Thursday, June 10, 2021

The Frumkeit Chase: Incrementalism, Indifference, and the Bottom Line

Invisible - NY City Council candidate Amber Adler (Politico)
‘It doesn’t really bother me’. That comment in Politico was made by an Orthodox Jewish woman in New York about the increasingly common practice of not publishing pictures of women. 

This might come as surprise to those of us that feel a great injustice is being done. Not only to Orthodox Jewish women but Orthodox Jewish men too. As I have said many times – eliminating pictures of women presents a distorted picture of Orthodox Jewish life.  And young people at the age when they are most impressionable will be the most negatively affected by this.  

Making this phenomenon particularly insidious is that the feelings these young people will have are not coming from a place of normal mental development but instead from an exaggerated - even distorted indoctrination about Jewish morals and social values. 

This may already be happening. If one is not used to seeing even modest pictures of a woman - having been indoctrinated to believe it can a generate improper thoughts - it may actually make it so for these young people. It’s kind of like telling someone not to think of an elephant. The immediate image that comes to mind is an elephant. The same mental dynamic might be at play when young people are taught that any such picture will elicit improper thoughts. So that when they encounter a innocuous picture of a woman, they might actually have those thoughts! 

So how can anyone not be bothered by this new and unwelcome phenomenon? Here is her explanation: 

 “There are so many issues for politicians to take on right now,” she said, noting a recent uptick in crime that has been affecting her neighborhood. “This just isn’t going to be the hill I die on.” She added that she “does not feel erased as a woman because my picture can’t be in the paper.” “My life is bigger than any publication that chooses not to post my picture,” she said. 

To be honest, I have personally heard that before from other Orthodox women. Even some that are not Charedi. I admit being a bit surprised at their lack of caring. But there are apparently lots of Orthodox women that simply do not care. They may understand and agree to the objection, but do not think it’s worth their time even thinking about it, let alone doing something about it. 

What is happening is nothing short of the radicalization of normative Judaism. It is succeeding because of incrementalism and indifference.

It’s kind of like evolution. Changes take place so gradually that nobody notices. Those that might notice and complain will be seen as overreacting at best, and reactionary and prejudiced at worst. They might even be told, ‘What’s wrong with being a little more religious?!’ ‘Shouldn’t we all be striving to improve our lives that way?’ 

The answer to that is yes. We all need to do God’s will. That is what being religious is all about. But we first need to define what being more religious really means. And it is not the phenomenon taking place right now among the largest Orthodox segment in all of Jewry - the Charedi world.   

This new innovation is only the latest move to the right. But it is more about ‘Frumkeit’ than it is about doing God’s will. They are not one and the same thing. Frumkeit is about showing off how religious one is. If one Charedi segment of Orthodoxy has a custom that makes them look more religious, other Charedi segments will follow suit so that they will not be looked down upon by the ‘Frummer’ segment. When in fact there is nothing really ‘Frummer’ about it. 

This has happened before in the area of mixed seating. 

The Chasidic world never had weddings where men and women sat together at the same table. Husbands and wives sat apart from each other at opposite ends of a banquet hall - usually divided by a Mechitza. 

The Lithuanian Yeshiva world generally did not do so. Husbands and wives sat together at the same table with other couples. There is ample evidence of that even in my own lifetime. Telshe Yeshiva used to have mixed seating at their banquets. Until they saw that the Chasidic world had separate seating, From that point forward all of their banquets had men and women sitting separately. 

Lest anyone think that Telshe had always wanted to have separate seating at their banquets but felt America wasn’t ready for it yet, let me disabuse you of that kind of thinking by quoting 20th century Gadol, Rav Mordechai Rogov (Ateres Mordechai). When this change of custom was beginning to take hold in the late sixties, one of his Talmidm who was about to get married asked him if he should have separate seating at his wedding. His immediate response was the following: ‘In der Lita, zennen mir nit g'ven makpid’ (in Lithuania we were not particular). It is also well known that back in the late fifties, 20th century Gedolim like R’Moshe Feinstein and R’ Yaakov Kamenetsky sat with their wives at weddings and proudly introduced their wives to acquaintances that were passing by.

Slowly over time things changed. Today, some Charedi Roshei Yeshiva will boycott a wedding that has mixed seating.  And any Charedi couple that has one will be considered ‘Chutz L’Machane’ – outside the camp of the Charedi world. 

One might ask about the origins of this excessive Tznius mode of thinking. Why is the Chasidic world so obsessed about this? Here is how YCT Talmud Chair, Rabbi Ysoscher Katz - put it. He is uniquely qualified to comment having grown up and religiously educated in Satmar:

“In Hasidic thought, lack of sufficient sexual mores is viewed as a literal barrier to the coming of the Messiah,” a particularly stringent ultra-Orthodox sect headquartered in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Today, Katz chairs the Talmud department of a progressive Orthodox rabbinical school in the Bronx. “One yeshiva boy having a physical reaction to a woman’s picture is viewed as a grievous communal setback.”

This worry is amplified by a perception that secular culture prizes immorality. “At the heart of the practice is the deep-rooted and sincere fear that an external culture of sexual promiscuity could infiltrate the community,” said Katz. “As they see it, the best way to protect the community is for members not to expose themselves to anything that has even a whiff of sexuality.” 

First it was about separate seating and now it’s about pictures of women. The two largest weekly magazines are Charedi - but not exclusively Chasidic. Neither of them will publish any pictures of women, no matter how modestly they are dressed. 

Until about 10 years ago, this was unprecedented. And yet there is clearly no halachic or even Hashkafic problem with it. This can be demonstrated quite easily. Agudath Israel of America’s former mouthpiece, the Jewish Observer (now defunct) often had pictures of women on their cover. As does their current website and some of their current publicity pictures. 

Then there is the recent publication of a book about Rav Elayshiv’s daughter, the late Rebbetzin Batsheva Kaneievsky. It was published by the Mesorah Publications (ArtScroll) - which is Charedi - with the obvious approval of her husband, R’ Chaim - a man many Charedim consider the current Gadol HaDor. 

But those Charedi magazines decided to be Frummer than Agudah, ArtScroll, and Rav Kanievsky. They and have adopted the approach of Chasidic groups like Satmar.  And as Politico notes the practice is spreading. 

In my view (they might deny it) the real reason those magazines do it is their bottom line. Their target readership includes a very large segment of Chasidm that would never allow into their homes a publication that has any picture of a woman. The publishers of those magazines do not want to lose that large demographic since circulation numbers affects their advertising rates. Those among us that don’t like it, will mostly not likely boycott those magazines anyway. 

But even if some of us did, the numbers would probably be too small to affect their bottom line. So that makes it a financial issue and and not a Halalchic or Hashafic one. Which is corroborated by the fact that at least one of those magazine’s online presence does feature pictures of women. That will not chase away the Chasidic demographic from their print edition since they don’t access the internet anyway. 

One might say that they can’t be blamed for wanting to increase their circulation numbers and thereby bottom line. At the end of the day, magazines are a business which is all about the bottom line. But there is a price to be paid. Which in my view is way too high.