Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Of Accommodating Extremes and Photo-shopping History

Picture advertising Beis Yaakov in the 1940s (Lehrhaus)
I really have to wonder how Chasidic women feel about how they are treated in certain Chasidic circles. I realize of course that most of them feel they are treated quite well. They might say that they are treated far better in their world than women are treated on the ‘outside’. I get it. This is how they were raised. And the fact that they are raised in virtual isolation from the ‘outside’ reinforces that belief.

But still, I can’t help but wonder why it doesn’t bother them to believe that they are seen as sex objects by men. Of course they wouldn’t put it that way, and might be offended by such a characterization. But isn’t that exactly what the purpose of all their stringent modesty rules are all about? To prevent men from seeing them and acting on improper impulses?

This is of course not only true in the world of Chasidim. It is true in much of the extreme right of the Charedi world. But I think it is fair to say that at its most extreme end are the Chasidim. They are the ones responsible for erasing women from the public square as much as possible. As with their ban on publishing pictures of women.

Although non Chasidic Charedi publications are increasingly honoring this standard by not publishing pictures of women, it is pretty clear that they do not see that as problematic at all since their publications of the past featured pictures of women.

One might say this is fine. Live and let live. What’s wrong with accommodating those that have this standard? Well, when one segment respects a standard of another even though they see it as unnecessary it starts to become the norm. And that has a negative impact on those of us that live in a world where such stringencies impose undue hardships on women.

I am reminded of a complaint made by women with businesses in Bet Shemesh who placed ads in their local circular. That circular refused to publish pictures of women while publishing pictures of the men who had ads about their businesses. Thus placing women at a disadvantage in marketing. We call this being Machimir at someone else’s expense. Which is highly unethical.

But what about those in the Charedi world that do publish pictures of women? One should give them credit for that. But they are guilty of something that is perhaps more insidious than not publishing pictures at all. Photo-shopping them so that the images are in line with the modesty standards of our day.  

I refer you to a brilliant article by Dr. Leslie Ginsparg Klein in the latest edition of Lehrhaus. Feldheim did publish pictures of women in their biography of Rebbetzin Vichna Kaplan, She is the student of Sara Sheneirer  that established the Beis Yaakov movement in America. But in at least one instance what they published was carefully and subtly photo-shopped. Here is how Dr. Ginsparg described it: 
In the original photo the girls in the picture wore short sleeves. In this newer version, the students’ sleeves reached their wrists. I looked through my research and found my somewhat torn copy of the picture. The original image appeared in a school fundraising pamphlet in the early 1940s. I suddenly found myself playing a round of “Spot the Differences,” and there were many. Sleeves lengthened. Necklines raised. Knee-length hems extended an additional four or so inches. Even the married woman in the picture, wearing a full Orthodox-standard head covering, was photoshopped: the bit of hair sticking out on the sides now concealed. 
As Dr. Ginsparg Klein indicates, this is a lie and violates the Torah’s mandate of Mid’var Sheker Tirchok – remove yourself from any falsehood! Photo-shopping a historical image even for ideological reasons is no different than sanitizing the biographies of past religious figures who end up being cookie figures that were all born great. Why do these publishers do it? Because they believe that saying anything negative about a past religious figure dishonors them. But I think the opposite is true.

Rav Yitzchok Hutner - a Gadol of the past said it much better than I ever could. His words were excerpted by Dr. Ginsparg Klein: 
It is a terrible problem that when we discuss the greatness of our gedolim, we actually deal only with the end of their stories. We tell about their perfection, but we omit any mention of the inner battles which raged in their souls. The impression one gets is that they were created with their full stature … As a result [of this gap in our knowledge of gedolim], when a young man who is imbued with a [holy] spirit and with ambition experiences impediments and downfalls, he believes that he is not planted in the house of Hashem (Pahad Yitzchak: Iggerot u-Ktavim n. 128). 
The motivation for photoshopping pictures of women is a bit different. I believe it is because they fear that today’s Beis Yaakov girls will see how Beis Yaakov girls of the past dressed and question the standards imposed upon them today. Explanations like ‘The Halacha was the same then as it is now but times were different then.’ ‘Those girls had to be accommodated or they would have been lost’ -  will fall on deaf ears. Especially when they realize that these pictures were used in advertising the schools!

Just as it is wrong to sanitize a biography with words and thereby lying about history – so too is it wrong to lie via photo-shopping a vintage photo.  If they truly had those fears (which may be legitimate) then they should not have published those pictures at all. But then again, if these young girls end up stumbling upon those pictures on the internet - the damage will be done anyway. Without the benefit of having a teacher explain it. Which in my view is a lot worse.

Quoting Dr. Ginsparg Klein: 
While censors may believe that they are protecting their community with their actions, they are transmitting negative messages as well. They undermine the integrity of the mesorah, a foundational belief, by knowingly rewriting the past. This censorship exercise devalues the importance of honesty and integrity in life. It trivializes the true accomplishments of historical figures. 
There is not a question in my mind that she is right.