Orthodox women might not be seen, but they are certainly heard

The controversy surrounding Mishpacha Magazine and other Haredi periodicals’ policy of not printing images of frum women — no matter how modestly dressed — revolves around a number of charges that have been leveled against the policy from different sectors of Jewish society.

There are those on the liberal left of the spectrum who see this policy as another front on the “war against women”. They see the removal of women’s images as a sign of oppression and extreme devaluation of women as human beings — when pictures of men are allowed in public and pictures of women are not. They associate this policy with those of fundamentalist Islamic societies who are similarly viewed as being oppressive to women, where a woman shouldn’t even be seen, let alone heard.

To say these critics are missing the point of the policy and are showing themselves to be complete outsiders to the world of Haredi society is self-evident.

The next group of critics claim that such a policy either distorts authentic Jewish custom and tradition or outright falsifies it.

When these periodicals make the claim (whether implicitly through their status as a frum publication, or explicitly as we heard from the editors of Mishpacha recently) that this is what a frum publication ought to do and has always done for the sake of modesty, people react strongly. There is the insulting insinuation that publications which do in fact print images of modest women and still have the backing of great Torah personalities, are somehow lowering the standards of modesty.

But here too, the critics are being somewhat color-blind in their denial that different communities have different standards of modesty. Some Hasidic communities do not permit women to drive automobiles. This is policy is really no different in kind.

Other communities obviously feel these standards are in excess to what the halacha and minhag demands and has no basis whatsoever. But that’s an old fight. I would hope that by now, close to 200 years after the Hasidic revolution, everyone has gotten used to the idea that stricter standards — not based on traditional, mainstream sources — are here to stay. The people whining about Mishpacha Magazine should recognize that each community has the right, nay, obligation to defer to their religious authority in preserving the public standard of modesty they see fit to uphold.

You want to see pictures of modest women in your magazines? You don’t want to adhere to unnecessary chumros in schechitoh and Pesach kashrus? You want (your wife) to be able to drive? No-one is forcing you to become Hasidic.

Some of these critics might respond that true, they can have no beef with an explicitly Hasidic publication like Hamodia, but feel disgruntled/betrayed by the editors of Mishpacha and Ami for catering to a Hasidic public when the editors themselves are not in fact adherents of stricter Hasidic standards in their personal lives.

I imagine one could respond that Mishpacha Magazine is in fact a spin-off of the Hebrew original, and the editorial policies of the magazine were set in Eretz Yisroel which in general has a stricter standard than the US in this realm — even for non-Hasidim.

But that kind of leaves Ami Magazine without any excuses.

In any event, this is not what I wanted to write about. All this was to get to a larger point:

Yet another angle of attack, appearing twice on Cross-Currents no less, has been to argue that removing the picture of frum modest women from the public sphere is harmful to Jewish society at large. There is deep concern that if there are no frum female role-models for our children to see, visually depicted in our publications, our young girls will be negatively affected (and even our young boys will be negatively affected!).

To quote one critic of the policy:

When my daughter pointed to the editorial note on the bottom of a frum publication that says it will not print a seven-year-old girl’s picture with her artwork — she looked at me and dismissed it as “crazy.” It does not begin to align with the way she is being raised, and as much as she might benefit from some of the content, I have no choice but to keep publications like this far away from her. How toxic is it for her to associate the word “crazy” with the word “frum”? And for girls who do not think it is crazy that the image of a young child’s face is deemed dangerous and necessarily hidden — girls for whom this practice coheres with the rest of their experience — just imagine what that child’s view of her own place in the world might be. Such a tiny circumscribed box with no legroom in any direction. And does that unyielding box, silent and silencing, aid or hinder her actualization into the true unique path Hashem imprinted within her?

So this is what galus wrought. Her role models, compatriots, and teachers are commanded to hide their faces straight out of Yishayahu’s nevua – but she craves the visuals now. She cannot wait until the geula fixes this. In the same way children universally prefer the books with the pictures, she needs to see what frum actualized and accomplished women look like to hear their message clearly. She, and every curious girl like her, need to see that she can step in the footprints women have left for her. And for all the women who say “but I do not!” and are inured to how things have inexplicably become – kol hakavod. But perhaps their obligation of nose be’ol chaveiro and their imperative of ahavas yisroel dually require them to be at least somewhat unsettled by the fact that so many children, young women, and women feel disenfranchised, out of step, and failed by the publications charged by our community with nurturing their neshamas.

