Sunday, May 15, 2011

Publishing Pictures of Women - The Heart of the Matter

Last night I was on Zev Brenner’s Talkline – a radio program broadcast in the New York area. Joining me in the conversation were Rabbi and Mrs. Yitzchok and Rechy Frankfurter. They are respectively publisher and editor of Ami Magazine. The subject was the by now infamous photo-shopping of an iconic White House picture. A Chasidic Yiddish newspaper removed images of 2 female members of the Obama administration.

First let me thank Talkline host Zev Brenner for inviting me on his show. This is my third time on his show and I wanted to let his listeners know that he has been a very gracious host each and every time. As I expected he was balanced, fair, and respectful of all present last evening.

I would also like to thank the Frankfurters for the manner in which they presented their case. I detected no venom or anger towards me even in disagreement.

I must however take issue with how they framed the issue at hand. They seemed to feel that the issue is about how modern Orthodox Jews view the Tznius extremes of the Chasidim that generated the photo-shopping fiasco. While there are definitely disagreements with them - no one denies them the right to adhere to those extremes. The Frankurters seemed to feel that I do not want to give them that right.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I may argue the merits of such extremes but do not deny anyone the right to adhere to them. The issue is not about rights. It is about when such extremes are brought to the attention of the wider public and cause ridicule of an entire segment of Klal Yisroel and by extension all of us. The point I had been making on this issue was to question the value of adhering to such an extreme under those conditions.

But the Frankfurters kept talking about ‘live and let live’. Instead of understanding my point they insisted I was trying to impose my values on Chasidim and that I had no right to do that. That is not what I was trying to do. The issue for me is one of preventing ridicule. Not of denying anyone any rights.

Ami Magazine abides by a policy of not publishing pictures of women. I can’t really blame a for profit magazine for adopting the lowest common denominator - an extreme position on Tznius - in trying to appeal to the masses. But that doesn’t mean I can’t question the value of such an extreme and wonder out loud about the consequences of it.

Ami has every right to have policies that encourage maximum readership. When I suggested that this might be the reason they put this policy in place, neither of them confirmed or denied it. Instead Mrs. Frankfurter accused me of being cynical. They claim to be simply respectful of that group. That of course does not answer my suggestion about real the motives behind that decision.

Nor do I even fault them for making a sound business decision. I have no quarrel with them for that. In fact I have nothing but praise for Mishapacha Magazine which has the same policy and have said so more than once on this blog. Ami is very similar to Mishpacha. But Mrs. Frankfurter seemed to be offended by my remark for some reason.

Since they kept talking about the issue being about respecting a community’s right to have their own Chumros - I must address why there is a difference between respecting the Chumros of others and insisting that we should not evaluate them when they present unflattering consequences.

Ami is indeed a high value publication. Their production values are comparable to the best of what’s out there today. They want to appear mainstream. And for the most part they are. The problem is that by adopting the lowest common denominator of Tznius (meaning one which will not upset the Tznius sensibilities of the most amount of people) they are in effect implying that this is the standard we should all abide by. In fact they actually argued the merits of this policy while saying they respect those who don’t. Like the Jewish Press and ArtScroll.

They went to great lengths to explain the religious reasons behind their policy. That’s when I lost and challenged them.

They indicated that certain pictures are too provocative to publish. I agree. But then they said that publishing only pictures of non beautiful women would be insulting to those women whose pictures they do publish. That trying to accommodate Tznius concerns by publishing some pictures and not others is a losing proposition... that there is no way to do it right.

When I asked them why the Jewish Press had no difficulty publishing only Tznius pictures of women and had never been attacked for it by the right or the left- there was no answer. They just kept repeating that they respect the right of other Jewish publications for their standards and wished that I respected theirs. In my world we call that fudging an answer.

When I challenged them about this only being a Chumra and not a Halacha – again they did not contradict that and only explained why they thought it was a good Chumra.

When I questioned them about whether a Chumra that ends up causing ridicule of religious Jews is worth keeping they asked me whether being ridiculed for keeping Shabbos makes Shabbos worth keeping.

I mean really! Is there a comparison to be made between keeping a D’Oraisa in public even when ridiculed - which is a Kiddush HaShem - and keeping a Chumra in public that brings ridicule? I don’t think so.

I mentioned that if I had to describe my Hashkafos in one word it would be ‘normalcy’ - that Judaism should not turn to extremes on either end of the religious spectrum. They challenged my right to define normal. They kept saying that it was the right of any community to define what is normal for them.

My response to that is and always has been that I have no issue with how any community wants to define what should be normal for them. But if their definition veers dramatically from what is acceptable in Halacha and at the same time is seen as ridiculous by society at large, then it behooves the community to re-evaluate the benefit of keeping such Chumros. The Tamud’s expression for that is Yotzah Scharo B’Hefseido. Loosely translated that means throwing out the baby with the bathwater. In any activity where the deficit exceeds the benefit - it is foolish to continue doing it. In my view photo shopping out images of a fully Tzanua woman is in that category.

But there is more. The idea of appealing to the lowest common denominator may be a sound business decision. But there is a price. The price is that what was once seen as a Chumra adhered to by only one segment of Orthodox Jewry eventually comes to be seen as normative by almost the entirety of it. If the majority of Orthodox publications do not publish any pictures of women then it becomes the standard. Those publishing such pictures are seen as being lax in their Yiddishkeit.

In my view this phenomenon is in large part responsible for the ‘move to the right’ that is extant in Orthodoxy today. A perfect example of this is separate seating at weddings. Chasidim have always insisted on separate seating. But this Chumra is a modern phenomenon that was not seen as important in the prewar Yeshiva world of Lithuania. Try telling a non Chasidic Charedi Rosh Yeshiva today that you want to make a mixed seating wedding. Some of them may very well boycott it if you do.

The Chumra of not publishing pictures of Tzanua women is consistent with this phenomenon. I asked the Frankfurters if they owned any books or magazines in their own home that has a picture of a woman in it. They did not respond.

If things progress as they are now, I can almost guarantee that in the not too distant future pictures of any woman dressed as Tzanua as possible will be seen as Pritzusdik by all. And a newspaper like the Jewish Press may very well be banned.

Is this what we’ve come to?