Monday, March 16, 2015

The Disappearing Woman

There is an existential  threat against the Jewish people. But this one is not external. It is internal. I am not talking about Neturei Karta. I have long ago written them off as well beyond the pale. I’m talking about the mainstream right.

If things continue as they are the Jewish people will be thrown back into the dark ages.  And the area in which this will take place – already is taking place is in the area of how we treat our women.

I refer you to the latest manifestation of this phenomenon. It appears that Agudah has joined forces with those who want to erase women completely from the public square. Their latest ad is one where women’s faces have been blurred out. Had they simply not published any pictures, perhaps they could be forgiven. But that they published and blurred out the faces is yet another troubling step towards a Judaism that is inauthentic in my view.

Ironically, the ad is directed towards women. Which means that it will be mostly women that pay attention to it. It is about an event taking place for women and about women. And yet because those ads will be out in the public square, someone in Agudah found it to be immodest to show the faces of these women.

Remember this is is not Israel. Israel has already experienced this phenomenon in the city of Bet Shemesh. The Moderate Charedi women of Bet Shemesh have come out strongly in opposition to it. This is in Flatbush…  a corner of Brooklyn that the center of moderate Charedi Jewry.

I received a letter from a concerned woman who identified herself as Chani. She asked if I could publicize the letter she sent to Flatbush Jewish Journal - which they published. I completely agree with her sentiment. Here is what she said: 
This is a call to action. In a letter to the editor, A.M. pointed out that the Yiddishkeit of today is not the Yiddishkeit of our parents and grandparents, and the very next page proved A.M.'s point. It was an advertisement for an event commemorating Sarah Schneirer's Yahrtzeit and it displayed photos of blurred-out women - and not just any women, but women who represent the Bais Yaakov movement. This erasure of modest, holy women is a result of the same extreme ideas that produced the so-called Taliban women in Israel. We are witnessing the Islamization of Judaism. This trend is exceedingly dangerous, and it is up to this generation to stop it before it becomes so ingrained that the next generation believes it has always existed. If you are as disturbed as I am by this mutation of Judaism, please contact me at so we can figure out what to do about it. 
Indeed. This is not our parents’ and grandparents’ Judaism. Now on the grand scale of things, this may seem unimportant. But I would strongly disagree. It is yet another step in the long road to making our women invisible almost as though they do not exist  – using modesty as an excuse. I recall the words of Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet in his lecture attacking separate seating at weddings. There were many reasons he gave for opposing it. But the one thing I recall was his description of how the Gedolim of yesteryear treated their wives in public. They were proud to sit with them at weddings and proud to introduce them to passersby. Making them invisible was about the last thing they wanted to do. At least that was the case with the Lithuanian oriented Roshei Yeshiva.

By contrast Chasidic rebbes did not sit with their wives in public. Nor did their Chasidim. They considered it immodest. In some cases they would not even walk in the street together. In Ger for example the husband will always walk well in front of his wife in the street. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I observed that in Bnei Brak where just about everyone takes a walk after the Friday night meal. That was back in the 70s on my first trip to Israel.

Now we  seem to have all moved in the direction of the Chasidim. It is their standard that is being emulated. That’s why one will never see a mixed seating wedding anyone in Charedi circles any more. Even among moderate Charedim. And the trend continues in other areas as well. For example public venues that have religious events now have separate entrances for men and women; longer wigs are now considered by some to be immodest; and now pictures of women are thought to be immodest no matter how they are dressed.

This kind of mindset used to be the sole purview of Chasdim. It was for example their periodicals that did not publish pictures of women.  But now, even mainstream non Chasidic Charedi periodicals have barred images of women from their pages. And then there is this latest blurring of faces by Agudah. I can’t imagine for example Rav Yaakov Kamentesky approving of something like that if he were alive today. But someone in Agudah today thought it was a good idea. The right thing to do.

I recall having a conversation with a rabbinic leader about an event they were having. I asked him about something that I think should have been included. His honest response was that he personally had no problem with it. But there were certain members of Agudah that did have a problem with it. And he did not want to alienate them.

I think this is exactly the kind of thinking going on right now. Agudah does not want to alienate those who consider it immodest to show a woman’s face.

But at what price? Must they chase down every Chumra they find just to please their most right wing constituency? What about those on their left? I don’t mean only the Modern Orthodox of even the right.  But even their own moderate Charedim! They must be put off by something like this. Does Agudah not want to please those constituents? Do they take them for granted? Do they think that since Agudah is doing it, it will be accepted as the new norm? Should it be the new norm? Is this what they really want?

Why can’t they instead think like another Gadol of the past, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. He actually made an issue of it and to his credit took a public stand by rejecting the notion of not publishing pictures of women as immodest. He considered it insulting in the extreme to do so. I agree. I am glad to see that his Chasidim continue to publish pictures of women whenever appropriate.

I have said this in the past. We should not be handing down to our children a Judaism that is inauthentic. We should not be adding Chumros unnecessarily – just to please the right. We ought to instead have common sense and treat women with the dignity they deserve, same as men. This does not mean we abandon modesty in the way we dress. Of course we shouldn’t. But it does mean we reject the kind of extremism that is indicated by blurring faces of women in pictures. If there are Chasidim that don’t like it, they don’t have to look at it.

One might ask, what about the inappropriate thoughts that might be generated in a Chasid not used to seeing such a picture? My answer to that is they have to be brought into the 21st century. Kicking and screaming if necessary. They must be disabused of the notion that a fully dressed woman who is modest by the strictest of religious Jewish standards will cause their men to have improper thoughts.

We cannot allow the reverse to happen – to eliminate women so completely from the public square that a mere picture of Sara Schneirer will cause a man to sin. Because that is not Judaism. Never was. And never should be. And we ought to do everything in our power to not let that ever happen. Because that is not the world I want my granddaughters to inherit.