Friday, August 21, 2015

Photoshopping Females and Knee-Jerk Reactions

Here's a post that I wrote four years ago, and which is particularly relevant right now given the current arguments about the refusal of many charedi publications to include pictures of women. I would like those defending that practice to explain why they believe that the "burqa babe" phenomenon is wrong, or what would be wrong with people saying that women should not leave the house at all - after all, it is the natural extension of their arguments.

Scores of major media outlets have gleefully picked up on the story of the Yiddish newspaper which photoshopped Hilary Clinton out of the iconic White House picture. I found out about what the newspaper had done very early on, but I refrained from writing about it for three reasons (even though I was particularly incensed by their duplicity in describing how Orthodox Jews pray for the welfare of the state in which they live).

One is that it's all too easy to poke fun at crazy stuff that goes on in the charedi world. I could post new material on this topic every day! In fact, in the past, I discovered examples of photoshopping that seem to have gone unnoticed. In Avraham Fried's greatest album, the magnificent Im Eshkochech Yerushalayim, he is accompanied by the Prague Symphony Orchestra. The CD includes a fold-out photo of the entire orchestra. But when I later saw the video, I was surprised to notice that some of the musicians were of a different gender from those in the picture. And upon examining the CD picture again, I noticed that several of the musicians were clones! Sure, it's silly and funny, but I don't think that it's healthy for either myself or my readers to constantly engage in mocking frum foolishness.

The second reason why I refrained from commenting on it is that it's not as though any of the readers here would ever do such a thing. So what's the point in criticizing it? It's just preaching to the choir.

The third reason why I did not yet write about this topic is that I was genuinely conflicted as to what to think about it. Sure, my knee-jerk reaction was to dismiss it as stupidity. But I am suspicious of knee-jerk reactions! And I always try to be cautious about issuing criticisms against those on my right which could easily be issued against me by those on my left (and vice-versa). That's why, with the ban on my books, I did not at all condemn my opponents in ways that most people did. Restricting freedom of expression? All religious Jews believe in that. Objecting to the views of Rambam? So would most people, if they knew what he actually held. Rejecting modern science? So does most of Orthodoxy, in some areas. Instead, my criticism was very focused: That they claim to have the greatest respect for the Rishonim (and condemn me for lacking it), but ignore or alter what the Rishonim actually say on these topics - which an understandable social policy for their own communities, but not something that they can make into the absolute Torah truth for all Klal Yisrael.

Every Jew in the world thinks that he is normal, that those on his right are crazy frummed-out meshuganas and those on his left are insufficiently Jewish shkotzim. If you want to critique those to the left or right, it has to be something that the others can't legitimately use against you. Most Orthodox Jews refrain from any physical contact with members of the opposite sex, as well as having a certain dress code for women - and this would be likewise be ridiculed by those who do not share that standard. I know many Modern Orthodox Jews who have been offended at how certain Hollywood personalities dressed for Jewish events, such as the Simon Wiesenthal Center's honor awards - and no doubt the Hollywood stars would think that they were being ridiculously prudish and primitive. So who are we to laugh at the Chassidim?

These are the reasons why I didn't write about this story. But I've finally sorted out my thoughts on this topic (I think!), and in the wake of many Orthodox writers commenting on this story, I would like to share my thoughts - with an open invitation to be corrected!

It seems to me that the correct approach to this story is a measured one. Many of the accusations being leveled against the Chassidic newspaper (and by extension, to all religious Jewry) are unwarranted - and these should be countered. The approach of the Chassidic newspaper is not evil, nor completely ridiculous. The same sensitivity and understanding that we apply to the Amish, and that we expect secular people to apply to us, should be exercised by us to others. We live in a morally decadent society, and it legitimate for people to want to protect themselves, and understandable if they draw broad lines rather than judging each photo on its own merits.

But such a defense of the Chassidic newspaper should not be voiced without simultaneously explaining why their approach is wrong. One can understand where people are coming from, while simultaneously pointing out that they are mistaken. But it's important to correctly pinpoint why they are mistaken - otherwise, as noted, the same criticism can be used against all Orthodox Jews.

After some reflection, it seems to me that the essence of the problem is as follows. First, note that the Chassidic newspaper talks about "Jewish law" prohibiting such pictures. But these things are not a matter of halachah at all. One need not go far back in history to find examples of not only Litvish but even Chassidic publications showing pictures of women. There's simply no halachah against it. There are lots of things that can potentially lead to hirhurim - and yet Chazal did not prohibit them. This can lead to difficult judgments on a subjective case-by-case basis - but Chazal held that those judgments should indeed be made on a such a basis, rather than simply broadly prohibiting everything.

Now, this alone is insufficient reason to object to it. After all, individuals, and even communities, can legitimately have pious practices which are not halachah-based. But I'm not done yet.

The problem is not that they are maintaining a certain standard. It is that they are not maintaining a certain standard! They have abandoned the standard of their ancestors, and they have replaced it with a process, and a problematic one at that. It is a process of ever-increasing stricture, with each new pious innovation being not a personal preference, but something presented as obligatory halachah and imposed upon others.

In my home town of Ramat Bet Shemesh - originally developed as a mixed community - one sees how this progresses. My wife noticed a man scratching the labels off shampoo bottles in the supermarket, because they showed a woman's head. She complained to the manager, but he was helpless, due to the scare tactics that these people employ. And then there are the so-called "Burqa Babes of Bet Shemesh." They are following the natural progression of this approach and even insisting on gloves.

The Burqa Babes were too much even for the extreme Charedi Rabbonim here. They issued a condemnation of them, citing the passuk of "Do Not Be Overly Righteous," pointing out that it leads to disrespect for parents, and causes others to have an aversion to tzniyus. But the weakness of this condemnation is obvious, since all these are criticisms that can equally be applied to the widespread Charedi modes of dress. One can easily see the Burqa becoming the standard mode of dress within two or three generations.

