Tuesday, April 25, 2017

A Tale of Two Issues

Agudah Spokesman, Rabbi Avi Shafran
I find it quite amusing (and unfair) when Agudah spokesman Rabbi Avi Shafran is constantly bashed for simply expressing his opinion. There is almost a sense of glee on the part of some of his antagonists when he errs. Which to his credit, I find relatively rare. 

I can already hear the skeptics guffawing at that. But I am certainly not one of them. Not that I always agree with him. I don’t. But most of the time I do.  Unfortunately this is not one of those times.

In a recent oped for the Forward, Rabbi Shafran spoke to 2 issues that I have dealt with more than once. One of them is the current practice in Charedi circles of erasing women from the public eye. This most frequently happens in Charedi publications like Mishpacha and Hamodia. They have a policy of never publishing any pictures of women.

This is a phenomenon that is relatively new in the non Chasidic world. In the not too distant past this practice was almost exclusively a Chasidic one. The Non Chasidic Charedi world published pictures of women all the time. No less a Charedi figure than Rav Moshe Feinstein (the Posek Hador according to most non Chasidic Charedim)  had been photographed together with his wife. That picture was published to what I am pretty sure was no objection by Rav Moshe. In fact, Rabbi Shafran’s own Agudah never refrained from publishing pictures of women when the occasion called for it in its now defunct publication, the Jewish Observer.

Here is what Rabbi Shafran says about that:
Many haredi publications, in the interest of the Jewish idea of modesty, have always refrained from including photos of women; that’s no new or ominous development. Ms. Jaskoll is welcome to find the position extreme, and I would tend to agree.
But then he says the following:
But we differ in that I don’t disparage people for making choices I wouldn’t make. The word for that is “intolerance.”
This is where we part company. While I agree that there is a certain degree of intolerance in some cases, the complaint about it is not only from them. It is even from many in the Charedi mainstream. What seems to be happening is that otherwise moderate Charedi publishers – in an effort to be inclusive are accommodating those to their right (primarily the Chasidic world) in order to broaden their base. That means increased revenue. There is nothing wrong with trying to broaden your base by tying to accommodate their views of what is and isn’t modest. But there is significant collateral damage in doing so that is being ignored.

Just last Shabbos I had occasion to pick up an otherwise marvelous book (Don’t recall the name.) It featured illustrations by artist Gadi Pollack. On each page there was an illustration and questions about the illustration. To answer those questions, the reader had to find clues in the illustration. It was a real brain teaser. But I was disappointed at the illustrations. There was not a single woman in any of them. Even the ones where there should have been. Like sitting at a Shabbos table eating a meal with the family. The father and children were there. But no mother!

What kind of family value is being suggested by a picture like this? Are families not supposed to have their wives/mothers sitting with them on Shabbos? I know of no family – not even Chasdidc ones that makes their women sit at another table. Although in some Chasidic circles in pre Holocaust Europe this did happen!

If a book like this has becomes mainstream, we are all in trouble. 

I’m glad that Rabbi Shafran considers this extreme. But I am disappointed that he does not see the damage such pictures do to the minds of innocent young children. They are now learning an entirely different set of values with respect to modesty than those of their parents or their wider community.

Now I too am opposed to disparaging the Chasidim that have this standard. But in my view when the rest of the Charedi world follows suit, that is ominous and deserves the ciritcsim it has gotten. 

And then Rabbi Shafran makes the following observation about an incident that I dealt with a while back: 
As to the ugly incidents, Ms. Jaskoll relates that a “young girl was caught in the middle of an anti-draft protest” in Jerusalem and was kicked, first by a child and then, when she grabbed the boy, by demonstrators. The “young girl,” readily available video shows, was an adult woman; and her presence in the middle of a large protest is unexplained and suspicious. Do those facts justify her treatment? Of course not. But also unjustified is mischaracterizing her age and presence. 
Again I have to take issue not only with his conclusion that her presence at that protest was suspicious. There is no indication of that published anywhere. Is it curious that she was in the wrong place at the wrong time? Sure. But it happens to all of us. The protest did not take place in an isolated part of town. It took place in a place where a lot of people are found.

I also have to wonder why he questions the veracity of a person commenting about events in her town - which is thousands of miles away from his own? Just because it was not reported in the media, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

What he was trying to say, I suppose is that we shouldn’t paint the Charedi world with such broad brush strokes. I agree. I have been accused of that myself. And I completely reject that I do. But there are certain segments of Orthodoxy that do paint with big brush strokes about the Charedi community. He’s right about that and it ought to stop.

The bottom line for me (and I’ve said this before) is that it’s true that the actions that we all abhor are being done by extremists. It is also true that mainstream Charedim reject that behavior and even condemn it. But is equally true that the rhetoric one hears from some of the Israeli leadership is extreme and is used as justification by extremists who feel that their actions are in service to those ideals.

All this is not new. I’ve said it before.

So even though I have a great deal of respect for Rabbi Shafran and truly believe that he does not deserve the thrashing he often gets form his detractors - on these issues, I think he kind of missed the boat.