Erasing Women Erases Halacha
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Erasing Women Erases Halacha

There is no mitzvah anywhere in the Talmud or Shulchan Aruch to limit images of women any more than that of men. 

Courtesy of WikiArt: Edward Hopper
Courtesy of WikiArt: Edward Hopper

A few weeks ago my family gathered in Manhattan for my wife’s semikhah ceremony at Yeshivat Maharat.  My brother, my 91 year old mother (ad meah v’esrim and more) and I had a few spare hours in the afternoon, and decided to go to the iconic Metropolitan Museum of Art.  After spending a fair amount of time at the excellent exhibit on the musical instruments of early rock and roll, we made our way to the Modern Art exhibit, a favorite of my mother.  One of the pictures that caught my eye was Edward Hopper’s ‘Table for Ladies’, painted in 1930. It depicts two women working in a restaurant and a couple sitting at a table. According to the accompanying explanation, the women hold posts newly available to women city dwellers outside the home.  The title refers to the then-recent innovation in which establishments advertised ‘tables for ladies’ in order to welcome their newly mobile female customers, who, if seen dining alone in public previously, were assumed to be prostitutes.

A few hours earlier we had enjoyed lunch at a nearby restaurant.  Among the diners were an obvious brunch date, a number of mid to large sized groups, and, a young woman eating alone.  90 years ago, she would have been assumed to be a prostitute. In fact, if all women eating alone were considered prostitutes, then every female at that restaurant, from the youngest to the very oldest, eating alone, would have, God forbid, been considered a prostitute.

The idea of considering women primarily as sexual objects that the painting addresses seems thankfully anachronistic at first thought.  But, unfortunately the attitude persists in some manifestations not only in secular culture, but in our religious life as well. Both in Israel and increasingly in the United States, there is a movement dedicated to erasing women from the public sphere and from magazines, newspapers, ads and publications.  And the primary claim behind this is that women incite forbidden sexual thoughts in men and need to be hidden from view. 

And the primary claim behind this is that women incite forbidden sexual thoughts in men and need to be hidden from view. 

While those who demand erasure of women claim that the demand is mandated by Halacha, a brief review of the relevant Halacha clearly shows that this is spurious, and a perversion of our religion.   There is no mitzvah anywhere in the Talmud or Shulchan Aruch to limit images of women any more than that of men. 

There is no mitzvah anywhere in the Talmud or Shulchan Aruch to limit images of women any more than that of men.

More recently, Rabbi Getsel Ellinson collected laws pertaining to women in a three volume anthology titled Woman and the Mitzvot and nowhere does it mention a problem with images of women.  As has been previously noted (authored by Dr Leslie Ginsparg Klein), even Haredi publications have published images of women for many years.  Any sort of restriction on images of women is essentially a modern innovation without Halachic basis. However, there is a related issue of men gazing at women that needs to be addressed.

The Gemara (Avodah Zara 20 a/b, see also Nedarim 20a) states that it is prohibited for men to gaze (l’histakel) at women.  There are some who translate this as any looking at women. This interpretation implies that every single visual encounter between males and females in the Tanakh, Talmud, times of the Rishonim, Acharonim, up until this very moment has been a violation of this prohibition.  

Thankfully very few want to accuse essentially all of our ancestors of ignoring Halacha, and the usual understanding of this prohibition is that it means to gaze with the intent of illicit thoughts. Our tradition from the very beginning to the most modern poskim (legal experts) have agreed that normal interactions between men and women are perfectly fine and are not suspected of generating illicit thoughts.  My guess is that everyone reading this article, who went to work or shopping during the week, or to shul, attended a lecture or took a walk around the neighborhood over Shabbat or the somewhat recent three-day yom tov of Shavuot, encountered someone of the opposite gender without incident.  As R. Ben Tzion Uziel wrote(HM 6): “ logic dictates that serious, constructive meetings will be free of licentiousness.  Each day, men and women meet, engaging in business negotiations without incident. Even those among them who lack morals do not entertain forbidden thoughts when seriously at work. …Mixed sessions for community work, a sacred pursuit, do not accustom one to sin or lead to frivolity.  All Jews, men and women, are holy, and they are not suspected of breaching the bounds of modesty and morality.” 