Of course, I am not so naive or intellectually dishonest as to think that halachah itself in these areas is a timeless, unchanging, objective standard. But it does have a much greater degree of stability. Furthermore, it is something that all Orthodox Jews agree to abide by.

With the declining moral standards of the world in which we live, and the ever-increasing difficulties of isolating oneself from it, I can entirely understand the desire of some Chassidim to place blanket prohibitions on certain practices. I can understand and sympathize with it - but it's wrong, and it's important to know why it's wrong.

84 comments:

  1. It is also important to know who originates these chumras and what motivates them to push for them. To quote "The Sea Wolf", if altruism is a paying business proposition you know you've got a problem. So if those benefiting from these chumras are profiting (I'm sure everyone can conjure up a few examples)...you know you've got a problem.

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  2. Hi Natan,
    Couldn't agree with you more! However I think this problem is systemic within Orthodox Jewry and even more so within the Chareidi world.
    My current pet theory is that we trend towards more Chumras and restrictive practices rather than less for the following reason: Rabbis/Scholars want to innovate (mechadesh). This is natural. Eveyone wants to make their mark, or bring something new into the world. However when they are mechadesh in halacha (as opposed to drasha/aggadata etc) they will very rarely innovate a new leniancy or heter for two reasons. a) They are pious and are worried that will cause someone to transgress because of them.
    b) They are afraid of being condemned by their colleagues.
    When they are matir something it tends to be a private heter for individuals.
    Furthermore, the concept of minhag na'aseh halacha and the social aspect of keeping up with the Joneses in terms of chumras means that extra chumras taken on eventually get enshrined in halacha. (I have heard the term 'Chumra inflation' used before)
    So as time goes on I believe Orthodox Judaism will be come more and more restrictive.
    Chareidi OJ in 500 years will probably have the current head of eida chareidis as someone who has a halo, but if they went back in time and actually saw him would think that he was a complete shaigetz.
    Btw Natan, its great to see an ex yeshiva buddy being so (in)famous :). Would like to catchup with you by email sometime.

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  3. On the contrary, R. Slifkin, the hasidim should be criticized for this deception. Not showing photos of women is one thing. But, altering reality is quite another. Apparently, truth is not a significant value in the hasidic community.

    I also take issue with your comment that we live in times of declining moral values. We live in times of increased respect and tolerance for differences, women, children's rights, civilian life in war, .... and more. And we live in times in which the ability of the individual to make choices is greater than ever.

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  4. I have two major problems with the altering of the picture that you have not addressed.
    1. It is specifically prohibited by the White House to alter the picture in any way
    2. It presents an image that is effectively a lie
    Both of these issues could have been addressed by simply - not printing the picture!
    By altering the picture and printing it, a supposedly Torah observant publication violated geneivat daat and dina d'malkhuta. It is this selective use of halakhah that I have a problem with.

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  5. "Most Orthodox Jews refrain from any contact with members of the opposite sex..."

    Could you expand on this? My son-in-law is a surgeon; his nurses are women. My daughter is a nurse herself in a different field; most of the surgeons she works with are men. My husband teaches male and female students, as do I. It would be abnormal for men and women not to greet each other in my Orthodox shul. Are we therefore not like most? I doubt it.

    I agree with Jack. The Prague Orchestra should have come down hard for altering a photo of its members. People who are aroused by such photos (of an orchestra, of the Situation Room in the White House: in other words, news events and not prurience) have serious problems that surface in unhealthy ways. Censoring or altering photos does not help; it only feeds the problems.

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  6. R'Dan D,
    You left out one thing, the increasing number of Rabbis.


    KT
    Joel Rich

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  7. Raz - all good points, but I wanted to hone in on the central issue.

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  8. Truly, I'm disappointed. For an incisive thinker, you've missed the point of these trends. It is to shut women out of the public square, to make them invisible, and ultimately powerless. This is not a "You go your way, I'll go mine" issue that we as an Orthodox community can just shrug off. See Rabbi Marc Angel's incisive blog post on modesty for a broader way to see this issue: http://www.jewishideas.org/blog/modestyor-desecration-torah#new

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  9. R'Dan D,
    You left out one thing, the increasing number of Rabbis.


    KT
    Joel Rich

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  10. Most Orthodox Jews refrain from any contact with members of the opposite sex,

    Do you mean physical contact only? Certainly most, if not all, Orthodox Jews speak with store clerks, co-workers, relatives by marriage, government officials, etc. of the opposite sex.

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  11. Very well said. Jack and Raz's point about authenticity is much deeper than you may think.
    As an individual living in the Chasidic community, I see this alternate women-less reality on a daily basis in the printed and broadcasting press.
    When actress Natasha Richardson passed away following a head injury sustained when she fell during a skiing lesson, the Yiddish newspaper Der Blatt reported the story not indicating that Ms. Richardson was an actress and… turning her into a male! As crazy as it seems, the whole story referred to her as "he" and "him".
    (Now obviously they usually do not report anything about actors, but that story, mostly because of its health implications, could not be ignored.)
    The Chasidic news phone line Kol Mevaser (212-444-1100) turns females into males on a daily basis.

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  12. Yes, I meant physical contact! I'll correct the post.

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  13. I wonder if one of the negative effects of these chumras is the high level of child molestation in the Hasidic community. If people become so obsessed with modesty, where every picture must be filtered, and a mere hello to someone becomes a grave sin, they could become fixated on these issues. If there is a link it would demonstrate that much thought must go into making such chumras.

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  14. Well, Rabbi Leib Tropper did write a sefer on Hilchos Yichud...

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  15. I think the problem here is more technical than philosophical. While I think that their approach to this issue wrong for many reasons, some of which you listed, the bottom line is that, like the Amish, they have a right to their practices.

    As someone else mentioned, one important issue is their violation of the copyright on the picture. In their apology statement they said that in their "haste" they didn't read the "fine print" on the picture. That's very weak. They are a newspaper and deal with freelance pictures all the time. That's like a real estate lawyer trying to claim he didn't read the lease. Nonsense. This violation alone makes them guilty of Chilul Hashem.

