshe Dick says:

    The last two pieces in cross-currents Rabbis Menken and Gordimer are not only disappointing but they are the main reason why so many orthodox jews turn their backs ,first to their so-called leaders, then to religion altogether. To veer so far into chumros that have little base in halacha makes a mockery of yiddishkeit and turns away many well-meaning Jews. This new phenomenon of extra-frumkeit is leading us straight to burkas. It starts with separate sidewalks for men and women, separate entrances in halls, women in the back of the bus, women not driving and soon, burkas. , None of these are a matter of halacha. If this is how yiddishkeit is interpreted today, you will find more and more Jews rejecting this narrow-mindedness. Hareidism is becoming a caricature of our faith.

  3. Y. Ben-David says:

    While one can argue the eradication of women from photographs one way or another, I fail to understand why it is “immodest” to mention the mother’s name in an invitation to a wedding or bar mitzvah. That to me is really erasing their very existence. Is the reader going to become sexually aroused by seeing a woman’s name? Can someone please explain this?

    • Arthur says:

      It isn’t an issue of modesty. It’s a formality that once was prevailing etiquette but now has become antiquated in most circles.

  4. SA says:

    “Where should we draw the line?” Would it really be so difficult to draw up guidelines?

    How about permitting:

    1) Pictures of girls under 8 or women over 80. (Applying Rabbi Gordimer’s reference to men’s “hard-wiring” to girls under 8 is rather scary to contemplate).

    2) A head shot of any woman who dies as part of her obituary, assuming the family permits.

    Of course no frum publication would likely adopt these guidelines NOW, I’m just saying that it’s probably not so hard to come up with guidelines that the overwhelming majority of people, including poskim, could agree with.

    Incidentally in the mid-to-late 1980s I worked for a frum magazine called “Good Fortune” that featured interviews with Jewish personalities (It was trying to be the frum “People” magazine) and it printed pictures of women (modest, of course) on the cover, with its stories, and in its ads all the time. Some readers of my vintage who are from the New York area will probably remember it; it appeared for close to a decade. It was aimed solely at the charedi community.

    The magazine eventually collapsed because advertisers weren’t paying their bills, but I don’t recall any issue being made over the appearance of women in it. I’m mentioning it to enlighten Rabbi Menken and others who may have never heard of it.

  5. Sarah Elias says:

    I agree with Rabbi Menken that it would be difficult for publications to know where to draw the line. They already seem to have significant difficultyin choosing appropriate pictures of men. There is a strong inyan to refrain from looking at the face of a rasha, yet every chareidi publication that I have read seems to have no hesitation in publishing pictures of Nazis (while obliterating the faces and figures of the female kedoshim), Saddam Hussein, Pol Pot, Kim Jung il, Stalin, Trotsky, Bashar Assad, suicide bombers and the ones who send them, terrorist murderers, Yasser Arafat and the list goes on ad nauseum.

    Why is that okay, and a picture of Rebbetzin Kanievsky (whose family had no problem with an entire biography full of pictures of her being published) taboo?

  6. joel rich says:

    Interesting pean to the free market. But of course the market reflects the tastes of the consumers so the real question in this case is what has determined consumer taste and do the opinion makers of that consumer segment find it an acceptable taste or would they lead/educate in another direction?

  7. Eli Blum says:

    I certainly buy the economic argument. The extreme “Closed Orthodoxy” movement also has money, and why not take it from them as well? In addition, papers like Hamodia and Yated are subversive to the Closed Orthodoxy movement by showing that religious people work, and the world outside the daled Amos of their movement. They even quote Radio and TV hosts!

    What I don’t understand at all is the “frumkeit” argument, especially noting the plethora of CDs available for “women only” (which many hold is real ervah), as well as the “for women only” concerts and shows. When you begin to argue that those are not acceptable either, then perhaps you will have a case.

    It is worth noting that the Mishpacha allows girls under the age of 5. Perhaps that can be expanded to “politicians” as well, and everyone would understand.

  8. Bob Miller says:

    What are these “market forces”?
    The wishes of most subscribers or readers or advertisers?
    The wishes of many, or a few, recognized community leaders?
    The wishes of small pressure groups?
    The wishes of loud but isolated individuals?
    The wishes of the publishers themselves?
    Do we really know?

    Commercial decisions should not be based on irrational fear.

