Tongues, Cheeks, and Other Facial Anatomy

In Bnei Brak, at least, women have faces. The evidence is out there, in plain view. What do we make of this scandalous display? Read on. It is only partially tongue in cheek.

An appeal by Kupat Ha’ir features a full-face video message by a woman. Not just any woman, but the daughter of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, shlit”a. His daughter, Leah Kolodetsky, was tasked with taking over after the petirah of her sainted mother as the female spokesperson for RCK, and, by extension, for the gedolei hador of the yeshiva world. (Nothing tongue in cheek here.) In this video, she makes an appeal for funds for a particular chosson and kallah – in the name of her father!

Now everyone knows that Kupat Ha’ir – “the tzedaka of the gedolim” – is kulo kadosh, and under the supervision of the gedolim. (Only partly in jest. We are seriously assured that there is oversight, and that they do address major issues – even if not every detail – such as the propriety of certain types of advertising, which will not be considered here. It remains an extremely important tzedakah that does report to gedolei Torah.) So allowing a presentation by a woman must mean something.

Perhaps it means that those people who use the internet have been adjudged to be hopelessly lost souls, so that it won’t make any difference to their ruchniyus-challenged lives to be exposed to otherwise inappropriate visuals. Possible, but not so likely.

It doesn’t mean that for money, they will permit anything – that כסף יענה את הכל. I hope most of our readers are not that cynical. It does mean that the Litvishe world can recognize that some community standards of tzniyus currently practiced are beyond the formal requirements of base-level halacha. Those additions – which are the right and responsibility of every community to sanely and sensibly establish for the general good – are therefore somewhat plastic. Exceptions can be made in the right circumstances, and for the right people. (I remember the early days of AJOP, when women presenters often sat on panels at conventions. Some of those women were not terribly comfortable with speaking in front of hundreds of men, and the men were overwhelmingly Bnei Torah. But everyone understood that each of those women had expertise in kiruv that needed to be conveyed. They delivered, and the men listened. A few years later, the nature (and source yeshivos) of the attendees changed, and women stopped presenting.)

There’s a parallel conclusion that should be made on the women’s side. Some women have been convinced that it is a gross violation of a woman’s tzniyus to be visible to groups of men. If there is such an issur, it apparently has evaded Rebbetzin Kolodetsky, and presumably her father as well.

The broader takeaway should be a reminder to all of us that parts of halacha and practice are nuanced. To be sure, there are boundaries that are firm and rigid. There are areas that are subject to different, but valid, positions. And there are also areas that are part of the way that specific communities deal with contemporary challenges. The last will vary from community to community. They may mean different and opposite things in different places. In some chassidishe communities it might mean greater insularity (and banning pictures), while in Modern Orthodox communities it will translate into the opposite: greater participation for women. A good example is the OU’s current project (ably led by Rebbetzin Dr. Adina Shmidman) of identifying areas of communal involvement that stay within norms of Torah halacha and hashkafa.

And then there are all sorts of points in between (including yeshivish Bnei Brak) where things need not be as black-and-white as assumed. Or blacked-out.

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12 Responses

  1. lakewooder says:

    But the picture you show in the article (with the blurred face) is for sure אסור according to Reb Chaim Kanievsky.

    • You might be right, but I’m not so sure. I assume you mean the exposed neckline. If he frowns upon it, we would have to know whether he truly believes that it is assur mi-dina, or because in Bnei Brak, where it is routinely covered, an exposed neckline falls outside of the prevailing minhag ha-makom. The reason for the doubt is that there are too many extant photos of Bais Yaakov teachers and administrators of not so long ago that followed the old practice of allowing one or two (gasp!) open buttons. I believe that if you look at the pictures in the middle of Joseph Telushkin’s biography of the Lubavitcher Rebbe zt”l you will find such an example – in this case, the Rebbe’s own rebbetzin.

  2. Joseph S says:

    In too many of our religious communities have eliminated “koved habrious”toward women in the the most basic sense in the name of tznius. It is a glaring example how Torah values have been hijacked by a fervent ignorant few,who pervert Jewish ideas for their self righteousness.
    We need to call out these purveyors of ignorance as a danger to our communities. We have to many lemmings who blindly follow

  3. Joel Rich says:

    The broader takeaway should be a reminder to all of us that parts of halacha and practice are nuanced.
    The broader takeaway should be a reminder to all of us that in an era where broader western society focuses on individual autonomy and prioritizes care and fairness (and downgrades the importance of loyalty and authority), we are acculturating those priorities into our own lives(all streams of orthodox lay people to a greater or lesser extent). The nuance you refer to also requires loyalty and authority to those who would decide the nuance for all their coreligionists.