    More importantly, to me though, is, regardless of who owns the picture, that they would do this in the first place. There's a very simple solution to avoiding pictures with women...don't print them. But a newspaper is, in the end, a business. This was an instantly iconic photo. So in their rush to increase circulation they had a choice of either compromising their "values" or journalistic integrity. They chose the latter, when, in fact, no choice was necessary.

    Further, and what became most offensive, is their lack of foresight in assessing that this action would make into the "mainstream" causing Chilul Hashem and unnecessary embarrassment for them, for all of us, and for the government. This of course begs the question of whether the "ultra" frum have any place being involved in the news business in the first place.

    As an aside, I believe that some of the terrific satire that has been produced on top of this incident has helped to deflect the issue from mainstream Judaism while actually minimizing the Chilul Hashem aspect.

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    Replies
    1. "the bottom line is that, like the Amish, they have a right to their practices"
      Judaism is not Amishism.

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  16. R’ Slifkin, I join the chorus of those surprised that you didn’t mention the alteration issue, but I can understand that you wanted to focus on the modesty/strictures issue (though I disagree that that’s the central issue!). As for your analysis, I think I would put it a little differently and a little less deferentially. The implication of your analysis is that it would be fine for the newspaper to draw a thick line in the sand on morality issues, so long as it were holding to a true standard and not an ever-moving set of chumras. But does having a clear standard really provide adequate cover here? Is it enough to say, “I have a standard, I don’t want to have to make decisions on a case-by-case basis, it’s up to you to respect that”? Don’t we first have to judge whether you’re right to create that standard?

    Here’s what I mean: the newspaper is saying, “Look, we live in a decadent society and in order to protect ourselves we have to remove all photos of women just to be on the safe side, even if that ends up looking insensitive to others and even if it has the (unintended) effect of degrading women.” But why shouldn’t the right standard be, “Our first obligation is to treat all people fairly and with respect, free of casual discrimination, which means that we can’t remove images of women, so long as they are dressed appropriately. And if that means that we risk of enticing men to hirhurim, that’s a risk we have to take.” See? I created a standard. What makes the first standard the right one?

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  17. Dan, that's what I meant when I wrote about how Chazal did not believe in drawing blanket prohibitions on everything in this area, even though that leaves some things potentially open to causing hirhurim. They placed some of the responsibility on the individual susceptible to it.

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  18. Very good analysis. I will repost here what I commented on the hirhurim thread yesterday:

    >What makes a picture provocative? Forgive the tautology, but a picture that provokes improper thoughts is provocative. To some degree, this varies by reader, which makes the determination difficult and subjective.

    Gil, you realize that this argument is one that can easily be put to use by proponents of burqa coverings for orthodox women, right? What is the difference between printing a modestly dressed woman and seeing one on the street or out your window?

    The Jewish orthodox response to that and your point should be, no, the determination is not subjective or difficult. It is quite easy. It is halacha. That which halacha states to be inappropriate is inappropriate, and anything less inappropriate is permitted. Anyone aroused by anything not assur is the one responsible to take care of that feeling, not the innocent woman, walking within her rights.

    (Interesting and related point — the halacha is that a woman is allowed to wear perfume, and even though that could theoretically entice a man, I recall being told in high school that, some things a man has to learn to control. The implication was that it is not unreasonable for a woman to wear perfume, and it is up to a man who should not be smelling it, to not smell it.)

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  19. >So what's the point in criticizing it? It's just preaching to the choir.

    I disagree. While we don't know what the result of this debacle will be, I can guarantee you that the Tzeitung will *not* do a repeat performance. Furthermore, there is now some greater awareness in the other frum media that nothing they say and do is truly private. Who knows how this will translate in the future? I personally know of one Rav whose remarks, which he thought he was making privately on shabbos, were exposed on blogs and he has clearly made a cheshbon hanefesh and is not only more careful in what he says, but is apparently a little bit more moderate than he used to be.

    So I disagree that there's no point. I'm not saying that we know that talking about such things will solve these problems, but not talking about them surely won't.

    Incidentally, reading many 19th and early 20th century Orthodox Jewish newspapers, for all their flaws, they were of a far, far higher quality than today. They had free wheeling debate and serious intellectual content. There's no reason why this cannot exist today as well.

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  20. I believe your post is wrong. But it's important to know why it's wrong.

    Your criticism can be summarized as follows: Halachah changes, but charedim are changing their practices faster than halachah, and that's wrong. Not very compelling, especially in a world that is changing faster than ever before.

    It is a mistake to think in black and white terms (pants and shirt respectively, of course). There are numerous conflicting values behind every action and decision. Yes, there may be a certain argument that removing women protects one's thoughts. But it also degrades women and is dishonest. Scratching off the labels in the supermarket is horrendous because the scratcher trades his chumrah for blatant hezek. Forget your attempt at finding criticisms which cannot be critiqued. There is always going to be a balance of values, and the criticism is that their balance has obviously become ridiculous. Might others think that your is too? Sure.

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  21. This was a very thought-provoking piece.

    Just my thoughts:
    1. In our society, we don't have slaves, we don't have the divine right of kings, the KKK has been beaten back from the kingdom it once was, Jews aren't having their villages burned down on a regular basis, and we have equal rights...with the rights (and technology, like say air conditioning) we take for granted, we can afford to fret about the traditional aspects of European shtetls we miss. Whenever somebody points to the supposed "moral decadence" of our society, it's only proper that it be pointed out how many aspects of peoples' lifestances have uncontroversially been improved.

    2. Awhile back, the Guardian had a piece I mostly (if certainly not entirely) agreed with on how the mainstream Left need not agree with all the opinions of the craziest right-wingers in order to appreciate that they are raising important concerns with our society which many people share ( http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jun/18/melanie-phillips-rightwing ). I think that should be appreciated. That being said, I think exactly what the media found so funny about this story (and what some of us find odd about the Amish) is how people take their rejectionism of modernity to such extraordinary lengths. To consider the very sight of women a forbidden potential sexual temptation is silly and prima facie wrong; of course such a belief makes the possibility for female advancement generally in such a society very difficult. Maybe "completely ridiculous" is putting too fine a point on it, but I think it's pretty darn ridiculous.