  9. Yaakov Menken says:

    Moshe, you seem to enjoy making broad-brush assertions that claim great expertise about Jewish sociology — while failing to note such basic things as “chassidim have always been this way.” It is most certainly not leading them to burkas (to judge from widespread condemnations from Rebbes for those who try it), nor is it at all related to the phenomenon of people going off the derech, which is twice as common for boys as it is for girls. [At least according to the head of Footsteps, who proudly told a TV audience that one-third of his clients are women.]

    Y. Ben-David, again, is this new? Not only do I remember this on wedding invitations from decades past, but I recall as a teenager seeing an envelope addressed to “Mrs. Ronald Smith,” an almanah. I remember thinking it strange, but there are any number of elderly widows who still embrace this. So, if anything, this proves the opposite — society in general has moved in the opposite direction. Women who don’t change their last names when they marry will not list themselves by their husband’s names as almanos. But it isn’t the charedim who have changed; just the opposite.

    SA, I’m quite familiar with Good Fortune (didn’t Rabbi Aaron Parry write for it at one point?) and other similar magazines — such as the WhereWhatWhen of Baltimore, which features a woman on the front cover. I tweaked my post to underscore newspaper and news- magazine.

  10. Michael j. Broyde says:

    It seems to me that there are three different phenomena going on and I am hoping that Rabbi Menken can comment on all of them and not just one of them. The first is the editorial selection of what photographs to publish, which Rabbi Menken defends as reasonable and market driven. The second is publishing the faces of women but blurring them out (as Rabbi Adlerstein makes mention of) and the third is the practice of taking photographs of important events that have women in them and editing those pictures so as to delete the women without noting that the picture has even been edited. I was hoping that Rabbi Menken would address phenomena two and three also. Both of them strike me as halachically more debatable, since as a matter of kavod habriyot blurring someone’s face is undignified and as a general matter of ethics and honest dealings newspapers do not generally publish edited photos without notation (and deleting someone is a kavod habriyot failure also.)

    • Yaakov Menken says:

      Rabbi Broyde,

      I appreciate your comment. While I understand your question and challenge, all three are really one issue. Women are taking more prominent positions in public life, while technology allows for much easier image manipulation than was possible. And needless to say, standards of dress have collapsed outside our circles. This presents both new problems and new solutions, and publishers are going to trip up until they find what works consistently. Obviously there’s a risk of Chilul HaShem which needs to be taken into account, as well. But the solution isn’t to try to impose. We can ask Gedolim to set public standards, and we can start publications that do differently (again, Cross-Currents prints photos of women).

  11. Dr. E says:

    I believe that Yaakov Menken is totally missing the point. The core issue on the table is NOT the publishing of pictures of women in publication, the propriety of doing so or any “Halachic” considerations in doing so. In his piece he focuses on that alone. The core issue at hand is merely a symptom of an overall zeitgeist which has infiltrated the frum community. The main discussion centers around the seeming hunger for more and more gender separation as well as reconciling the roles for women both at the community level and even that of the family.

    A few years ago, my wife and I attended the pre-12th Grade orientation for our daughter at the aforementioned “liberal” BY High School. When we arrived in the large classroom, we were greeted by a “Men” sign with an arrow one way and a “Women” sign in the opposite direction. Now, we certainly had no expectations of this being “date night”. But we had no idea that we would be separated while we took in the information of how great the academic year was going to be. I suspect that someone in the school office involved in the planning got it into his or her head that “well, there might be males and females in the same room at once. Of course, we have to separate the genders”. And that was that. Totally a knee-jerk reaction flowing from the current sad state of affairs. I presume that this set a precedent within the school and all such forums are now set up like that. (And given that this is the “liberal, out of town BY”, I am probably naive if I thought that this was not already standard operating procedure in the “in town, more ‘traditional'”, BY’s.

    Therefore, it’s not about pictures of old European Rebbitzens appearing or not appearing in print, hirhur or no-hirhur. Or even Hillary in her pants-suit being Photo-Shopped from a group photo in the war room. Those are merely symptomatic of a “new and improved” overall environment, in which husbands can no longer sit next to their wives at any communal function–parent orientations, graduations, etc. So, Rabbi Menken, I would refer to the primary phenomenon on the table as “gratuitous tzniyus”. As such, what we are observing serves to hijack both the letter and spirit of Halacha. As such, it makes it impossible to appropriately and honestly transmit the concept of Tzniuys–not only to inform young people in the community but also to keep the not-so-young people inside of it.

