Shoshanna Keats-Jaskoll is a neighbor and friend. She is an activist and someone with “fairly” strong opinions. She also has no problem sharing them. In an article she wrote for the Jerusalem Post (“Females erased”, 14/8/2015), she set out to investigate the issue of disappearing women in the religious world, and in doing so discovered some disturbing findings.

Whilst you can read the full article for yourselves (which I would recommend) I will perhaps highlight a couple of relevant points, later on. However, what has prodded me into action is actually the response that this article has received in the Jewish blogsphere.

As you might have expected this has generated mixed reactions. On the one hand Rabbis Yitzchok Adlerstein (Cross-Currents) and Harry Maryles (Emes Ve-Emunah) have given strong support, Rabbis Yaakov Menken and Avrohom Gordimer (also Cross-Currents) have gone the other way.

Now of course, disagreement is a good thing. Making the argument and listening to the rebuttal is a Jewish as Kol Nidre and gefilte fish, but there were points made in the blogs posted by Rabbi Menken and Rabbi Gordimer that require further discussion.

So what were the key points in Jaskoll’s article?

  • Pictures of women, even young girls do not appear in Haredi publications, neither in Israel nor overseas (she focused specifically on the US).
  • In Beit Shemesh, there is a highly diversified population, ranging from the Super-Haredi (Kana’im) all the way to “mehadrin” secular.
  • A concern of the increasing religious radicalization for the city, as a result of agenda setting within parts of the Haredi community and how this has started to affect those not seeking a Haredi lifestyle.
  • Rather than a live and let live attitude, there is an aggressive enforcement policy including threats and coordinated email and phone campaigning against advertisers and those involved in the distribution of local newspapers etc. What was surprising was to discover, was that the enforcement is not (only) carried out by the Kana’im, who are often partially or fully disowned by mainstream Haredi leaders, mainly for the use of violent, threatening or abusive tactics, but being carried out by rabbis with very large followings in the city, and certainly would never be the target for criticism by other Haredi rabbis as going beyond proper behavior. (Again for details see the article)
  • Jaskoll claims (and backs up with various people she interviewed for the article) that whilst those in favour of the no-women or girls policy couch it in terms of modesty and market forces, there are many that do not see it in such a neutral light, and indeed see a trend towards unhealthy obsession around taking out any mention of a women in adverts, news stories, and even wedding invitations (not just a banning of pictures, but just a mention of the bride, or mother of the bride’s name).
  • She mentions some recent examples from outside of Beit Shemesh that even made international headlines. The erasure of Angela Merkel from the march marking and demonstrating against the recent Paris terror attacks, and the erasure of the female members of the new Netanyahu government).
  • The article raises the question as to whether these trends are driven by Halacha (Jewish law), custom or self-imposed stringency, or simply social or market trends driven bottom-up within the various Haredi communities (of which there are many and various in their religious and social customs.
  • Jaskoll sets out some of the halachic discussion and also gives some detail about the price she and others believe this is causing and will continue to cause if the trend continues.

In the end, Shoshanna, herself a religious person, living in an almost exclusively religious neighborhood, makes a call to the reader to take responsibility for the issue and raise their voice, obviously on the assumption that you the reader have been convinced of the argument.

Cross Currents is a blogging site for a series of Orthodox (mostly Haredi) rabbis and public figures. I would have to say that by way of declaration of interest, its main thrust is not always overlapping with my own view on life, but I often find it a valuable place to hear the other view. On the 19 August, Rabbi Yaakov Menken and Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer, both regular contributors, blogged in response to Jaskoll’s article.

I shall try and summarise some of their key arguments (Note: “I” in the bullet points below is the Cross Currents author):

  • Whether or not we like to admit it, every “normal” male is going to view the image of a woman, if she is attractive, as an attraction. That is how Hashem wired the male gender. Male attraction to an attractive female image is part of nature, and is a normal biological reaction, endowed by our Creator for the purpose of perpetuating life.
  • While blotting out faces in photos is distortive, can offend, and is something entirely outside of the purview of this quibble, the professed right or requirement to post photos of women in Orthodox religious publications, when it will knowingly and naturally evoke male attraction, is something I find difficult to endorse, as politically incorrect as my stance may be even within some of our same religious circles.
  • I can’t say for certain, but I have no recollection of ever seeing a woman’s photo in any newspaper or magazine serving the haredi community. If this is new, I’m unaware of it.
  • This is about market forces, not coercion. I spoke with the editor of one of the haredi 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.
  • If someone wants to create a haredi journal with pictures of women, bevakasha!