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  22. "high level of child molestation in the Hasidic community"

    Where is your data Dr. Ratrionalist?
    The rare cases are glorified in the media. The MO rate is simnilar to that in the world which is much higher.

    Fred

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  23. > We live in a morally decadent society,

    Not really. Current American society doesn’t measure up to the public sexual mores of Victorian England, but compared to most times and places this is a moral utopia. People are expected to be honest, graft is illegal, and powerful politicians can lose their positions over extra-marital affairs! The only thing that’s referred to when general society is accused of immorality are the relatively lax attitudes towards discussing sex and the amount of skin people are allowed to show in public. And even there, I understand that the US is downright puritanical compared to Europe.

    > and it legitimate for people to want to protect themselves, and understandable if they draw broad lines rather than judging each photo on its own merits.

    Then they shouldn’t have published the photo at all. This became such a big deal because they photoshopped the picture – in violation of the terms of use. If they had simply not published a photo with the article, no one would have given it a second thought.

    > One can easily see the Burqa becoming the standard mode of dress within two or three generations.

    Yup, that’s the logical conclusion of the current trend. After all, it makes no sense to scrupulously remove all images of women from publications and public spaces, yet have real live women walking around visible to any man who happens by.

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  24. "And I always try to be cautious about issuing criticisms against those on my right which could easily be issued against me by those on my left (and vice-versa). "

    I wonder if that is one of the main understandings of the following statement from Pirke Avos 4:3
    -> [Ben Azzai] used to say: Do not scorn any person and do not disdain any thing; for there is no person who does not have his hour, and there is no thing that does not have its place.

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  25. Jack wrote: "Apparently, truth is not a significant value in the hasidic community. "

    Criticize away, Jack, but don't generalize, OK?

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  26. "But it's important to correctly pinpoint why they are mistaken."

    For example, some people were saying that it was ridiculous to photoshop out Hilary Clinton because she's not attractive. Of all the reasons to criticize the paper, this is probably the worst.

    R' Slifkin wrote: "There are lots of things that can potentially lead to hirhurim... "

    Hmmm, I think I'll go check out R' Student's blog now. Thanks!

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  27. You make two mentions of the moral state of the world, commenting that "We live in a morally decadent society" and noting "the declining moral standards of the world in which we live."

    I don't buy this view of the world and find it strange. Are you talking of moral decadence simply as a rhetorical device or do you seriously believe that the world was more moral 10 years ago (or 200, or 1000, or 3000) than it is today?

    I hope you answer this because I think the way one frames the world--as a place of decadence or a place with a richly complex moral profile--affects the way we approach issues such as the photo-shopping controversy.

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  28. I was speaking specifically with regard to sexual morality. In recent history, it has clearly declined, such that it is understandable that people would want to circle the wagons.

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  29. R' Slifkin,

    I can see how the case can be made for declining sexual morality in some areas, but not in others. For example, it was once commonplace in both European and American society for wealthy men to take mistresses (sometimes more than one) and often father children by them. For the most part, modern society no longer tolerates such behaviour.

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  30. Unvarnished truth is not a value in the world unfortunately. There is no segment of society that can cast the first stone by any means. That being said I myself have complained about the censoring in the Chareidi community as going too far as depriving us of valuable stories we could learn from the Gedolim just because former standards as portrayed in the stories were not strict enough for us lesser mortals.

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  31. YA writes: "Unvarnished truth is not a value in the world unfortunately."

    I just don't get why EVERYONE (ha ha) is generalizing. Just because many people have a problem, that means that the whole world does?!

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  32. "I also take issue with your comment that we live in times of declining moral values. We live in times of increased respect and tolerance for differences, women, children's rights, civilian life in war, .... and more. And we live in times in which the ability of the individual to make choices is greater than ever."
    Jack, what you are espousing is very nice from a secular humanist point of view, but from a jewish perspective incorrect. Tolerance for differences can be accepted up to a point, but in halachic judaism (unlike secular humanism) there are eventually principles that are indisputable and undeniable and cannot be thrown away. The issue of feminism is a clear example of this. Feminists would like you to believe that they are no different then men except for form of body, and believe this resembles true equality, while truthfully (as even Christopher Hitchens points out)are confusing equality with identity, and society has more or less agreed with the feminists on this. However in normative Judaism, we tolerate and believe in equality of woman, but up to the point where it does not contradict the clear cut torah principle of "separate spheres" for both men and women.

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  33. > Burqa Babes of Bet Shemesh

    Copyright 2008 Garnel Ironheart Inc.

    Anyhoo...

    Here's the most important thing to think about:
    Back during the Cold war, no one ever took the Soviet version of an event or historical occurrence seriously because they knew that the Soviets were quite happy to lie, edit and revise anything that was inconvenient for them. People were airbrushed out of photos or written out of histories. And how do we remember the Soviets today? As a bunch of power hungry liars.
    People who use Photoshop to make the world look the way they want it to instead of the way it is run the risk of being labelled the same way. And here's the scary argument someone is eventually going to make:
    "Editing and revising history is nothing new for the Orthodox Jewish community. In fact, just as they're doing it now with Photoshop they've always been doing it with selective and revised histories and recollections. In fact, it goes all the way back to the Gemara and beyond, probably into the Tanach which means NO source of Jewish information touted by the Orthodox community has any reliability. After all, if they care about editing out Hillary Clinton, why would they care about inventing Matan Torah?"
    And that's the real danger here.

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  34. >> Burqa Babes of Bet Shemesh

    >Copyright 2008 Garnel Ironheart Inc.

    Not so sure... :)

    http://youtu.be/xhob7kZcjYk

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  35. I agree with Raz's 3:11pm comment. The newspapers were over on an issur d'oraita in order to follow a chumrah not with no halachic basis -- when they could have simply not done anything and not offended anyone or been over anything!