There are some individuals or communities who consider erasing pictures of women as an admirable humrah (stringency).  While they may admit that not every encounter by males with females violates Halacha, they want to minimize the number and content of the interactions in order to minimize male illicit thoughts.  But humrah frequently does not come without a price.   Being machmir on one side can result in violating or denigrating a different obligation. 

But humrah frequently does not come without a price.   Being machmir on one side can result in violating or denigrating a different obligation.

For example, R. Moshe Lichtenstein wrote in the journal Tradition, regarding kol isha:

“The extension of the prohibition of kol isha, on the basis of concern for sexual thoughts, to a context where it is not justified to do so, is not just unhelpful – it is harmful. It brings about an emphasis on natural existence, and paints the human condition as one of sexual existence alone. Indeed, this kind of extension of the prohibition provides a wider halakhic safety net regarding the thoughts themselves, but at the same time it amplifies the classification of human existence as biological-natural at the expense of the perception of man as a more elevated being. The posek who is concerned for sexual thoughts in a case of women’s song where the listener does not intend to derive pleasure perceives man as a creature whose natural urges overbear him. 

Therefore, stringent psak in this matter diminishes man’s character and minimizes the image of the divine within him. In this sense, out of place stringency in the laws of kol isha, based on far reaching concern for sexual thoughts, is not an ordinary halakhic stringency and enhancement but rather a leniency and disparagement regarding the nature of man.” 

Some humrahs (or the way they are observed) only affect(primarily) the  person who has undertaken the humrah.  For example, starting Shabbat early or ending late, adding extra plants to the prohibition of kitniyot, waiting longer between milk and meat, all have minimal effect outside of the person who is personally observing them.  These can be termed ‘victimless humrahs’.  On the other hand the observance of some humrahs can have negative effects on others.  Erasing pictures of women and removing women from the public is extremely harmful both to women and to society.  They are the victims of the men’s humrah.  As R. Assaf Bednarsh wrote: “from the very beginning of Judaism, we are taught that one should not engage in chumra at the expense of others.”  More succinctly, your right to humrah ends where it adversely affects others. 

More succinctly, your right to humrah ends where it adversely affects others. 

 Men who want to limit their exposure to women are mandated to change their own behavior, not demand change by others.  Per R. Bednarsh, it is Halachically illegitimate to force innocent women to pay the price for their Humrah.  Indeed, the Gemara has a label for such a person- chassid shoteh – a pious fool.  The chassid shoteh ignores the damaging effect his humrah has on others.  The Mishna (Sotah 3:3) states that the chassid shoteh actually destroys the world.  The destruction referred to in the Mishna is not just the damage to the affected people, but to our religion.  This is illustrated in a story told by R. Zev Leff, a popular Haredi educator and speaker.  

“Rabbi Leff once described how when he was a relatively young rabbi, one of his older congregants, a man in his seventies, had developed health problems which made fasting on Yom Kippur dangerous. The man’s wife asked the rabbi to attempt to reason with her husband, who had no intention of eating on Yom Kippur. The rabbi attempted to explain the necessity of eating in life-threatening situations, but the man refused to eat.

Rabbi Leff replied “Well, I can’t force you on the issue. But I will have to tell the synagogue gabbai (sexton) that you will no longer be able to receive any honors during synagogue services.” Man: “Why not?” Rabbi: “Because you are an idolater.” Man: “Huh?” Rabbi: “It’s clear to me that you’re not serving G-d but Yom Kippur. If you fasted on Yom Kippur when G-d said so and did not when G-d said not to, you would be serving G-d. But if you fast even when G-d says not to, it is clear that it’s Yom Kippur you’re worshiping and not G-d.” (Abridged anecdote from: https://torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos-chapter2-10and11d/.)  