  4. Raymond says:

    I seem to recall that a Jew is actually obligated to say a special blessing upon seeing a beautiful woman. That does not sound like the kind of thinking that would ban women’s faces online or in Jewish magazines.

    I also seem to recall that Judaism prides itself on being the way of moderation. For example, unlike many other major religions, Judaism does not hold sexual abstinence to be the ideal way of life. On the contrary, its leaders, namely Rabbis, tend to be married with a whole lot of children. Another example of this idea is abstinence from food. Some religions may idealize prolonged fasting to deny one’s body its pleasures, but not Judaism. There is only one fast day per year mandated in the entire Written Torah, and even that one lasts only a single day, plus Jewish tradition maintains that eating the day before Yom Kippur is actually more important than fasting on that holiest day of the year. Same goes for the concept of the nazir. Judaism’s idea of an ascetic is the nazir, yet if one thinks about it, refraining from drinking alcohol, and not cutting one’s hair or nails for just one month, is hardly ascetic by any stretch of the imagination, and even then, at the end of the month the nazir has to bring a sacrifice to counter his sin of being too self-suffering during that month.

    Well, so if Judaism is so moderate, then what could have influenced some of its followers to advocate something as extreme is never showing a woman’s face in public? It would not be far-fetched to conclude that this influence is coming from their Middle Eastern neighbors, the ones who have their women never leave their homes alone without a man, who insist their women cover themselves from head to toe, including their faces, who do not allow women to drive, who think it is the holy duty of husbands to physically beat their wives…in other words, the followers of Allah. Do we Jews really want to emulate such a primitive, backward, violently savage group of monsters as that? I understand that some people may be offended by the other extreme, as represented by Hugh Hefner, but surely we Jews are wise enough to take a stance on this that is of neither extreme. and frankly, blocking out a woman’s face from public view, is ridiculously absurd, not to mention counter-productive. Surely us men can control ourselves just enough to not turn into wild beasts every time we see a woman’s face.

  5. David Ohsie says:

    “Exceptions can be made in the right circumstances, and for the right people.”

    Isn’t this quite pernicious? You, woman with no clout, can have your identity suppressed. The leadership is exempt. I don’t see that as a good thing. If is OK for the Rebbitzen, why is it not OK for others who have their own purposes? Flexibility for yourself and inflexibility for others isn’t something good.

  6. MK says:

    The Art Scroll biography of Rebitzen Kanievsky is filled with pictures of her with the permission of Rav Chaim who understood the value of the pictures for Americans.

  7. dr. bill says:

    1) my son who is a board member of a very large trust that support various charities in Israel tells me that despite the advertising, kupat cholim is very effectively run.

    2) sadly at a torah vodaath dinner i attended a few years back, they obscured the face of rebbitzen pam A’H when she was in her last stages of life. ironically, paying a shivah call to the daughter of a friend I saw a picture of the rebbizten and my friends mother as teenagers dressed in what would still be allowed in MO communities.

  8. Karen Heckert says:

    Good to read that someone knows the difference between halacha, minhag, and mere conformity. Odd that the very people who declare that the new is assur, should have introduced this very chumra. It reminds of the recently almost-abandoned idea that women should wear only black (which was originally taken from Madison Avenue advertising for decidedly non-tznius clothing). When I was in Brooklyn out-of-towners used to joke about the “chumra-of-the-month” club. The very people who would never be seen wearing other than black also wore clothes that were so tight they showed every outline. Thankfully we are getting away from that, and soon, I hope, we’ll go back to having a halachic approach to tznius that doesn’t involve “Look at me, I’m frummer than you are!”

  9. Nachum says:

    What does this mean to imply? That “Americans” (actually American charedim) are more visual than Israelis (again, Israeli charedim)? More materialistic? Less frum? That “Israeli” women are easier to supress?

    Also, the cover had no picture.

  10. Nachum says:

    Kupat cholim is a freudian slip, eh?

  11. Ann koffsky says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful piece. New Policies should be evaluated by the good they do and the bad: ie their consequences. What consequences have come from the disaspperance of womens images from the frum media? I can point to many problems that have come from it. Have any positives happened? Are people today more tzanuah or less materialistic because of this policy? I think not… so if it gets nompoaitiive… and causes negative… why exactly are we doing this??

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