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  36. There are other things at work here.

    First, a good deal of the outcry wasn't over the unusual and increasingly detached customs and taboos of the Haredim. It was about distortion, editing history and, not to put too fine a point on it, lying. That is an unforgivable sin in the world of professional journalism or even junior high school newsletter journalism. When people claiming to be journalists violate the most basic standards they deserve to be slapped down hard for it.

    What's more, the editors at the several newspapers who did this knowingly misused the photograph. It was released with a warning from the White House: Do not alter or edit this photograph. They did and with forethought violated the terms under which the material was released.

    This is not an isolated incident. It is part of an increasingly rigid exclusion of women from public life. It was not custom when my parents were growing up Orthodox. It was not the practice of most Jews in Europe. We go from "modest" clothing to making their very image taboo, turning them into invisible non-persons. A generation ago nobody thought anything of sitting on the same train or bus seat as a member of the opposite sex if that's what was available. Now we have "Humans in the front of the bus. Females in the back" and separate sidewalks in some of the more pious areas. Now we see chumras saying that six year old boys and girls should not play together and eight year old boys will be overcome with lust if they have female teachers.

    This evolving standard is politically autogenic and self-reinforcing. It's been a long time since I took Control Theory, but one of the fundamental concepts was that a system controlled by positive feedback will tend to oscillate out of control over time and wander ever further from desired states

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  37. Rabbi Natan,

    You might want to examine the facts about the supposed decline in sexual morality. In the supposedly upright 1950s better than a third of brides were already pregnant. The primitive blood-typing of the day conclusively showed that more than 10% of children born in wedlock could not have been fathered by the mothers' husbands. And, by the bye, that was not restricted to Gentiles.

    If you look at Europe and the United States before the World Wars - and through the Second World War in some areas - you find a world awash with prostitution. There were hundreds of brothels in major cities. Most mens' first experience was with prostitutes, and by a number of measures a sizable minority had more relations with professionals than with their wives.

    Child prostitution was very common in the 18th through early 20th centuries CE.

    Rape was treated much more casually and callously than today.

    Mistresses were an accepted part of any successful man's life, and the upper classes had significant access to the bodies of servants.

    What is different today is an increased openness to acknowledgment and discussion of these matters and a recognition of female agency.

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  38. N.S. "Every Jew in the world thinks that he is normal, that those on his right are crazy frummed-out meshuganas and those on his left are insufficiently Jewish shkotzim."

    Why the hyperbole? At least preface this grossly inaccurate statement with something like, "as they say..."

    As to the content of the post, you appear to disregard the damage done to torah, halacha, and our reputations by the widely publicized foolishness of some Hareidim. The general public tends to lump all Orthodox Jews together so that the sins and foibles of some are taken as a reflection of all. You also appear to disregard an important motivation for the extreme lengths taken by some in the ostensible furtherance of tzniyut, i.e., control over the lives of others. That aspect, by itself, should insure that rational, ethical people strongly object to such tactics. Lack of vocal objection can become tantamount to acceptance.

    I maintain that we must object to the objectification of women and girls. A normal adult male would not be aroused by a picture of a properly dressed woman, much less of a young girl or elderly lady. If such a picture has the power to elicit sexual thoughts, what about the daily encounter with females in the flesh? I note that the editor of the Yiddish journal in question met with the female editor of a newspaper to explain his action. Furthermore, it is unproductive to concern oneself with the thought processes of deviants (or even of teenage boys). Even without pictures an ostensibly innocent word can set off a problematic train of thought. Should we censor the torah and talmud because some wording and subject matter can lead
    to sexual thoughts?

    If this embarrassing story continues to be circulated then it behooves leaders of major Orthodox (at least, MO) organizations such as the OU and RCA to publically disavow any connection with such foolishness, and to state that this new practice has no real basis in Jewish law (at best it represents a distinctly minority viewpoint that is rendered inoperative since most religious people can't bide by it).

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  39. I disagree.

    Is it so extreme to have a no women picture policy in a frum publication? You know as well as I, that nearly every, if not all chareidi publications have that policy. Furthermore the policy makes perfect sense, once you allow some pictures you can't start differentiating based on how attractive the woman is, and certainly looking at a picture of an attractive woman can easily lead to hirhurim. (For you women readers - most women have no understanding of this daily reality that men live with).

    You state that in the past even Chassidic newspapers printed pictures of women. I defy you to name one such newspaper.

    You further criticize this as part of a process of ever increasing chumras to no end. I reject that argument as well. You can criticize any chumra with that argument, you need to show that this practice is over the top. There is no way around the fact that in life one always needs to use judgement, to disagree with something because it can been taken to far, is too easy.

    I am not discussing the alteration issue, which is another matter, and was not your main issue either.

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    Replies
    1. Yosef (or anyone else) -- please explain to me why printing images of males is not as arousing to females, and why that, too, should not be banned? THere is no doubt that handsome males are attractive to women.

      Delete
  40. I can see how the case can be made for declining sexual morality in some areas, but not in others. For example, it was once commonplace in both European and American society for wealthy men to take mistresses (sometimes more than one) and often father children by them. For the most part, modern society no longer tolerates such behaviour.

    You must be kidding. Who needs a mistress when you can have thousands at once via the internet?

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  41. I actually found their apology much more disturbing than the original deed. Their English is embarassing and they lie several times (for example: their declaration that they pray for the government's welfare, that they respect all government officials, and that they didn't see the "fine print" that said that photoshopping the photo is illegal).

    Their inclusion of the text of the First Amendment as if it were some long lost document was just downright silly.

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  42. "There are lots of things that can potentially lead to hirhurim - and yet Chazal did not prohibit them"

    However, histaklus is prohibited, even on a non-attractive woman. Pictures are displayed only to be looked at (most of their readership is male), thus from a simple halachik perspective they are correct.

