Know Your Enemy
Previously, I presented a gallery of crazy examples of frum publications omitting pictures of women. Most (but far from all) of the readers here are of the view that erasing women is ridiculous and/or terrible. But is that really the case?
When people would hear that my books were banned for being heretical, they would often immediately extend words of support to me, saying things like "Rambam was also banned!" and ridiculing my opponents. This always made me uncomfortable. Yes, Rambam was also banned, but this doesn't mean that every banned book is as worthy as Rambam's works. As the saying goes, they laughed at Columbus, they laughed at the Wright brothers, but they also laughed at Bozo the Clown. How could these people, who had not read my books and had not examined my opponents' objections, automatically assume that I was correct?
The notorious and extremely painful ban on my books was a growth opportunity in a number of ways. One of those is that I learned to appreciate the importance of understanding one's opponents. It would have been all too easy to just dismiss the ban on my books as sheer nonsense, utterly unjustifiable and absolutely incomprehensible. This was especially since the justifications that were being given for the ban were indeed sheer nonsense. But, after spending many, many months trying to understand what was fundamentally going on, I finally grasped it - even better than my opponents did - and I was able to write a defense of my opponents that was far superior to anything that my opponents had to offer. This didn't mean that I believed that they were ultimately correct. But only by understanding their legitimate concerns could I properly address why my works were ultimately justifiable.
And I took a larger lesson from this. In any disagreement, one shouldn't just dismiss one's opponents as "crazy." There's a reason why people take the positions that they take. It might not be the reason that they are consciously aware of. It might not be a very good reason. But there is a reason, and it's important to know what it actually is.
The same is true with the issue of erasing women. Many people - including warriors for the cause of putting women back in the picture - simply don't understand why erasing happens and dismiss it as baseless nonsense. This hampers their ability to fight for their cause, since their opponents recognize that these people just don't get what it's all about.
I saw this problem vividly demonstrated recently when I unwittingly caused a storm (again!). I am part of a discussion group on these issues, mostly consisting of women, and I posted a picture of a sheitel advertisement that I was surprised to come across in a parasha booklet in shul. Here it is:
To my mind, the problems with the picture on the left were so obvious that they didn't even need to be spelled out. The facial expression, the pose, the camera angle, the careful use of a fan together with a fast shutter-speed to get the "hair blowing in slow motion" look - it's all professionally designed to be sexually alluring. Aside from it making a mockery of the concept of modesty (the very thing that it is advertising!), surely it's simply not an appropriate picture for a parasha booklet.
Yet incredibly, some of the women in the group couldn't (or perhaps wouldn't?) see any problem with it! Some of them denied that the picture was intended to be alluring in any way; one said that it's simply showing how "REAL women" look in "REAL weather conditions of windy days." (I dryly responded that I don't know why the photographer even bothered setting up the shoot in his studio; he should have just gone outside and made use of whatever the weather was that day!) Another said that if I rate it as distracting, it means that I am a "sexual pervert." (I pointed out that if a woman is trying to be sexually alluring, then surely it's not perverse to be attracted!) The backlash against my post was so heated that many of the women who did agree with me had to write to me privately to say so; they were too afraid to face the wrath of others in the group.
Others had more serious arguments against my disapproval of the picture. Some said that it's deeply unpleasant to start policing which kinds of pictures can and cannot appear, and it's a slippery slope that can lead to the erasure of perfectly suitable pictures, and therefore it's best to make a "lo plug" (blanket policy) and allow all pictures. I'll return to that argument later, but meanwhile I would like to observe that this is the exact same argument used by those who do not print any pictures of women - that it's too unpleasant to start policing which kinds of pictures can and cannot appear, and it's a slippery slope that can lead to printing unsuitable pictures, and therefore it's best to make a lo plug and ban all pictures.
Another argument against my disapproval of the picture was that since the woman is following the letter of the law and covering all the parts that are required to be covered, there is no room for criticism. Ironically, this too is a mirror image of a problem that occurs with the modesty zealots, who transform tzniyut to a matter of centimeters and inches rather than being an attribute.
Unfortunately there are people who are unaware of some basic scientific truths that underlie the principles and laws of modesty. There are those who believe that there are absolutely no differences between men and women with regard to being attracted and distracted by the opposite gender. But the truth is otherwise.
It's basic biology - something that I see in the live animal collection at the Biblical Museum of Natural History every day - that males are more attracted and distracted by the opposite gender than the reverse. It's a simple scientific fact, for which there are biological and evolutionary reasons. Those who deny any difference between men and women are going against biology. (Ironically, this is a case where the charedi mindset is more scientifically grounded than certain non-charedi mindsets!) And if you want a striking example from the human species, there is the hacking of the Ashley Madison adultery website. It turned out that the active female users numbered just fifteen hundred, whereas the active male users of the website numbered over twenty million!
Men are indeed very susceptible to being attracted to, and distracted by, pictures of women. And given Judaism's emphasis on sexual attraction only being legitimate in the context of having (or trying to obtain) a marital relationship, this means that printing alluring pictures of women is a problem. But here's where the picture-erasers go wrong.
Yes, women can be distracting to men, more so than the other way around. However, that does not mean that it's best if women are minimized as much as possible, for three reasons.
First of all, once you substitute the traditional code and policy with an approach of "let's be more strict than our predecessors," then people will naturally apply this approach even further. And the logical consequence of that is the new phenomenon of charedi women wearing burqas. The "Burqa Babes" were too much even for the extreme Charedi Rabbonim here in Beit Shemesh; 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 in a society in which it is forbidden for women to be seen even in pictures, it is hardly surprising that women start to wear burqas so that they will not be seen in real life either. And another natural end result is that women will eventually see it as an ideal not to leave the house at all, and it will ultimately become an imposed stringency.
Second, saying that women should be minimized as much as possible neglects the responsibilities that men have. Judaism does not believe that all the responsibility for avoiding inappropriate thoughts lies with women. Women have a responsibility not to try to be alluring, and men have a responsibility to try not to be allured. The principles of modesty make certain demands of women, but when they fulfill those (sometimes challenging) demands, it's then up to men to do their part, not to expect women to do all the hard work.
Third, aiming for a "higher standard of modesty" and "enacting safeguards" does not take into account all the problems that come with minimizing and erasing women. As the saying goes, every chumra comes with a kula. In this case, it brings a multitude of problems - causing financial disadvantages for women in certain professions, making Orthodox Judaism look crazy, turning women into sex objects, depriving frum girls of modest role models, teaching women that no matter how modestly they dress they will always have to erase themselves as a sexual temptation, and making women feel that they lack full existence in Orthodoxy, which causes all kinds of depression and resentment, and even causing people to leave Orthodoxy. Is all this worth it, just so as men won't have the challenge of seeing a picture of a modest woman?!
Finally, with regard to the "slippery slope" argument that it can lead to images such as the sultry sheitel advertisement, 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 such a basis, rather than simply broadly prohibiting everything. (This argument also works in the reverse; the challenges of making judgments on a case-by-case basis does not mean that frum publications should always print any photo of a woman who is covered according to the letter of the law. This does not mean that attractive women should not have their photos shown; but it does mean that photos which are intended to be alluring, such as the one above, should not be printed.)
Modesty is an obligation in Judaism. It is an obligation for both men and women, though it plays out differently for them. But taking it too far ends up costing a lot more than it gains. It's time to put women back in the picture.
For further resources, see www.chochmatnashim.org and www.frumwomenhavefaces.com
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