I think that I covered most of the points.

Now for comments on them and some closing words.

It is clearly evident that the comment about it being always thus as simply factually incorrect. For those who do not believe me, then please spend two minutes watching this.

Rabbi Shmuel Pappenheim is a member of Toldot Aharon, an ultra-ultra-Orthodox part of the Eida Haredit in Israel and was himself a journalist and writer in several of their publications. In this short video, he proves that historically things were different. So if we are going to debate, let’s at least do it on the facts. In the recent past, and within some of the most closed Haredi circles, there was a very different approach to this issue. In addition some (although not all) of the independent Haredi internet news sites have images of women. (www.ch10.co.il, www.kikar.co.il by way of examples.)

If the question of whether to have any women’s pictures featured in any given publication is simply a question of market demand, why is there any need for rabbinic input on this issue. What is the purpose for rabbinic supervision committees that exist within many publications, either formally or informally? Do these rabbis follow the market, or is it their responsibility to set the market and approve the tone. If it is indeed purely a market or economic question, as it would seem that by these comments, then there really is no halachic issue here. Indeed, in a genuine free market pressure would not be brought to bear from rabbinic or community leaders making less than veiled threats about what might happen if you distribute materials with women’s images in.

I respect and even admire the Haredi value of listening to the Gedolei Hador (Great Rabbis of the Generation”) as decisors on both halachic and more public issues. It is clear to me that the leaders of the Haredi community have a different view on life than I would. However, if that is the case, issues of women being included in the public arena (obviously including their appearance in publications etc) should also be decided by them and not the market place. It is worth noting as an aside that various informal acceptance policies employed by Haredi schools in Israel have come under public scrutiny, with complaints made forcefully that the people in charge of the schools are ignoring the edicts of their Rabbis when employing what are being called discriminatory selection policies. As with the debate around pictures of women, the question is raised as the genuine strength of the mantra that the Gedolim decide.

Perhaps most troubling for me is the statement made that normal men are brought to sin by looking at these images. In Jaskoll’s article, she specifically states that this norm has now included the exclusion of young girls. Let’s be clear then: a rabbi is making the case that looking at a photo image of a girl will almost inevitably lead, for those looking at it, to sin (which sin he left undefined). If I follow this logic, then there are tremendous number of other areas of life I will need to intervene in order to protect men from sin.

Let’s be honest here.

Men see women (not photos of them) all the time. Within a family context, in the street, on the bus, at the bank and of course in the work place. Are we really suggesting that men cannot go through the day without being dragged into sin? I don’t think so, and I am sure that I can safely assume that the rabbi is not advocating a complete and hermetic separation of the sexes. I would be surprised if in his own community there is complete separation of women, whereby they are expected to stay inside their houses etc.

Notwithstanding the break down in the logic, for those who do follow it all the way, one might not be surprised by the as yet fringe expressions in their severity, such as the now infamous “Taliban Women” and other sub-groups on the fringe of Haredi society with ultra-severe modesty regimes. Whilst these groups are truly marginal, and have led to actual abuse and court cases. With this line of thinking the question of the need for separate seating on buses becomes obvious, if the default position is that the less interaction, the better.

Finally, the reason why I am posting this is not so much because I have any say or seek any say on the norms established within the Haredi communities (within which there are huge differences). Clearly, Sefardi Haredim have different norms to Ashkenazi Haredim, Litvaks are different to Hasidim and even with the different sub-groups there are meaningful nuances.This is a matter for them, not me.

My additional motivation for highlighting the debate here is that the emphasis on modesty (physical modesty and dress codes, separation of school pupils from an increasingly younger age, structure and norms within youth groups) within our own communities has been on the gradual increase and it is worth looking at the trends in the Haredi world when thinking about what direction we want to take as a community.

History shows us clearly that public norms of modesty and accepted interactions between the sexes has changed over time. The debate and response from our Haredi bloggers suggests that this is as much market forces and sociology, as purely halachic considerations. Both of these facts should empower the community to be proactive, rather than purely passive when considering what might be a healthy balance for building families and communities in 2015.

As Shoshanna correctly urges — take responsibility!