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  43. How is what the Tzeitung did any different than what CNN or the New York Times does every day? They might attend a Tea Party rally, where 10,000 regular people are in attendance, but yet they will publish the picture of the one nutcase dressed like a fool. Is that also not a misrepresentation? One is a sin of omission, the other is a sin of commission- but both are attempts to alter reality.

    Likewise, the selective reporting, and failures to report, certain items that jive or don't jive with the editorial slant. We may think what the tzeitung did is stupid, but its not qualitatively different from what any other media organ does.

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  44. A number of comments referenced the understanding that halacha establishes a certain standard for behavior, but then leaves the individual to monitor their own stricter practices based on personal circumstance and other variables.

    This is an essential point to keep in mind as social communities (and religious authority) attempt to institute or reinforce accepted practices for the community.

    Reminds me of a couple decades back, hearing the story about a food store in Jerusalem near a boys yeshiva which employed an attractive young woman. As the story goes, the shop owner was encouraged to take steps to minimize the temptation. Unfair to the woman, and perhaps a communal imposition that should be dealt with on the students' end, by education and reinforcement of moral behavior.

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  45. Garnel IronheartMay 12, 2011 at 5:37 AM

    Hey Menachem,

    http://garnelironheart.blogspot.com/2008/12/new-way-to-differentiate.html

    Hah!

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  46. Nonwithstanding my earlier point (viz. secular news sources also distort the truth) I think Garnel Ironheart's point is very true, and he's right, it has to give anyone pause.

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  47. "declining moral values:.

    This refrain has been shouted from every frummie hilltop for the last generation at least. It simply isn't true or correct. We do live in times that are more open and tolerant of practices we deem offensive. But we live in the MOST moral times in history. we publicly promote racial harmony. we stopped lynching. We have hate crime laws. We are in a country that has promoted greater individual growth than any in history. People live relatively equally here.

    I'm sorry, but the fact that a lack "tzniut" is the one thing that we allow openly, doesn't make this era. declining moral values.

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  48. I realize I have parroted other commentors about the "declining moral values" issue. But I feel strongly against that refrain. If you mean sexual issues, then say so. but don't use an incorrect phrase that all my chareidi rebbeim espoused and then punished me for arguing about it.

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  49. From the Mighty one:

    Hey Menachem,

    http://garnelironheart.blogspot.com/2008/12/new-way-to-differentiate.html

    Hah!


    Garnel, the blog post you link to is from December 2008. The "Burqa Babes" video I linked to was shown at a Purim Shpiel in Bet Shemesh in March 2008.

    I'll give you a name and address you can send royalties to... :)

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  50. Shaya- why are you confusing equality and morality? It is true that in present times everyone in society has basically the same rights and opportunities, but im not sure what that has to do with the morals of the people. In our day and age movie stars and sports players are glorified, who at best only have had one DUI. Politicians continually lie and cheat. Homosexuals instead of being helped, are being put on a pedestal as the ultimate expression of freedom etc. Is this not declining morals?

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  51. Cotton:

    Because equality is a function of morality. also because morality encompasses so much more than just sex. We have students worked for free to ensure that death row inmates are not unjustly and incorrectly executed. we have a judicial system, that while not perfect, is the most fair the world has ever seen.
    We even have laws as to how to wage war. yes, so does Judaism, although judaism allows for wiping out women and children and the US's doesn't, but that's a different discussion.

    the fact is sex is just a small part of the word "morals", yet that's what everyone focuses on.

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  52. movie stars - entertainers - have ALWAYS been glorified and honored, nothing new here. Just because some people put homosexuals on pedestals doesn't mean all do. the facts are that we no longer as a group kill them for being homosexual, unlike in the past. yes, that is more moal than before. every generation had it's problems, but ours is so much better off than before and as a people, we treat each other better than ever. NOT perfect at all, but better than before.

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  53. DF -- with respect, I think your analogy is flawed.

    The NYT may use a photo of a single nutty protester to accompany an article about a Tea Party rally, but they aren't implying that he's the only one there. When Di Tzeitung Photoshopped Hillary Clinton out of the Situation Room photo, were they not implying that she wasn't there?

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  54. Cotton Mather: Is this not declining morals?

    Compared to what? A famous 19th-century US President took one of his many household slaves as a "concubine" and impregnated her six times, holding the surviving children as slaves as well, yet continually denying his relationship to them. Members of royal or otherwise powerful families used to have their enemies assassinated in cold blood to get them "out of the way". Are we really doing so badly?

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  55. Todd said...
    > What is different today is an increased openness to acknowledgment and discussion of these matters and a recognition of female agency.

    A good point. Willingness to discuss sex openly and portray sexual relationships in movies is mistaken for actual licentious activity.

    Y. Aharon said...
    > Should we censor the torah and talmud because some wording and subject matter can lead
    to sexual thoughts?

    If the torah were given today, most frum Jews (or frum Christians) wouldn’t accept it. There’s far too much sex and violence in tanach for the frum community.

    yosef said...
    > the policy makes perfect sense, once you allow some pictures you can't start differentiating based on how attractive the woman is, and certainly looking at a picture of an attractive woman can easily lead to hirhurim.

    I’ve seen this argument on a few different sites, and I really don’t understand it. I would think that the criteria for publishing a woman’s picture should be, “is she dressed according to the tznius standards of the community,” not, “is she pretty or ugly.” The first is not about the woman, but about what she chose to wear and the modesty standards of the community the publication serves. The second treats the woman as an object whose erotic properties are being evaluated.

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  56. shaya g- I think that you are correct in most of what you are saying that we have a more tolerant society, but my point is (and I don't think you would disagree)that this tolerance is sometimes extremely misguided. A more permissive society is great, but only up to an extent. I believe that the line has been crossed in this regard. Would you not agree?

