Female Synagogue Leadership vs. No Pictures in Publications: Modern Orthodox and Haredim Moving in Opposite Directions

I have been reading with interest about the recent practice of many magazines from the Haredi community to omit pictures of women from their publications.  From the articles that I have read, it seems that the decision not to picture even modestly dressed women is mainly due to changing market forces in that community. While the Haredi rabbinic leadership does not oppose this practice, the real driver of this decision is publishers’ desire to retain their most conservative readership.  I find this phenomenon fascinating as it is taking place at the same time that women in the Modern Orthodox community are taking on more and more synagogue leadership roles, spurring much discussion in that community about the possibilities and limits of these roles in spiritual and rabbinic leadership.

The differing responses to the role of women in Jewish life reflects the dispute between Rabbi Moshe Schreiber, known as the Chatam Sofer, and Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch in their reaction to modernity in the nineteenth century.  The Chatam Sofer was known for his famous slogan of “chadash assur min haTorah” – any innovation, even though it may not technically violate halacha, is forbidden simply because it is an innovation.  Because of his strong stance against anything remotely connected with modernity or the Reform movement, he was successful in keeping the Reform movement out of his community of Pressburg.  On the other hand, Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Rabbinic leader in Frankfurt, was more accommodating to some of the modernist practices that were taking place in Reform Temples at that time.  He allowed a choir in shul services under the direction of a professional musical conductor, participating in congregational singing, and preaching twice a month in German.

It goes without saying that the Haredi community today does not reject every innovation, just as the Modern Orthodox community does not embrace every change.  But the opposite directions taken in dealing with public roles for women in these communities seems to reflect the two different paths of the Chatam Sofer’s more conservative policy versus Rav Hirsch’s more accommodating stance.

Fortunately, another Jewish thinker and scholar of the modern era, Rav Kook, provides us with wise guidance about how to navigate such an ideological impasse. Rav Kook believed that within every major school of thought, there must exist some element of truth.  Our challenge then, is to seek that truth and resist the urge to reject entirely that which feels disagreeable to us.

When a segment of the Haredi community treats chumra as though it is halacha, we must make sure not to respond by erring in the opposite direction, treating actual halacha as though it is all chumra.  So while those of us in the Modern Orthodox community reject the Haredi movement to omit images of women, we must take care not to also dismiss the objective standards of tzniut which reflect a value that we can all agree on. Let us disagree strongly, where strong disagreement is warranted.  But let us not forget the elements of truth that bind both of our communities to one another, and in the footsteps of the venerable Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, let us make sure we treat those values with gravity that is befitting them.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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