Mishpacha Magazine is under fire for pixelating women’s faces in pictures from the Holocaust. While Mishpacha’s policy of not printing pictures of women or girls above the age of five is well-known, blurring the face of a Holocaust victim touched a nerve. In response to criticism, Mishpacha is now defending its policy of erasing women with the claim that, “Like all ultra-Orthodox media, we respect the rules set by rabbinical leaders 70 years ago to not publish pictures of women.” Mishpacha is making a similar claim in emailed responses to letters to the editor, stating, “Mishpacha Magazine abides by the policies set in place by prominent Torah leaders of 70 years ago, which include not publishing photos of women.”
I have spoken elsewhere at length (at minute 47:15) on the damage erasing women is doing to the community. Very briefly, 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.
It’s problematic enough that Mishpacha and the like are erasing women from the present, but now they seem to be erasing women from the past as well. However, Mishpacha’s above claim fails the most rudimentary tests of historical accuracy.
1. I have binders full of women (Literally. I did my dissertation research on the history of Bais Yaakov before the digital age) that refute the claim that pictures of women did not appear in the ultra-Orthodox press in the past 70 years. I have a plethora of examples of pictures of women in periodicals, starting 70 years ago, in the 1940s, and continuing into the 21st century.
This is the kind of pesky archival evidence that just gets in the way of those attempting to rewrite history. In fact, the first example I encountered of an article about Bais Yaakov that was not accompanied by pictures of girls or women was a 2005 feature in Hamodia. (I apologize for not having a more precise date than that. Had I imagined that in the future people would claim pictures of woman didn’t exist in Haredi periodicals, I would have taken better notes.) In any case, Hamodia only started publishing its English language edition in 1998. That’s 20 years ago, not 70. Unless, of course, Mishpacha is suggesting that various Bais Yaakov movement publications, such as Torah U’Mesorah’s Olameinu, as well as the Jewish Observer and Orthodox Youth, both publications of Agudas Yisroel, run under the auspices of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, were not Haredi publications.
2. Halacha is about sourcing and about precision. You don’t need a historian to tell you that if someone claims that an unnamed Torah leader made an unsourced statement in an unspecified year, it is not a legitimate or credible claim.
In contrast, on the same March 25, 2017 podcast (linked above), where I spoke about this issue, Rav Dovid Cohen, a prominent posek (decisor of Jewish law) and Torah leader, stated (from 31:30) that the practice of erasing women’s pictures does not stem from minhag (custom) or even the community becoming holier, but rather, “sales competition,” a competition of who can appear more externally frum. It is certainly not halacha. Name, source, date. When it’s true, it’s not hard to do at all.
Mishpacha is a private business and is within its American first amendment rights when it enacts editorial policies that it believes will increase its sales. I would also argue that Mishpacha does a lot of good in raising important communal issues and writing about them intelligently and honestly. But justifying erasing women with absurd made-up history? Come on Mishpacha, you are better than this.