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  57. Compared to what? A famous 19th-century US President took one of his many household slaves as a "concubine" and impregnated her six times, holding the surviving children as slaves as well, yet continually denying his relationship to them. Members of royal or otherwise powerful families used to have their enemies assassinated in cold blood to get them "out of the way". Are we really doing so badly?
    Jordan- Its very impressive you can name the exceptional and sensationalized cases of immoral behavior in recent centuries, but what relevance does it have to current society where such immoral behavior is practiced much more widespread and also in some instances legitimized.

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  58. "Cotton:

    Because equality is a function of morality. also because morality encompasses so much more than just sex. We have students worked for free to ensure that death row inmates are not unjustly and incorrectly executed. we have a judicial system, that while not perfect, is the most fair the world has ever seen."

    We also have to worry about crime and an increase in children without fathers and parents know they have to worry about things on a level for their kids they previously didn't. You focus on law. Law is not society. It is to an extent but only to an extent. it is plain that there certainly has been a decease in morality and ethics.

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  59. Trying to look at the bright side of all this...

    In Sotah 49b, one of the signs of the times of Moshiach is "Truth will fail."

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  60. Cotton, perhaps I wasn't being clear.

    In commenting on wealthy, famous and powerful people who are liars, cheats and have criminal records, you wrote: In our day and age movie stars and sports players are glorified, who at best only have had one DUI. Politicians continually lie and cheat.

    I pointed out examples of wealthy, famous and powerful people of the past with similar (or worse) records who were nonetheless glorified and respected. It's not just "our day and age".

    The behaviour of Thomas Jefferson in this case wasn't too unusual. It was common for slave-owners to violate and have children by the women they owned. Even among "free" people, it was common for wealthy men to visit prostitutes (as mentioned earlier) or take mistresses. Wife-beating and child abuse were a fact of daily life for a major part of society at all levels even well into the 20th century. The victims had no rights and would (or could) rarely protest.

    So remind me again why morals were so much better then?

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  61. G*3 said...
    > We live in a morally decadent society,

    Not really....

    The late Rebbeh of a very large Chasidus in Borough Park allegedly said that "the Goitah's in the 'Haim' dressed more modestly than our own Rebbetzins."

    I personall heard a similar statement from an 'Alteh Mirrer'.

    Your statistics from 19th century Western Europe might be irrelevant to the mindset of descendents of Ost-yudden.

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  62. R. Slifkin,

    It is important to criticize foolishness, as if the silent majority remains silent, it would be taken as condoning that foolishness.

    Furthermore, with regard to your point about chumra's being a deviation from the past... I don't think it's a problem so much to deviate from the past. Everything we do is a deviation from the past in some respect. The problem occurs, rather, when the deviation reaches a point of stupidity, or offensiveness.

    We have plenty of ratcheting up prior traditions (take a look at the length of tefilla in the siddur, for starters) that we are all OK with. But when you reach a point where we (the broad 'we' of society') agree that you have gone too far, then we (the same broad 'we' of society) should step up and voice condemnation.

    The photo-shopping of this picture is problematic, not because it is a deviation, but because it is a deviation too far and too stupid.

    'We' would say that 'If you can't look at a picture of a woman, then there is something wrong with you.'

    Perhaps your knee-jerk reaction was not as bad as you thought.

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  63. The violation of copyright is one clear problem. Editing someone else's intellectual property without permission and in such a way as to convey a misleading impression is indubitably dishonest (and this is true whether or not the publisher saw the explicit note accompanying the original picture.)

    One can lie with a picture as readily as one can lie with words. Presenting a self-servingly modified picture as if it were the original authorized image is no different than quoting a self-servingly modified statement as if it were the original authorized claim. There is no excuse for a newspaper publisher to be unaware of the essential dishonesty in such a practice.

    They could have approached this more honestly by replacing the likeness of Hilary in the image with a text box reading "Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State. Image obscured for reasons of tznius." This would have still technically violated copyright, but would have avoided misrepresenting the contents of the image.

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  64. For one who uses the word "anachronism" as much as you do, I was surprised by this classic:

    "[...] with regard to sexual morality. In recent history, it has clearly declined [...]"

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  65. "Current American society doesn’t measure up to the public sexual mores of Victorian England"

    Baruch HaShem we are not like Victorian England which was legendary for its high rates of sexually transmitted diseases.

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  66. Phil, truth is Torah and Torah is truth, the chasidim have very little of either.

    Anonymous,if there is but one case of child molestation in the chasidic community (the so called bearers of morality) (or for that matter in any Jewish sector), it is one too many. It is more moral to look at [all] pictures of women then to destroy the life of a child.

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  67. Shame on the paper's editor for completely missing the point. This is not about modesty or about copyright. This is about fraud.

    The doctored photo was a fraud and a lie that darkly suggests that religious Jews "revise" history and fail to transmit a true mesorah.

    It is also a fraud to defend their deceit by hiding under the skirts of modesty; they did not merely censor for modesty, they lied. I'm reminded of the proverbial financially abusive spouse who bounces and forges checks and says her problem is "spending too much money."

    RL

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  68. Dear Rabbi Slifkin,

    Can you please briefly outline the 'decline in moral standards' which you are referring to in particular?

    Having a rather shallow knowledge of history I at least see that many societies before us were as corrupt if not more so. I am suspicious of the claim that modern American/Western culture is any more corrupt than the Greeks, Romans or any other number of cultures who came before it. Could you please help me understand your claim? Thanks

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  69. I meant a decline in sexual modesty in the last generation or two, which would cause Chassidim to want to circle the wagons. And it seems to me that such is indeed the case - just look at Hollywood.

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  70. The following is a very well known Flatbush, Brooklyn, story.

    A few years back, across the street from the Chaim Berlin Yeshiva in Brooklyn NY. A sheitel (wig) store opened up and displayed in their show window pictures of the faces of women wearing wigs, (as is in many wigs stores) Rabbi Schechter (the guru himself) took offence and protested against the store with outdoor demonstrations and a call for a boycott, trying to put this guy out of business for refusing to remove them from public display.
    As a result many Yeshiva students (from other Yeshivas as well) believe that it is 100% in their rights to oppose anyone who equally crosses their moral line, with as mush civil disobedience (or more if believed necessary) as was taught to them by this occurrence and claiming that their spiritual leader can do no wrong, "contrary to Halachah."

