Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Hiding Women from Public View. Thoughts on Modesty

In Israel, women have been increasingly finding themselves excluded from public view. I Jerusalem, you might not notice that ads in public places don't have images of women on them, for fear of vandalism or simply antagonizing a powerful economic force. This has led to a counter-campaign, placing ads of pictures of famous Israeli women throughout the city - but not in Chareidi areas. The Burka ladies have been a hot topic of discussion on the blogosphere, garnering a great deal of attention in their attempt not to garner attention. And an Orthodox publication made an international stir when it blurred out none other than US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last year.
Not all of this is bad, per se. In Israel, because of the Chareidi influence, I can drive on the highway without fear of seeing a billboard of nearly (or completely) naked women. In the US, all bets are off. Mostly unclothed models dot the roads, enticing you to buy deodorant, stop at a mall, or even turn off at the gentlemen's club down the road (there were a bunch of those in Michigan).
And yet, there seems to be a lack of balance, to the point where women, completely clothed, are increasingly unwelcome in the religious public sphere.
The Lindenbaum ad
This past week, in an extended article in the Mussaf Shabbat in Mekor Rishon (the RZ paper of record in Israel), Rav Shlomo Vilk, a rebbe in the Israeli program, wrote a powerful essay about a letter that the seminary received after placing an ad in one of the weekly Alonim (parshah booklets) to attract new students. Commenting on the fact that the ad contained pictures of women, the letter writing wrote,
"מי שרואה תמונות של נשים יכול להימשך אחר תמונות כאלה, ובמקום להיטהר מדברי התורה הוא יכול ללכת הפוך". לכן, "לענ"ד אין לשים תמונות של נשים בעלון קודש ואם אתה רוצה לצאת מספק אתה יכול לפנות לגדולי ישראל בעניין". 
One who views pictures of women could be drawn to such pictures, and instead of being purified by words of Torah, might go in the opposite direction. Therefore, in my humble opinion, one should not place pictures of women in a holy booklet, and if you want to avoid any possibility of doubt, you should turn to the Torah gedolim regarding this matter. 
Rabbi Vilk did not mince words. In an extensive essay which is difficult to summarize (but I will anyway), he suggests that our job in life is not to see the world around us as "object" which we "use", but instead as blessings which must be cherished and honored. He writes,
רבנים החוששים מתמונת אישה בעלון פרשת שבוע גורמים לזילות האישה, להפיכתה לחפץ, להשתקתה הסופית – ולהפיכת האיש באותה עת לחלש ונרפה, לחסר אונים בכל המובנים. הם גורמים לכך שכשייראו אישה או תמונתה במרחב הציבורי כולו, ייראו רק פריצות וערווה, ולא אדם. כמה נורא הדבר.
Rabbis that worry that about a picture of a woman in a parshah booklet themselves cause the degradation of women. They transform her into an object and silencing her with finality, and transform the man at that time in a weak and sluggish figure - helpless according to any definition. They are causing the reality that when a woman, or her picture are seen in public, only sexuality and depravity are seen, and not a human being. This is a terrible thing.
Like I said, he doesn't mince words.
We find a reference to the notion of hiding women from public view twice in the book of Bereishit, each time in an attempt to protect the woman involved from exposure to the public, for fear of her being harmed. The most famous example (do you know where the other is?) occurs when Ya'akov returns with his large family from Charan, in the famous meeting with his brother Eisav. The Torah relates how Ya'akov took his "two wives, his two maids and his eleven children and crossed the Yabok pass". (Bereishit 32:23). Rashi asks the obvious question: What about Dinah? What happened to her? Rashi explains,
"He had placed her and locked her in a cabinet so that Eisav would not lay his eyes upon her. For this Ya'akov was punished, that he held her back from his brother, perhaps she would have returned him to the proper path. Instead, she fell into the hands of Shechem."
It seems even ages ago, that trying to hide women from public view in an attempt to protect them causes more harm than good.
I'm not sure that I agree with Rabbi Vilk's formulation (he actually calls the removal of women's images from the public sphere a form of reverse pornography - a little strong for me), but I'm troubled with the direction that things are moving in. I've written before about women who refuse to allow pictures to be taken of them out of a sense of modesty. Why should it be inappropriate for a woman to deliver a Torah lecture to a mixed group? It's not? Why then are so many women - and not just Chareidi women - unwilling to speak in just such a setting?
This is clearly not a black and white issue. Finding the proper balance between overexposure on the one hand, and objectification on the other, is not a simple equation. It takes subtlety and nuance, and a sense of halachah and the nature of the community seeking that balance. What worked in Michigan (not the billboards) might not work in Yad Binyamin, and certainly won't work in Meah Shearim (nor should it). But, as the father of two daughters, the trend of forcing women from public view is starting to trouble me.