  12. Chaim Amoni says:

    It’s a symptom of a bigger thing that’s been happening in the frum communities ever since we had lesser things to worry about than pogroms. Everyone is getting progressively “frummer”. It’s a race to the right, and if you’re not running fast enough you’ll get left behind. Look at chedarim and high school in certain communities, for instance. 25 years ago, not having limudei chol in a misnagdishe high school was practically unheard of. But now, if a yeshiva opens up with English studies, it would be assumed to be less “frum” than the other places and only shvach talmidim would go there.

    It’s the same with women in newspapers. There’s nothing inherently wrong with printing a picture of Rebbetzin Kanievsky ZT”L or Angela Merkel (Lehavdil elef) but since it would be the only paper printing those pictures, it would be considered the “modernishe” paper and lose a good chunk of it’s audience. Therefore everyone is forced to either join the race or risk being left behind.

  13. mk says:

    It is simply not true that the Jewish Observer, as a matter of policy, did not print pictures of women.
    It was not a magazine, it was a scholarly journal and it was not often natural to have a picture of a woman.
    I personally saw an issue of J.O with a feature article about Rebbetzin Kaplan (I believe on her first yartzeit)
    and it had pictures of her playing with her grandchildren. To demonstrate a policy you need to show something
    like pictures of a group of speakers , with the faces of the female presenters missing. That never existed in the Jewish Observer.
    Regarding Rav Moshe and Rav Yaakov ZTL, both of their Art Scroll biographies have pictures of women, indicating that their respective families knew that they would not object.
    The Art Scroll biography of Rav Gifter ZTL is filled with pictures of women, even when it doesn’t seem “necessary”. It includes pictures of the Hanhala of Telshe in Lita, with their wives!
    Anyone who was privileged to know Gedolei Yisroel like these three, knows that had they seen a picture of a couple being honored at a dinner it would have not, in any way, struck them as inappropriate, but had they seen the ads in Mishpacha guaranteeing “yeshuous”, they would have hit the roof!

  14. Shalom says:

    I think that leaving this issue over to “market morality” is inherently problematic. I’m not claiming that adopting such a policy is necessarily antihalachic, or even always unethical, but we can clearly see the deleterious impact of market morality on general society. How many forms of crude, immodest media are put out, and justified in the name of market morality? Ironically it is possible for similar processes to occur, ostensibly in response to demands for increasing kedushah. And yet just how widespread of an influence “chumros” should have on general observant Jewish society is in of itself an important theological question. Being ecumenical, and allowing for one segment of orthodox Jewry to adopt a particular practice, operating under the assumption that it will never result in coercion of another segment, is not always advisable, especially if amoral market forces hold sway.

  15. Mike S. says:

    The discussion, both in the original post and the comments, seems largely to ignore the fact that halacha sets limits on when it is appropriate to adopt chumros, and when it isn’t. Several of which would seem to be implicated here:

    1) One cannot violate an issur to observe a chumra. Such as publishing a doctored photo of a historical scene in violation of “mi d’var sheker tirchak”. To the extent that such photos get spread around the internet and subject the Torah to widespread ridicule, Chillul HaShem is also implicated. And this would be easily avoided by just printing text articles, rather than adding doctored pictures, but we have seen several recent examples where they were doctored.

    2) When one treats a chumra as though it is an issur d’oraita, as seems to be done in some of these cases, one violates bal tosif.

    3) One is not allowed to practice a chumra at someone else’s expense. I don’t think this applies to a publisher declining to print a picture or a person declining to buy a magazine with pictures of women, but organizing a boycott would seem to be impermissible. Not to mention forcing women who don’t want to, to move to the back of the bus, delaying commercial flights and so on.

    4) One must be careful when a chumra in one area leads to a kula in another. To the extent that being machmir in any area leads one to be disdainful of Jews who keep the halacha, it is leading to a kula in “v’ahavta l’reyacha camocha”. Discussions suggesting that avoiding non-erotic photographs of women is “a higher level of kedusha” would seem to indicate a problem here.

    5) Finally, we have to take responsibility for Klal Yisroel beyond our immediate circles. To the extent our chumrot drive others away from Torah and Mitzvot, we will ultimately have to answer to the Ultimate Judge.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This