    I have three points to make from this story.

    1) If you censor yourself it is not as bad as to want to sensor others. (e.g. wig stores.)

    2) If you go contrary to Halachah, not only do you sin, but you may cause others to sin, (as in the incident cited above.)

    3) We see from this the truth of what the Gemara speaks of (Sotah 49b) "In the (period of the) coming of the Mashiach, audacity will be widespread.

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  71. R' Slifkin

    With all do respect Chassidim have been circling the wagons for over two generations and it has to do with many factors including a perceived decline in sexual modesty.

    My question regarding the scientific method is how do you quantify 'decline in sexual modesty'? It is nice that Chassidim and you may feel this was but what are we actually talking about?

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  72. > I meant a decline in sexual modesty in the last generation or two, which would cause Chassidim to want to circle the wagons. And it seems to me that such is indeed the case - just look at Hollywood.

    That’s due to the Hays Code being replaced with the rating system in 1968? Movies made before the implementation of the code are surprisingly similar re sexuality/modesty to movies made after it was replaced by the rating system. Under the Hays code, all movies had to be suitable for all audiences. It had rules about how often and how long couples could kiss on screen, the amount of cleavage that could be shown (which was sometimes checked with calipers by the code’s enforcers!) etc. It was the Hays code, not a difference in society’s morals, that kept movies made between 1930 and 1968 “clean.” And even then, filmmakers found ways to imply what they weren’t allowed to show.

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  73. " It was the Hays code, not a difference in society’s morals, that kept movies made between 1930 and 1968 “clean.”"

    Huh? Let's pretend for a moment that all tv and movies since 1968 are the same on this moral scale (they aren't)...

    Where did the "Hays code" come from other than the society? And who rejected the use of the Hays code, other than the society? i.e., why wasn't there a market for "hays code" compliant shows and movies, after the rules weren't enforced?

    Why did film makers stop implying and start showing?

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  74. > why wasn't there a market for "hays code" compliant shows and movies, after the rules weren't enforced?

    There is a market for those films. They're the "G" rated movies of today.

    There are still rules. The difference is that under the Hays Code, all movies had to be what is now G. Of course the code was imposed by society (or to be precise, by the filmmaker’s association in order to avoid the government imposing guidelines). But the difference between the Hays Code and the rating system isn’t a moral difference, but that the latter allows people to choose films they feel are appropriate and avoid those they think are objectionable while the former forced all films to be appropriate for even small children.

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  75. "I would like those defending that practice to explain why they believe that the "burqa babe" phenomenon is wrong, or what would be wrong with people saying that women should not leave the house at all - after all, it is the natural extension of their arguments."

    I can't wait to read the answers.

    Personally, I think Orthodox Judaism has gone so far off the rails here it's not at all funny. One of the problems here is that haredi excess here leads to the Torah itself being mocked and ridiculed (in the global press). Belz Chassidim in London tried to bar women from driving their kids to school. Was their ill-fated attempt merely a harbinger of things to come?

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  76. It's a symptom of a far greater problem - of every generation wanting to "out-frum" the previous generation by banning things that their parents and grandparents had no problem doing.

    It happens all the time, but is most obvious every year at Pesach time. Every year, some new food item that we all used to eat and love and look forward to eating is declared "kitniyot" and is subsequently banned. While some may complain, nobody will dare object, because if they did, they wouldn't be able to invite friends over for meals anymore - they would be summarily declared deliberate violators of kashrut.

    None of this is necessary. It is probably a violation of the halacha against adding to the Torah. It is definitely serving to make Jewish observance more painful and less pleasant.

    Finally, it causes Jews that are less observant to get disgusted and decide that it's not worth trying to keep more mitzvot, because they know that no matter how much more they do, the community they seek to join will invent new reasons to reject them. I can't begin to describe how great a Chillul Hashem this has become.

    Back when I was in yeshiva, my rabbis used to say that the sign of a true Gadol is not how much stuff he can prohibit, but how he can find (legitimate) reasons for leniency. It would appear that this attitude is dead and gone today.

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  77. Objecting to the views of Rambam? So would most people, if they knew what he actually held.

    What a titillating tidbit. So what did the Rambam hold? Or are you holding that back for our own good? ;-)

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  78. I recently read Prof Marc Shapiro's biography of Rav Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg and it illustrated to me the fact that the most extreme views end up becoming dominant and the moderates end up capitulating. That does not mean that they all adopt the practices of the extreme views, but they end up going "underground" and will not confront these extreme views in an ideological context. Yes, we hear of parents saying they educate their children to the more moderate POV, but these kids then go to school and confront at least some teachers and fellow students who espouse the extreme views and they are confronted with either rejecting what their parents teach or what the rav teaches. Thus, all moderates do it boot the conflict on to the next generation. They do not provide a clear, ideological alternative. The fact that the numerous moderate Haredim we hear about here and at other web sites or even in the media insist on remaining anonymous shows that when "push comes to shove" they want the approval of the more extreme elements, otherwise "their kids will get kicked out of the (extremist) schools and no one (from the extremist group) will marry their children".
    Thus, I don't see any future for an organized "moderate" movement and those who really are uncomfortable with the these extremist trends will either have to capitulate or TO LEAVE and find other, more congenial Orthodox communities which do exist, fortunately.

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  79. Gemara Taanis tells about a surgeon (don't remember his name) who had higher schus than R'Abaya because among other things in his office men and women always sat in separate rooms. (Something hardly is practiced by dati leumi, but it is a separate issue). So, avoiding female pictures may not be a commonly accepted Halacha (in my shul it is not), but still it may be praiseworthy.

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    Replies
    1. Very nice pull out a random gemerah. But everyone knows these issues werent a problem for 70s american chareidim/american jews

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  80. A century ago Kashruth and Shabbos were not a problem of americans jews either.

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