Thursday, August 03, 2017

The Increasing Chasidization of Orthodoxy

Picture of modestly dressed women (Forward)
These are women who send their children to ultra-Orthodox schools, despite the educational compromises in secular studies, for the sake of a proper religious upbringing.  
So says Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt in a Forward article. The subject of which is the erasure of women from the public square. And therein lies a large part of the problem. An educational system that sees every school trying to ‘outfrum’ their completion. Which feeds this phenomenon. And many Charedi parents seem to be buying into the Frumkeit chase.

The erasure of women is not a new issue. It has been discussed many times by many people. Including me. It will not go away.

In this instance the discussion is about a new forum for women called ‘Frum Instagram’. This, says Chizhik-Goldschmidt, is how many Charedi women are trying to counter the increasing phenomenon. 

(Why do Charedi glossies like Mishpacha Magazine not publish pictures of women? The bottom line of course. They want to appeal to as wide a readership as possible in order to increase their circulation numbers. The large and exponentially growing Chasidic world will not purchase magazines that have pictures of women in them. So the publishers are more than happy to accommodate them. This allows them to charge more for their ads. As always  - follow the money!)

That many Charedi women seem to be complacent about this erasure doesn’t mean others aren’t bothered by it. Which is why Frum Instagram is so successful.  

This online forum features pictures of Charedi women in a variety of ways – all of whom are dressed by the modesty standards of their community.  In this they seem to find some sort of refuge from the wider community’s erasure of them.

This might seem like a positive development to some in that it offers an opportunity for Charedi women to see and be seen – and not hide and be hidden as though they don’t exist. I do not, however agree this is so positive.  To me this seems to be a resignation to a new reality. It does nothing to change the emergent culture of erasing women from sight.

As I have in the said in the past, this relatively new phenomenon is not really based in Halacha. That should be clear from the numerous pictures of women in Charedi publications of the past. Including the now defunct Agudah publication, The Jewish Observer. These publications featured photos of Gedolim like R’ Moshe Feinstein together with his Rebbetzin. It is really only certain types of Chasidim that consider any picture of a woman, no matter how modestly dressed, to be immodest. 

It’s true that some Charedi publications like ArtScroll still do publish pictures of women. But there seems to be fewer of them every year. Even in places that have a moderate Charedi base like the Anglo community of Ramat Bet Shemesh (A) in Israel - it is now de rigueur to never publish a picture of a woman anywhere. This policy has becomes so pervasive in right wing Orthodoxy that even an illustration of a family meal at a Shabbos table won’t have any mothers in them as was the case in a recently published book A Yiddishe Kop by Gadi Pollack.

‘Welcome to the secret social media world of Orthodox Jewish women’ says Chizhik-Goldshcmidt.  ‘Frum Instagram’ now provides an outlet for Charedi women. 

The dean of the Women’s Institute of Torah Seminary/Maalot Baltimore Dr. Leslie Ginsparg-Klein makes a very valid point about one troubling aspect of this new phenomenon: 
“Girls and women are assailed with [immodest] images from [secular] media, and there is nothing to counteract those images.” “It’s very important for girls to see modest representation, to counteract the other images they see.” 
This should be obvious to anyone with a brain. However the fact that Frum Instagram might speak to this issue is not enough. Because the message of a picture being immodest for the general public has not been countered. Even though young girls may now have images available to them counteracting the onslaught of immodest role models in our culture, this does nothing to counter the idea that even role models like this are too immodest to be published! And what lesson do are young men learn from this? That all images of women are considered immodest. 

In short, a ‘secret’ site that features images of women dressed according to the strictest standards of modesty hardly solves the problem. It adds to it, in my view.

As noted there are a lot of Charedi women that seem to have no issue with the erasure of women from the public square. (At least that’s what they say when asked about it.) But there are plenty of women that have the the following attitude. From the Forward
“Pictures have a power that words do not,” wrote Rifka Wein-Harris of Kew Gardens, Queens, a graduate of Bais Yaakov Academy. “It is so crushingly hard already in this generation to be a frum girl. The pressures of perfection and conformity are not healthy ones and they cause grave distortions…Why then are we not giving our girls the benefit of seeing the remarkable diversity of what it is to be a frum woman?” 
She’s right. But it isn’t only about what girls don’t see. It teaches boys a level of modesty far stricter than that of the greatest Gedolim of the last century!A level that doesn’t exist outside of the Chasidic world and yet is becoming increasingly pervasive.

What kind of future does this portend? Are we headed for separate buildings at weddings? Are we headed to never taking a walk with a spouse? Are we headed to Burkas (or the like)? Are we headed to marriages being arranged entirely by parents with only one short meeting between a couple before engagement? Are we headed to a world so extreme that it would be unrecognizable to many Gedolim from the 20th century - except in Chasidus? 

Most of that is actually the case in the Chaisdic world. If things keep going in that direction unchecked that seems to be exactly where the rest of Orthodoxy (or most of it) is headed.