Sunday, January 18, 2015

When too much Piety Causes Embarrassment

Where's Angela?
I try. I really do try to understand the needs of those who believe that pictures of women in any context should not be published. That’s because it is rooted in a profound sense of the nature of Arayos. Arayos literally means skins. The Gemarah uses it to refer to sexual matters. Mostly in the context of forbidden relationships. Such as adultery or incest. Chazal went to great lengths to build fences around these matters so that we would not transgress them.

In its attempt to prevent men from having erotic thoughts the Gemara uses strong language about situations that generate erotic thoughts in men. Just to cite one example Chazal tell us that anyone who looks at even the baby finger of a women - it is as if he was looking at her secret  place (Berachos 24a). There are ample additional examples by Chazal that tell us the lengths to we must go to to avoid sinful erotic thoughts. While this statement is subject to interpretation – it is taken literally by some.

So when a Chasidic group refuses to publish a picture of a woman, I understand their zeal  - even as disagree with them.  

I don’t agree with them because in our day images of women are so commonplace that there is about as much chance of having erotic thoughts by looking at a modestly dressed woman as there are about the chance of having erotic thoughts about looking at a telephone pole.

There was a time when women were rarely seen in public. That is clearly not the case in our day. Women are as much in the public square today as men. In fact there are more Orthodox women in the workforce than at any time in history – with the blessing of religious leaders. These leaders actually approve of curricula for their women that will prepare them for the workforce so that they can support their husbands in Kollel.

The times do alter the way in which we react to women in the public eye and the laws pertaining to them. Strictures of the past no longer apply according to respected Poskim of both the past and the present. Poskim like the Levush (R’ Moedechai  Yoffie - of the 16th century) and the Aruch HaShulchan R’ Yechiel Michel Epstein - of the 20th century).

Unfortunately there are some sects in Judaism that insist on maximal implementation of these laws as though nothing has changed. As distasteful as this is to me – as long as they keep it to themselves my attitude is live and let live. But when their reach goes beyond their own environment that changes everything. Which is what happens when one of their newspapers photo-shops women out of iconic photos.

This happened a few years ago to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She was photo-shopped out of an iconic picture taken of the President and some of his staff watching the live video transmission of  Navy Seals assassinating Osama Bin Laden. A newspaper that refused to publish any pictures of women wanted to publish that picture. The problem was that they couldn’t publish it because there were women in it. So they them photo-shopped them out and published it that way.

And now the same thing happened to another iconic photo. The one where world leaders marched in France in solidarity with France last week.  That photo was published in a Hebrew language newspaper that had the same dilemma. And the same solution. So the image of German Chancellor Angela Merkel was photo-shopped out as though she was never there!

When I was first apprised of this, I thought I would just ignore it since I have already stated my views when it happened the first time to Hillary Clinton.  But now the embarrassment is far more public and deserves a condemnation of its own. (See the video below.)

It is one thing to insist on the most extreme separation of the sexes in any and all forms – including not publishing pictures of women even in perfectly modest dress by an Halachic standard. But now it has hit the mainstream media.

There is absolutely no excuse for what they did. They wanted to have their cake – and eat it too. They could not resist that picture because it indeed tells more than a 1000 words to see an act of solidarity like that taking place instead of just writing about it. But distorting it by photo-shopping out women is dishonest. And worse it has made us look like primitive misogynists. Not to mention the fact that it is insulting to a world leader who is one of the most supportive of the Jewish State.  

For anyone to simply push it aside by saying that this newspaper does not really represent mainstream Judaism is the same thing as saying Islamist mass murderers do not represent mainstream Islam.  The fact is that both groups are rooted in the tenets of their own religion albeit taking those tenets to an extreme level. Mainstream Judaism cannot anymore disavow its extremists than Islam can disavow theirs.

Lest anyone say I am making even the slightest comparison of ‘our’ extremists’ to ‘their extremists. I have one thing to say to you: ‘Get a life!’ In no way am I saying that at all. Which should be clear from my words. I am not comparing mass murder to photo-shopping women out of a picture. I’m only showing how extremist interpretations of religious tenets can lead to erroneous but not unreasonable conclusions about the mainstream.

Photo-shopping women out of iconic pictures in order to satisfy extreme notions of modesty is not the way to be a light unto the nations. It teaches nothing about the beauty of the Torah. Instead it teaches the nations that we are a bunch of misogynists who believe women belong in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant. At least according to one stream of Jewish thought.

These publications have a responsibility to tell the truth and not lie. Photo-shopping people out of pictures is a lie. And it is a lie that causes us to be ridiculed.

If they really feel so strongly about not publishing pictures of women - they should not have published the picture at all!