Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Chasing Chasidic Chumros

Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky - Should this image be banned?
Modesty has become a big item in the 21st century Charedi world. But not in the broad sense that this Jewish value is intended. The way modesty – or Tznius is used today in this community is mostly applied to women and how they are to be seen (or not seen) in public. This is a subject that seems to be hammered into the psyche of every Beis Yaakov girl.

There is a very good reason for this focus today. It doesn’t take much effort to come across images of the most immodestly dressed women when one is out in public. Whether on billboards, in movies, on TV, in magazines or shopping malls that that will have at least one shop exclusively selling women’s intimate apparel with pictures of women wearing their products in seductive poses.  It is almost impossible to avoid all these images. Even the corporate world where modest attire was once standard has given way to this new culture of less modesty. The typical young woman today must feel compelled to have that ‘look’ if she wants to be accepted as ‘normal’.

External influences being what they are it should therefore come as no surprise that Orthodox Jewish educators focus on modesty in dress.

It is this cultural climate that has spurred Charedi world to pursue other less desirable and even questionable restrictions. Among the many unfair restrictions is banning the publication of any pictures of a woman. No matter how modestly she is dressed.

This restriction seems to have always existed in the Chasidic world. (Why that is the case is beyond the scope of this post.) But this was not the case in the Lithuanian based Yeshiva world even among their Gedolim until very recent times. I am not here to debate the right of Chasidim to do as they please. As long as their own women are comfortable with this restriction, or any of the restrictions placed on either their men or their women, God bless them.

I am here to protest what has become a habit in the non Chasidic Charedi world to chase down every Chumra practiced by the Chasidic world. There seems to be an attitude among some rabbis on the right that cannot countenance being ‘out-frummed’ by anyone: ‘If Chasidim are doing it, we better be doing it too, lest we lend credence to their claim of superior Torah observance’.

What many of them may not realize (or perhaps even care about – feeling that their concerns override it) is how this affects their own community.

If women in their own community are negatively affected by such strictures, I believe that their rabbinic readers have an obligation to review their policy to see if it does more harm than good.

One may ask, what possible harm can there be from raising modesty standards? Isn’t that a good thing?

For me the answer is clearly no. Not if it goes too far and there are negative consequences. Not if there is absolutely no Halacha or even a Minhag requiring it. And certainly not if great religious figures like Rav Moshe Feinstein and other Gedolim of the past didn’t require it or practice it themselves.

What harm might there be? Plenty. I was sent a list of reasons by a woman who is a concerned public figure. One which reflects many of the things I have mentioned in the past: 
•  It fails to provide healthy role models for girls and women 
Such a void is short- sighted considering the myriad inappropriate images of women that bombard us in the secular world. Our blank spaces have no chance of competing with their powerful images.

•  It communicates  a negative message about how our community regards women
Taking women literally“out of the picture”implies that they are unimportant, uninvolved, or irrelevant. A page containing  only images of boys and men carries the message that only males are important. The literal erasure of all females calls into question the weight accorded to women’s opinions and contributions and may act as a deterrent to intelligent, accomplished  women who may otherwise be interested in adopting a Torah lifestyle.

•  It contributes to the objectification of women and girls.
The message that a mere glance at a tzenua woman or child can lead a man into temptation fuels the notion that women are essentially dangerous and men are weak. By viewing women as simply as a source of temptation rather than as sentient, intelligent human beings with brains and  hearts, we are ironically saying  that the only thing that matters about women is their bodies.

•  It is a failure of journalistic integrity and creates a Chilul Hashem.
Erasing images of women from photographs of historical moments is a form of censorship and historical revisionism. Many of these photoshopped pictures are from large news agencies that prohibit altering them in any way. Secular media inevitably publicizes this practice while making a point of mentioning that excluding pictures of women and girls is standard practice in  the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. The impression given is that traditional Judaism is on par with the most radical elements of Islam, a view which is not only untrue but also a chilul Hashem.

•  It makes a mockery of our precious ideals.
Photographs and illustrations of Shabbos tables, parks, and chasunas depicting only men and boys ultimately present an inaccurate and at times even absurd portrayal of religious life.  This presentation of a world with no female figures may have the unintended consequence of making a mockery of our ideals and even of the idea of tzinyus itself.

 •  It sets a dangerous precedent
 Look back at biographies of gedolim from just a generation or two ago, as well as historical pictures of yeshiva dinners and community gatherings, and you will see pictures of a world populated by men as well as their wives and daughters. Today not a single photograph or image like these is to be found. At a time when fringe clusters of observant women have taken to wearing burkas and some communities have instituted “men’s only” shopping hours at stores, we are concerned that the major chareidi publications present their distorted view of the world as something to aspire to.  
I am convinced that the vast majority of the mainstream Charedi (non Chasidic) world is moderate and more or less agrees with the above. The question is, ‘What are we going to do about it?’ I was asked to publish a petition that reflects these concerns and am pleased to do so.I am told that are already almost 80 ‘Yeshivishe’ Rebbetzins and laypeople signed onto it. Please click on this link to find out how you can help.