Wednesday, January 02, 2019

A Modest Proposal

Not modest enough for publication in Mishpacha?
One of the hottest topics of discussion in Orthodox Jewish circles these days is the erasure of women from the public square. The most visible (invisible?) demonstration of this is in some of the more right wing publications like Mishpacha Magazine. They do not publish any pictures of women, no matter how modestly they are dressed. I propose that they change course.

The bastardization of the concept of female modesty has spread over the last few years into other areas. Like a children’s book that depicts a ‘typical’ Shabbos table with the father making Kiddush at an all male table - without any women. Not even the wife/mother or any daughters. Only the father and his sons. I am not talking about customs found only in Meah Shearim. I am talking about mainstream Orthodoxy albeit the most right wing version of it.

This may not seem like such a big deal to some of us. But to me it is a terrifying trend. Women are being erased from public view as though the slightest glimpse of an image of most modestly dressed woman might raise improper thoughts in men.  Women that are subjected to this kind of ‘standard of Tznius’ become invisible and at the very least made to feel that they are 2nd class citizens. Or worse living breathing temptresses that must be hidden from public view. 

I don’t know how a young girl raised in this kind of environment can possibly develop a healthy self image. But it isn’t only young girls that are hurt this way. Boys are equally hurt. They too cannot possibly develop a healthy image of women other than as sex objects. What other image would they see if they are being led to believe that any image of a women is to be avoided based on modesty?! 

While it is true that some Orthodox cultures live by those standards (such as those that live in the  isolated enclaves of Kiryas Joel, New Square or the above mentioned Meah Shearim) that is not how the mainstream lives. 

Those of us that live in the real world cannot possibly develop a positive image of a Jewish woman in a world where women are never seen publicly. It harms the very fabric of life among Orthodox Jews that come to believe that this is just a more stringent form of modesty observance. 

None of this is new. But despite all the discussion about it, there has been little change in the way women are being depicted in the more right wing elements of the Charedi world. It seems to only be getting worse.

At this point I want to acknowledge that I have had a conversation about this with one of Mishpacha Magazine’s editors. He told me that they do struggle with this issue. Shortly after that conversation, Mishpacha came out with an online version of their magazine that does have images of women. But their main product is still a ‘female free zone’. They will not even publish the face of a female columnist - as they do with their male columnists.

It is should be plainly obvious that even the most right wing leaders of mainstream Charedi Judaism have no problem at all with publishing pictures of women. Rav Chaim Kanievsky who is one of the most respected Charedi leaders in the world allowed a book about his late wife (...Rav Elyashiv's daughter) to be published that is filled with pictures of her.

Lest anyone say that he is somehow capitulating to the times, all we have to do is look at the many class pictures of Beis Yaakov graduates from the 1930s to see how widely accepted pictures of women were. 

How Charedi is Beis Yaakov? Pretty Charedi! After its founding it eventually had the endorsement of the most venerated sage of the 20th century, the Chofetz Chaim. Whose magnum opus, the Mishna Berurah is the most widely respected book on Jewish law in our day. If pictures were modest enough for him, who are we to say that they are not modest enough for us?! 

But the editors at the mainstream charedi magazines act as though they are ‘Frummer’ (more religious) than the Chofetz Chaim and R Chaim Kanievsky. And with that attitude they end up demeaning the status of women in our day – even if unintentionally.

Which brings me to Dr. Leslie Ginsparg Klein. Dr. Klien is an expert on the life of Sara Sheneirer, founder of the Beis Yaakov School system for girls’ education.  She has recently published a children’s book on Mrs. Sheneirer’s life and is working on a book about the history of Beis Yaakov in America. She is also the academic dean of a seminary for women.  I proud to say that I have known her for many years. She also happens to be my son in law’s sister. 

Aside from her expertise in academics, she is quite talented. One of her talents is writing songs with a message and then performing them. She has recently done so magnificently with the issue at hand. I am pleased to present it here. It is done in the style of ‘Rap’ and modeled on the Broadway hit, Hamilton. You might even say that she is the female Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Since rap is basically just a performer talking - accompanied by a musical background - there are no problems with Kol Isha (the Halachic prohibition on a man listening to a female voice). Even for those stringent about a recorded female voice. I highly recommend watching this amazing performance by Dr. Klein, an Orthodox Jewish woman; dressed modestly; hair covered. If one picture is worth a thousand words, a video might be worth a thousand pictures. Watch, listen, and learn.

For an important perspective on this issue please read the very thoughtful article in the Times of Israel by Shoshana Keats Jaskoll