Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Damage Caused by Silence

Breaking new ground? Picture of a woman in Mishpacha Magazine
‘Of course it’s Mutar.’  ‘Just don’t quote me.’ This is unfortunately the leadership style of some (if not all) of the Charedi rabbinc leaders in our day. I can’t even count the number of times I have heard one or more of the members of the Agudah Moetzes say something like this on one issue or another. 

Where, oh where are the Rav Ahron Soloveichiks of our day?! He was fearless in his Avodas HaShem (serving God). If he believed in something he spoke his mind – caring not a whit what others might think. And he wasn’t alone. There were many others like him. (Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky and Rav Yitzchok Hutner come to mind.) That doesn’t seem to exist anymore.  And it just happened again on an issue that is seriously harming Judaism: the erasure of women from the public sphere.

Adina Miles just published a post on Instagram (republished in the Forward) that tells of her quest to reverse the trend of not publishing any pictures of women. As she notes: 
With the internet in everyone’s pockets, we are raising a generation today that is faced with more influence from the outside world than ever before. If girls can’t see visible role models within the mainstream publications, they will turn to other more dangerous places.  
And yet the trend to erase women has been catching on with increasing frequency these days. The Charedi ‘glossies’ do not do not publish any pictures of women at all. The one time one of them (Mishpacha) tried by using a very distorted picture of Hillary Clinton on their cover, they got hammered by a rival Charedi publication (Hamodia). Although they stood by their decision to publish it, they have since then not done anything remotely close to it. Until now. Sort of.

Mishpacha finally did publish a picture of a woman in last week’s edition.  It is one of a woman dressed in a Burka and is part of an illustration in the first chapter of a story serialized by Ruti Kepler. 

Progress? Hardly! A quick read of this first chapter makes it seem like she is trying to ‘normalize’ abnormal modesty standards. Or at least trying to soften the image toward some sort of acceptability of it. I guess we will have to wait and see how the story ends. 

Man? Woman? Gorilla? Who knows what is under that literal tent! But that’s OK. Because it’s all in the service of ‘modesty’. And despite a few Charedi rabbis speaking out disapprovingly after being interviewed about it a few years ago, there has been little else done since to discourage it. In fact it seems like the number of Burka wearing women are actually increasing along with magazines like Mishpacha normalizing it.

And as Adina Miles notes, the role models young children now have for how a woman should look  are the immodest images they carry in their pockets. Or in popular mainstream magazines whose only picture of a woman is one wearing a Burka

Is this the kind of Chinuch our children should be getting? This is OK with the rabbinic leaders of the right?! At least to the extent that they don’t want to be identified saying anything negative about it? It would seem so.

One of the things that people with the slightest bit of common sense (both men and women) have been pointing out is that by focusing on the reasons for modest clothing they are actually sexualizing them. Even when they are very young – long before they even hit puberty.

Self described lapsed Beis Yaakov student, Shoshanna Schechter-Shaffin tells her story in the Forward
One day last week, Elianna came home from her day camp run by the local modern Orthodox community, and informed me that her (female) counselors had told her that she needed to wear a t-shirt over her bathing suit when she is being transported to the swimming pool.
As someone who generally believes in the value of modesty as a form of appropriate decency and etiquette (we are in the South, after all), wearing a swim cover up when out in public appeared like a perfectly reasonable request to me.
What she said next sent a shock wave through my feminist- Gender Studies professor -progressive Jewish brain; “When I asked them why, the counselor said I had to cover up in case any of the men saw me.” As a little girl who still undresses without care in front of her younger male cousins, Elianna has no concept as to what “in case any men saw me” means.
In that very moment, an 18-year-old recent high school graduate, imported for the summer to our open-minded community in Richmond, Virginia from Brooklyn, New York, took my innocent and naive little girl and inappropriately oversexualized her into a possible temptation for the “uncontrollable” heteronormative male sex drive. 
Young girls being taught that hey are temptresses when they are barely out of diapers.  Boys are getting that message too.. And there is not a single leading rabbinic authority that I am aware of that has publicly stated that this is not the Jewish way… not the Torah way. The irony is that in so many cases they believe that they are teaching young people the opposite. They believe they are mimizing the focus on sex when they are in fact they increasing it.

As Shoshanna Schechter-Shaffin points out, the 18-year-old counselor that mentioned this is not at fault. This is how she has been indoctrinated.  

That there is an over focus on modesty in the way women should dress is an understatement. It is breaking new ground and altering centuries old tradition.

As Adina Miles notes there has always been universal agreement by Poskim that a woman’s face is Tzanua by its very nature. No matter how strict any group is about issues of modesty in dress, women’s faces were never an issue even to the Eida HaCharedis or Satmar. But  now the face of a woman is never being published in mainstream Charedi magazines. And Burka ladies that cover up head to toe with a Burka are apparently being normalized. All in the name of eliminating the focus on sexuality. While in fact doing the opposite!

Is there no one among the rabbinic leaders of the right that will stand up and once and for all say in public loud and clear, ‘Enough’?! Do they not see the damage their reticence to speak publicly is doing?