In the same way, those who are trying to eliminate women are making tzniut (Jewish laws pertaining to modesty)and the avoidance of illicit thoughts into a god, and ignoring the God who not only did not command this excess, but commanded them to be decent people and not harm others.

Some associate humrah with increased piety or fear of God, but this is not always the case. More importantly, as illustrated above, it may not be the proper avenue to demonstrate loyalty to God.  Someone who possess great piety and learning does not always produce a psak that should be followed.  R. Aharon Lichtenstein (“If there is no Da’at, how can we have leadership), emphasized that Halachic leaders who lack sympathy and a degree of care towards their fellow human beings lack da’at. To those people, R. Lichtenstein applies the words of the Vayikra Rabbah (1):  “Any talmid Chacham who lacks da’at is worse than a putrid animal carcass.”  While being pious and learned is obviously extremely admirable, it is not automatic that this combination produces psak that fits Halachic mandates.

There may be individuals who feel unable to control their illicit thoughts when encountering the opposite gender, even under normal situations, and conclude that they require more boundaries.  We should first recognize that this is not normal, both from a religious and a mental health point of view. Instead of acceding to their anti-Halakhic and wrong requests to eliminate women, our response should be to help them recognize their over-sexualization of the opposite gender, and encourage them to seek competent professional mental health counselling. 

Instead of acceding to their anti-Halakhic and wrong requests to eliminate women, our response should be to help them recognize their over-sexualization of the opposite gender, and encourage them to seek competent professional mental health counselling. 

Religious counselling may be beneficial as well, but should not take the place of professional mental health counselling. Certainly those people should be commended regarding their concern, but it needs to be emphasized that they need to adjust their own behavior and avoid problematic encounters, they cannot demand adjustments from the opposite gender.

Similarly, if there is a community that has a problem with controlling lustful thoughts, we should help that community recognize their non-Halakhic and in fact anti-Halakhic actions and communal abnormalities.  We should gently and constructively suggest ways for them to adjust their society and encourage normal interactions between the genders, so that their members will not suffer and they will not be in constant danger of Halachic violations. 

The Shulchan Aruch (EH 21:1) writes that a man is forbidden to gaze upon a woman doing laundry.  It does not forbid women from doing laundry, or restrict the areas where women can do the laundry.  The obligation is on the man to avoid the situation. Similarly, R. Moshe Feinstein wrote regarding men who need to be at the beach or in other areas where women may be less than modestly dressed.  He discusses what the man is obligated to do to avoid improper thoughts, not what restrictions the man should impose on the women around him. It should be clear from all of the above that those demanding the erasure of women from the public and from publications do not have a compelling Halachic argument on which to base their demand.  But these demands for the erasure of women are not really about the erasure of one woman or another.  After all, if a certain mainstream Orthodox Jewish publication capitulates to a demand to place an ad without the face of a woman, there still may be other ads or pictures that do contain images of women.  Therefore, a man (or a community) who experiences or thinks he experiences lustful thoughts when viewing images of women, still cannot or should not look at the paper.

Therefore, a man (or a community) who experiences or thinks he experiences lustful thoughts when viewing images of women, still cannot or should not look at the paper.

It is not clear why they would want to place an ad in the paper at all.  From their point of view, as long as there is just one picture of a woman, it is forbidden to look at it. Eliminating one picture accomplishes very little from that point of view. So it should be clear that this is nothing less than a fight over community standards, and one community is trying to impose its ahalakhic standards on the rest.

What is clear from the Halachic discussion is that those who want to eliminate women from view are not treating women as people in their Halachic calculation.  Women to them are sources of temptation. 

They do not see women as human beings with feelings, lectures to give, businesses to run, or accomplishments to celebrate.

 It seems that they want to ‘enhance their mitzvah’ of avoiding lust, and don’t see any expense to others.  Damage to women, in their eyes, is not even recognized, to say nothing of considered.