 

Rabbi Adlerstein similarly wrote:

 

When it comes to expunging women’s faces from public presentation, we must have the courage to say that this is harmful, dangerous, and not for us. It may serve the needs of some, but not those of us who have different needs. I have heard from many women of unimpeachable frumkeit and yir’as Shomayim how painful it is to them to have become visually marginalized. How they cannot explain to their daughters why women do not seem to have a place, even though (outside of Chassidic circles – and even inside many of them!) women have assumed much broader roles in the community than their grandmothers, all the time hewing to the demands of halachah and tzniyus. How they cannot explain to their sons that yesh gevul – there are defined standards of modesty, and that once met, there is nothing at all wrong with a woman’s picture being displayed when appropriate. How they have no answer to the mocking of Torah that this practice precipitates in the greater world – a world that was once opaque to the eyes of outsiders, but is no longer, and will continue to drill down on what they can point to with derision.

Here’s a third voice of protest recently published in a Times of Israel blog:

in the absence of images of modest women, the only images of women that boys and girls see are those of the secular media, which are oftentimes inappropriate by Orthodox standards. From an educational perspective, boys and girls need positive images to counteract the negative images they absorb from the media, and girls need modest role models to emulate. However, there are none. Instead, there is a policy that hypersexualizes women and girls, suggesting that even their faces are obscene. Instead of absorbing the messages of images of couples and families that reflect a normal, frum, healthy lifestyle, our children read books and see advertisements that show Shabbat tables with no mothers or sisters. This reality is damaging the spiritual health of the community and making it significantly harder to properly teach the concept of a healthy tznuis and body image to girls and boys. Additionally, erasing women contributes to the mistaken perception that women in Orthodoxy are second class citizens who should not be seen and are excluded from the public sphere. It leads to feelings of disenfranchisement in frum women and girls.

To all this, I say: Gimme a break.

We did not as a community, charge Mishpacha and Ami Magazine with “nurturing our children’s neshamos.” They saw a market niche wide open, and they filled it in the way they saw fit.

Please don’t tell me that Mishpacha, Ami, and Hamodia publications are so powerful and so influential that whatever they do must be having a huge impact on our society for better or for worse.

You are taking them much too seriously.

They certainly do not outweigh the impact of Artscroll and Feldheim publishers, who almost always display pictures of frum women in their best-selling Gedolim biographies, and depict illustrations of girls and mothers in every single one of their best-selling children’s books.

And if you do in fact believe that these periodicals are so powerful, then you should also love the fact that most of the editors and many of the writers of these same periodicals are frum Jewish women! Must you not therefore believe that it is frum women who are primarily shaping and molding our entire society by their publications? And you want to tell me frum women are being marginalized?

Please.

How can anyone claim that frum women are being disenfranchised by our society and are “excluded from the public sphere” through this policy-when the frum women editors themselves are deciding not to publish pictures of frum women?!?

What about “the policy” that allows frum women to be the editors and writers of these very publications in the first place?? Isn’t that empowering enough?

The truth is that we are talking about the feeling of marginalization and exclusion that women are experiencing from this policy.

And these feelings are real. It is indeed no joking matter — for Mishacha and Ami’s future revenue. These negative feelings are certainly something the editors of these periodicals should take very seriously indeed — if they want to keep their consumers happy.

But as a matter of public concern for the health of our society at large, the issue is moot and baseless.

As Ben Shapiro likes to obnoxiously say, facts don’t care about your feelings. And the facts are undeniable: frum women in contemporary Jewish society are in no way marginalized, disenfranchised, or excluded when it is they who dominate so much of our frum print culture — on every level.

This picture exclusion policy is not harmful nor dangerous to our society when you look at the innumerable books and publications depicting frum, modest female role-models for our boys and girls to observe and imitate.

So to all the alarmists out there crying wolf, claiming that the sky is falling, please save your energy for an actual frum social crisis.

About the Author
Dovid Kornreich grew up in the U.S. and made aliya when he married in 1996. He has been studying and teaching talmud and Jewish thought in two Jewish institutions in Jerusalem for over 15 years. He has an enduring interest in the conflicts between Torah and contemporary thought, specifically Science & Feminism
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