Moderate Haredi voices challenge extremist war against female images
This article originally appeared in the Yiddish Forverts.
After the Haredi newspaper Di Tzeitung published a photo in 2011 that intentionally deleted then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the editor issued a defense: “In keeping with our religious beliefs, we do not publish photographs of women.”
Di Tzeitung’s “we” instigated a firestorm of criticism from the usual suspects — secular, liberal and left-leaning voices that said such “religious beliefs” constitute a minority viewpoint not substantiated by Jewish law.
A less predictable protest, however, came from the Haredi world itself. For many ultra-Orthodox writers, editors and filmmakers, the decision to excise women’s images from magazines and newspapers met with equally fierce opposition on the very same grounds. Such protests continue to this day.
“To the best of my knowledge, there is absolutely no halacha [Jewish law] that prohibits the publication of female images,” Rabbi Shmuel Haim Pappenheim, an Israel-based education activist and former newspaper editor who advocates for the inclusion of secular studies in the Haredi educational curriculum, told the Forverts. “Historically speaking, the ultra-Orthodox media have not always even followed this extreme precept.”
In the 1950s, he has pointed out, the ultra-Orthodox paper “Dos Yiddishe Licht” routinely published photographs of women — many of them rabbis’ wives — and girls playing in Jerusalem streets.
But at some point, an editorial decision in the haredi newspaper community was made. The matter is more than speculative for Pappenheim: When he was editor of the Haredi newspaper Ha-Edah, he got pushback when he tried to attract a broader subscriber base by running wedding engagement notices.
“After a few months, someone whispered in my ear that it was not appropriate to publish girls’ names,” Pappenheim recounted in an interview last year. “Soon I was invited to speak before a major beth din [rabbinical court] headed by a gadol tzadik — a great and righteous rabbi — who told me, ‘It’s not acceptable.’ I said, ‘What could possibly be the problem here?’ I tried to argue with him, but he is the authority.”
Pappenheim tried to do an end run around the beth din by speaking with rabbis from his immediate community, but they said that the ruling was binding upon him.
Rather than participate in an extremist social more he finds baseless, he stopped publishing engagement announcements altogether.
Pappenheim told the Forverts that the erasure of women in Haredi publications is rooted in the worldview of the Ger Hasidic sect.
“Women are a problem for the Gerer Hasidim,” he said. “The Gerer took a completely normal expression of human feeling — the loving interaction between men and women — and turned it into something sinful.”
Erasing women has had absurd consequences for visual artists too, said Daniel Finkelman, a Lubavitcher Hasid and New York-based filmmaker. If you do not write roles for women, he said, you severely limit the kinds of stories you can tell.
“In my film and video work, I fight the sexism that has led to blurring the faces of four-year-old girls and reducing women to forbidden fruit,” said Finkelman, who produced “Menashe” (2017), a family drama based in Brooklyn’s Borough Park. “I do not want my work to contribute to increasingly serious problems Haredi men and women have with intimacy and sexuality.”
Finkelman observes that secular publications have unwittingly contributed to tensions within the Haredi world by taunting Hasidic filmmakers.
“A headline in Israel’s Maariv alleged that Lipa Schmeltzer, an American Hasidic entertainer, dances with women in ‘Believe in a Miracle,’ my Hanukkah video that fleetingly shows women making latkes,” Finkelman told the Forverts. “What have we come to when a secular newspaper assumes that all Hasidim seek to recreate the anti-woman dystopia of Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale?’”
Finkelman says he will not work with Haredi artists who want to make an all-male video. “I am not interested in portraying a reality that doesn’t exist,” he says.
A particularly confounding aspect of the erasure of women lies in the fact that most Haredi magazines are edited by women. Fittingly, the most ardent voices opposed to the erasure policy comes from other women on the Orthodox spectrum. Among them is Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll, a Times of Israel blogger and founder of Chochmat Nashim, an Israel-based organization that advocates for the inclusion of women’s images in magazines and public spaces.
“Anyone who tells you this is all about halacha is lying through their teeth,” Keats Jaskoll told the Forverts. “Women’s images are being deleted for purely mercenary reasons. In Beit Shemesh, for example, where I live, the extremists literally threaten people who publish photographs of women. I’m talking about advertising circulars put out by Modern Orthodox organizations. They have been cowed into complicity by the extremists. Some local people here founded a magazine that portrays modestly dressed women — and the extremists attacked the delivery people.”
Keats Jaskoll said she sees nothing holy about removing women’s images from magazines or the public sphere.
“The extremists like to accuse us of having outside ‘feminist’ values,” she said. “But it’s clear that they have embraced the Christian philosophy that equates women with sex and sin. If you study it, you see that on any position, the Torah takes the middle ground. But the power is not with moderate rabbis. It’s with the extremist mob.”
Perhaps the most thoroughgoing examination of the controversy comes from Veker, a Hasidic Yiddish-language magazine that prides itself on confronting “controversial topics.” Indeed, it committed its March-April 2019 issue to a series called “Women Forbidden!” The editors took to task Di Tzeitung for setting an extremist editorial precedent that resulted in the decision in 2018 by the Haredi weekly Mishpacha to blur the images of women in a photograph of Auschwitz.
“It hurts to say this, but this custom [of deleting women’s images] as a long-standing fact in the Torah community actually did not exist until quite recently,” the unsigned Veker article stated. “The greatest sages never established such rules, which another Israel-based magazine, Hamodia, insists upon … It is a cultural affectation that has evolved over the last few decades, and it’s only in recent times that it has been posited as an eternal haredi principle.”
Keats Jaskoll argued that the erasure of women affects not only how people view historical events, but also the health and well-being of Haredi women today.
“I worry about the connection between eliminating women’s images and forbidding women to learn about their own bodies,” she said, adding that women “are not even taught to use anatomically correct terminology. How then are we going to provide them with good health care?”
Finkelman believes the policy against depicting women cannot shape religious culture indefinitely.
“Younger people, especially business people, are connected online,” Finkelman said. “They are getting information from so many different sources. As Maimonides says: ‘When the time comes, knowledge will spread.’ I’m optimistic. The work that I and others are doing will overturn this extremist agenda.”