Friday, December 25, 2020

A World Without Women

FlatbushGirl Adina Miles Sash (Times of Israel)
The Charedi world is obsessed with sex. Yes. I know that it’s a shocking comment. I’m sure it will be seen as yet another attempt at unjustly bashing Charedim. Only this time with an outrageous lie. That’s because they will claim that sex is about the last thing they would ever be obsessed with. In fact they go to great lengths to avoid the subject in any way, avoiding even the slightest thing that may cause inappropriate sexual arousal in men.

That is, however, exactly what I mean by being obsessed with sex. They avoid the subject like the plague. (Actually they avoid it more than the plague in some cases. But that is another subject.)

What about the legitimate concerns about inappropriate sexual arousal? Isn’t avoiding that a worthy goal?  After all, thoughts like that could lead to illicit sexual behavior. That is something everyone should be concerned with. The Gemarah tells men to avoid looking at the little finger of a woman lest such thoughts be generated by it. So why call it an obsession when it seems like it should be part of our daily lives to avoid it? 

The truth is that it should be avoided. The only question is, what exactly is it that requires avoiding. That is where things get complicated. Because it will be different things to different people depending on their social circumstances. What is considered an erotic image to one person may be harmlessly innocent to another. So where do we draw a line to define what is and isn't an acceptable image? Is as little as a woman’s little finger? Or is it something more than that. 

For the answer, let us once again turn to the Gemarah  (Ta’anis 31a-b). The Mishna there tells us of 2 times during the year where young women would go out and dance before young men. This took place one week after Tisha B’av on the 15th of Av and on the night after Yom Kippur.

Think about that for a moment. If this custom were advocated by someone today, it would be considered a gross violation of our modesty standards. And yet the sages cite this as a twice a year custom without the slightest mention of what thoughts might occur to the young men observing them.  And if it was acceptable then, why isn’t it acceptable today?

The typical answer is that we are a much weaker generation today and are much more easily aroused. Looking at women dance is well within that category. Which is why there is a Mechitza separating the dancing at most Orthodox weddings. 

Is it true that we are a weaker generation and more easily aroused? I Think the opposite is true. A lot of this has to do with what we are used to. If someone never sees woman at all, they might be aroused by the mere sight of a modestly dressed woman even if  she is far away. If on the other hand one interacts with women on a regular basis, there will not be any thoughts like that by the vast majority of normal men.  

As society has evolved, so too have the guidelines for male female interaction.  There is a famous Posek of the past (The Levush) that demonstrates that - as follows.

In the past where most women rarely ventured outside the home, our sages forbade making special references to God’s heavenly abode at a Sheva Brachos if men and women were sitting together. It was considered too immodest since men and women rarely interacted other than within their own immediate families. But by the time of the Levush, societal evolution changed that custom. Women were far more likely to go out in public. Based on this change the Levush said that it was no longer inappropriate to mention God’s heavenly abode when men and women were seated together. Because men and women were used to seeing each other all the time. In other words, it was what they were used to that mattered.

Which brings me to a topic often discussed here. The current trend of erasing women from the public square. Most commonly practiced by Charedi magazines by not publishing pictures of women no matter how modestly they are dressed. Or as in one case - not even mentioning word ‘girl’ in an ad.  That’s right. You read that correctly. 

I can already see eyes rolling. Some Charedim say the whole subject is ridiculous and overblown. Citing many instances where Charedim do publish pictures of women. It’s true. there are. But consider the following words published in the Times of Israel from Rona Miles, the mother of Adina Miles Sash, known online as influencer, FlatbushGirl: 

In the summer of 2017, a local politician presented Adina with an award acknowledging her work as an advocate in the community. He posed for a photo with her together with members of the Shomrim neighborhood watch group, and a few days later she tried to publish the picture in a community newspaper thanking him. They rejected the ad and explained they could not print her face because she was female, nor could they print her name because FlatbushGirl contained the word girl. I remember when she called me about it – horrified and hurt... 

This was Adina’s response: 

I had always thought that the policy was harmless – if you wanted your picture to be included with an ad, then you should just advertise in another magazine. But it really hit home for me then, that there was something about being female that was offensive and needed to be apologized for. 

This is what those who react negatively to this topic fail to understand. The message, whether intended or not is that being female is offensive!  Only I would have said added a word:  Being female is sexually offensive. 

This idea can only be understood in a world where all contact between the sexes is forbidden. But in a world like the one in which we live - as do all those Charedi publications - that is clearly not the case. Yet they act as though we are living in the past and refuse to publish these pictures. It is a policy that continues to hurt women. That some of the more extreme segments of Orthodoxy choose to completely isolate themselves to the extent of creating an artificial world mostly free of seeing women in public - should not be what they base their publishing guidelines on. by accommodating the standards of isolationist extremists among us they are hurting the rest of us that are not.

There are some that might admit that this is an overreaction and argue that it is the times itself that justify it. That promiscuity and immorality is so prevalent that they need to counteract to by going further than they would otherwise need to.

This is where I believe they make a mistake. By analogy, you will  never develop protection from bacteria by completely avoiding it. It is only when you behave normally that your body will develop a natural immunity. 

The same argument can be made here. But the right wing obsession with sex will never allow for such immunity to develop. They seem to feel that going back to a time (before the Levush) when women were rarely ever seen in public is the best way to counteract promiscuity and immorality of our day. In my view that will only make matters worse by making men hypersensitive to the sight of a woman - and in the process hurt women the way it did Adina Miles Sash.

The trend toward the erasure of women is therefore a bad idea that may backfire. They should instead understand what the Levush was talking about and apply it to life in the 21st century.