Friday, November 04, 2016

Mishpacha - A Change in Policy?

Mishpacha Magazine cover this week (JTA)
I’m not sure this counts. But I will admit that it is a first – perhaps setting a new precedent for a Charedi magazine. Mishapha has a picture of Hillary Clinton on its cover. For those who don’t know, pictures of women are taboo in most right wing Charedi publications.

One of the reasons for that taboo is that the more right wing Charedim among them (mostly of the Chasdic variety) consider photos of women to be immodest. It matters not if a picture of a woman is dressed modestly - even by the strictest of modesty standards. They simply avoid all pictures of women.  

Why? There is a principle in the Gemarah called Lo Plug. This means that in some cases the sages did not make any exemptions in their pronouncements even if in theory there could have been. They decided to make their pronouncements across the board to avoid confusion.  Mishpacha’s blanket taboo is based on the fact  that it would be insulting to say that the woman in the published picture is not attractive enough to be banned. I never quite understood that since being modest does not mean one can’t be attractive.

I’m not sure how right wing Mishpacha is, but they are definitely Charedi. And they (as well as other Charedi magazines) have adhered to that taboo so as not to offend the more right wing readers among them. Until now that is. Witness Mishpacha’s front cover this week.

Well if the attractiveness of a woman is the real issue, I guess the ‘negative’ of a picture will avoid that problem. Negative pictures of human beings are - generally speaking - pretty grotesque looking. As are the pictures of both Hillary and Donald on Mishpacha’s front cover.

For those unfamiliar with this Charedi ‘taboo’ Mishpacha’s negative cover picture might be chalked up to the theme of the cover story - executed by a talented graphic designer. Although that may be true (I have not read the story yet) I think it may be a way for them to observe the ban’s intent while at the same time making their point better by including both candidates for President on their cover. A negative image of a face is a distorted image of a face. Almost like pixilating it. That may have been their thinking.

I think there may be more to it though. Although there are no guarantees it seems like we are on the verge of electing the first woman to be President of the United States. Mishpacha is a glossy magazine with state of the art graphic design whose pictures are integral part of its success. It would be highly unusual for a magazine like that to never publish a picture of the current head of state – about which there will no doubt be many future articles. Especially when Jewish issues are involved. For example she may be photographed with the Prime Minister of Israel. Can anyone see her being photo-shopped out of a picture with Netanyahu when the title of the article might read ‘Clinton meets with Netanyahu’ and all we see is Netanyahu? With the President being cropped out because she is a woman?

This picture may have been a precursor to actual pictures of the President - preparing their readership for the likely event that Mrs. Clinton will be elected. I recall reading an article not long ago where editors of these magazines were asked about it. There was an admission by at least one of them that they might have to reconsider their policy if a woman is elected President.

Many questions come to mind if this happens. Will Mrs. Clinton be the exception? Or with they make other exceptions? If not, why not. What about the ‘Lo Plug’ argument  of not publishing pictures of any women lest those whose pictures are published will be insulted by not being considered attractive enough to be banned? And what does this say about Mrs. Clinton. That she is indeed not attractive enough to be banned? Is this not insulting to her?  And how will those among their readers who see this as a violation of the Lo Plug standard see it? Will they continue to read these magazines? Or will they boycott them? What will their leaders say? Will they ban it?

If it is not banned, how will their more right wing publications react? Will they continue to ban pictures of women even though their readership will be allowed to continue reading Mishpacha and the like? Or will they ignore a ban on Mishpacha should it be instituted by their leaders?

I have no clue what the answers to these questions are. But this is the 21st century and I’m glad that Mishpacha is finally getting close to abandoning a practice that contributed to the erasure of women – or even the word ‘woman’ entirely from the public square.  An already existing mindset in some circles.  Even though that may not have been Mishpacha’s intent, it was surely a contributing factor.

If anything positive is to come out of the election Hillary Clinton, this would be a good start.