Thursday, January 31, 2019

Keeping Orthodoxy Normal

Miriam Schwab (Jewish Journal)
A prominent 20th century Charedi leader once said about Baltimore’s Ner Israel Rabbinic College –They specialize in ‘normal’.  

While I may differ somewhat with the Hashkafa of Ner Israel, I would agree that they do indeed produce the type of mainstream Charedi Jews I have called moderate. And have said about them that they will (and already have begun to) comprise that vast majority of Orthodox Jews in America. 

These are people who went to Charedi Yeshivos, buy into their philosophy and have nonetheless taken on many of the modalities of the Modern Orthodox world. They have for example pursued higher education for purposes of having professions and careers that will give them the kind of income that will enable them to better support their families. And they tend to also participate somewhat in the general culture. In other words they are more or less ‘normal’ by societal standards and their lifestyles are hardly distinguishable from Centrists - the more right wing element of Modern Orthodox Jewry.

This is what the world of the right seems to be veering away from. They are (intentionally of otherwise) trying to ‘normalize’ behavior that is anything but normal by societal standards. I believe that the above mentioned rabbinic leader would be appalled at this phenomenon.

The most obvious manifestation of this (which has been discussed here at length) is the erasure of women. A phenomenon adopted by the Charedi glossies that publish slick looking weekly magazines using high end graphics and some pretty good reporters and columnists albeit with a clear Chardei bias on everything they write. These magazines do not feature pictures of any women at all, no matter how modestly they are dressed. Not even a ‘head-shot!

They have explained that they do it for modesty reasons. But although they may deny it, I believe it is done as well (if not more so) for the purpose of attracting a very large market.  A segment of the Charedi world that I would not call mainstream at all.  A segment that tends to look at general society as so terrible they fence themselves off from it as much as possible. They tend to live in isolated communities - separate and apart from any of its influences. They tend to look and dress as differently from the rest of society as they can in order to further to distance themselves from it. (For example they see wearing a typical conservative men’s suit as Chukas HaGoy of which the Torah warns us to stay away from. The Yeshiva world does not consider modern day clothing of that type to fall into that category at all.)

I believe that this is the segment these Charedi glossies wish to attract – knowing that they will not buy their magazines if there are any pictures of women in them.

Now it is completely within the rights of any community to set up any standard they wish to live by… and just as acceptable for magazines to cater to those standards for purposes of increasing their bottom line.  Provided it does not impact negatively on Judaism as a whole.  When it does, I think it has to be protested and even fought by doing whatever can be legally done to end such practices. I have tried to do that here many times. But I have zero influence on any of these magazine to change their policy. Following my lead would in any case cost them their more extreme Charedi readership. Which happens to be the fast growing Orthodox demographic in the world!

But is the bottom line always the most impotent thing a magazine should consider? Or is it how that specific bottom line mentality affects  the rest of us? My answer is that although I am a big fan of ig bottom lines, some things are worth sacrificing it for. And in my view it wouldn’t be that much of a sacrifice since I believe that they will make some of their lost readership by increased Modern Orthodox readership.

More importantly is that by featuring pictures of women they will be restoring normalcy to mainstream Orthodoxy. And hopefully help to change the direction other organization might be taking in order to not be ‘out-frummed’ by these glossies.

Which brings me to Miriam Schwab.  The Jewish Journal reports that she was approached by one of those glossies about doing a feature on her new startup. The first question she asked them was if her picture would be included. They said no. From the Jewish Journal here is what followed:
I can’t and I won’t be in a publication that has a discriminatory policy against women,” Schwab said, even though she covers her hair and is the granddaughter of the rabbi who founded Toronto’s chapter of Agudath Israel, the group that advocates on behalf of Orthodox Jewry. 
While Schwab acknowledged the importance of the piece, she couldn’t in good conscience accept the offer.
“In Judaism there has never been a concept of a woman covering her face,” she said. “That’s not Judaism; that’s a perversion of Judaism. It’s extremism.” She added that the Torah wouldn’t mention the matriarchs’ beauty if it was immodest. 
“Women always had a voice in Judaism, and they should continue to have that,” she said. “In terms of humanity, our faces are our identity, it’s how we recognize people. And when you take that away, you take away our identity.”
I don’t know Mrs. Schwab or anything about her. But She is my new hero. She had the courage to stand up to the current spirit of the Charedi world and say, ‘No!’ To put doing the right thin’ ahead of money. Which would have been the obvious clear benefit to  what would have amounted to a huge free ad in a widely circulated magazine for her new company.

The next step would be for more ‘Miriam Schwabs’ to stand up and say, ‘No!’ – I am not going to participate in the erasure of woman and reject any offer to do a story on them.  It would even help if men would say the same thing to them. Because that would clearly affect their bottom line of enough people did that. And if they would change their policy, it might just be the first step - tiny though it may be - in restoring normalcy to the mainstream.