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 levelled 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.