Sunday, December 01, 2019

The Parameters of Sexual Modesty in Judaism

Rabbi Aaron Lopiansky responding to questions at the Agudah convention
I am a fan of Rabbi Aharon Lopiansky. He is a Charedi  Rosh Yeshiva whose common sense perspective on various issues I often agree with. I have met him and found him to be very gracious and tolerant of other Hashkafos.

If I have not misinterpreted his recent comments I was disappointed in his response to a question about whether the current trend of eliminating pictures of women from Charedi publications is appropriate. The question was asked at session of Agudah’s annual  Thanksgiving  convention by a moderator that works for Mishpacha Magazine. They do not publish any pictures of women in their print edition. (Please see video below starting at about 1 hour and 3 minutes into the session.)

(It was asked in the context of feminism. I find that to be a bit of a red herring. Placing it in that context (especially as it is defined today) put a negative spin on it before anyone had a chance to respond. You don’t have to be a feminist to be upset by this phenomenon.)

The moderator shared that his magazine still gets a lot of criticism for refusing to publish pictures. Even from many of its own Charedi readers . People that live up to their ‘name’ by being Chareid L’Dvar HaShem – trembling at the word of God!

Rabbi Lopianksy’s response was unsatisfying to say the least. He equivocated on whether it is Halachicly permissible or not. He instead focused on what motivates this trend which is - to use his term -  Gidrei Tznius - the parameters of sexual modesty. Which is something we should all be striving to adhere to.

However, he failed in my view to make any distinctions at all about when such considerations are appropriate or not.  He seemed  instead to double down on any measures taken in that vein - no matter what they are. Regardless of the consequences.  Which (to mention one such consequence) if taken to an extreme might eventually entail women wearing Burkas when out in public – which I am virtually certain he would not approve of.  Rabbi Lopianksy indirectly pointed to the #MeToo movement which he implied is the consequence of the moral degeneracy of a society that treats matters of Tznius as though they were nonexistent.

One can quibble about whether societal attitudes about modestly in dress have any impact on the frequency of sexual misconduct. But I think that is really beside the point.  A head shot of a woman next to her byline in a  Mishpacha column  (to cite an example of the most modest image of a woman I can think of) is nevertheless still  banned by them.  Surely that would have no  more impact on a man than a picture of a telephone pole would.

Yes there are some men who so sexually deviant that they might be sexually aroused by viewing a sexually benign image (which is defined as a fetish in the world of psychology). But I don’t see anyone talking about banning pictures of a telephone pole.

It is especially disappointing since this happened at the Agudah convention. They do publish pictures of women. As does the Charedi publishing house Mesorah Publications (ArtScroll) which does not budge without consulting with Charedi rabbinic leaders.

Coming from a Charedi moderate whose views I respect made his defense of this practice doubly disappointing.

Just to be clear. There is nothing wrong with his overall approach to Tznius. We can and should try and dress modestly regardless of what the rest of society does. Modesty is a Jewish value.  But sometimes the cure is worse than the disease. Being too modest has negative consequences. Banning all pictures of woman is a perfect example of this.  

Rabbi Lopianksy described an encounter with a male Orthodox student of a coed religious high school. That student suggested that there is value in publishing pictures of women in the sense that it teaches boys  to respect girls. This is indeed an argument made by many of us that have been railing against banning pictures of women. It is a legitimate argument. But rabbi Lopiansky dismissed it by saying that the last thing a 16 year old thinks about when seeing a picture of a woman is respecting them.

While what he is implying might be true that does not mean what that teenage boy said isn’t. One thing does not negate the other. In my view, I doubt that even a teenage boy that sees a head shot of a woman next to her byline will be sexually aroused by it. Unless he is one of the aforementioned sexual deviants. And in no way should we ever allow sexual deviancy to define our Gidrei Tznius.