Sadly, this attitude of not recognizing damage to women in Halachic calculations is not limited to those who want to eliminate women from pictures.  It is present even those who consider themselves progressive and Modern Orthodox. Until very recently, teshuvot and positions on all things having to do with women rarely if ever mentioned the effect the decision would have on women, to say nothing of taking it into Halachic account.  Even today, there are hundreds if not more teshuvot on women’s dress, hair covering, appearing in public, enlisting in the army, yichud, and more.  Very few ask some very simple questions:  

  • What is the effect of this decision on the women under consideration?
  • Given some negative effect on women, is there a different Halachic calculation that can and should be made?
  • Should the Halachic concepts of ‘nachat l’nashim’, ‘kavod habriot’, ‘tzelem elokim’ and others play a larger role? 

Obviously there can be different answers to the questions, and Halacha ultimately is not egalitarian.  But it should be egalitarian in the sense that every person, man and woman, should be considered as a whole person, and personal and communal humrot should not be adopted that adversely affect a portion of the community.  

But it should be egalitarian in the sense that every person, man and woman, should be considered as a whole person, and personal and communal humrot should not be adopted that adversely affect a portion of the community.  

Hopefully the demands to eliminate pictures of women should help us understand clearly what the Halacha is and isn’t, what piety is and isn’t, and how what can seem to be piety is actually dangerous foolishness that damages the world.  And it should remind us and our poskim that psak Halacha has effects, and that we need to consider all of the effects on all of us, men and women.  Our leaders and especially our religious and rabbinic leaders need to speak loudly and clearly, defending those who are being unfairly oppressed, calling out those who are warping our Halacha and creating a new religion out of concerns for illicit thoughts.   Instead of accepting the demands to eliminate women as a legitimate option, our leaders need to speak up against this desecration of Halacha.   Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz, Senior lecturer at Ohr Somayach, Jerusalem wrote a powerful example of how Halachic leaders should respond:

“In the vidui of Rabbeinu Nissim, the penitent begs forgiveness for a variety of transgressions, among them is, “What You declared pure I deemed unclean… what You have declared permitted I deemed forbidden.” Erasing women from photographs or blurring their faces even if  they are modestly dressed has not been the practice in klal yisrael, and to take on a stringency over and beyond anything required by gedolai yisrael is not only arrogant and pretentious but profoundly offensive and demeaning  to women as a whole. A chumra beyond normative halacha ceases to be legitimate at the point that it violates basic kavod habriyot. Moreover, the very highlighting of women as the “other ” who must be eliminated is in itself counter to the norms of tzniyut and can itself trigger the evils it was supposedly designed to alleviate.”

At some point in time in the future, stories may be told about us and our actions.  How do we want those stories to read? It is perhaps instructive to look back at a story from generations past. 

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, founder of the Mussar movement, was quoted as saying, “It is prohibited to enhance your mitzvot at the expense of others.” He practiced what he preached.  One day Rabbi Salanter was hosted by a rich man. When he performed the ritual hand-washing before the meal, he used a sparing amount of water. He was asked, “Doesn’t the Torah say it is praiseworthy to wash with a lot of water?” He answered, “I can only do that in my own home. Here, however, I must consider the needs of the servant who must carry the buckets of water.”

I hope that we still are impressed with R. Yisrael Salanter’s concern for the workload of the servant.  Similarly, I hope that we applaud the societal changes reflected in Edward Hopper’s painting, and the progress that has been made since then regarding the status of women in society.  When the history of our time is written, will it say that you were silent and watched as, contrary to Halacha, women were erased? Or will it say that you took a stand for Halacha and decency, and showed concern for your fellow human beings?

End Notes:

 

Bednarsh similarly quotes the Meiri as labelling Humrahs that have no value as inventing a new religion:

Menachem Ha-Meiri explains that the Yerushalmi is referring to a case of one who is machmirin a fashion that does not entail any spiritual accomplishment, as the chumradoes not entail fulfillment of any mitzvah, nor does it spur intellectual or ethical development. One who invents an unnecessary act of worship that brings no halakhic or ethical benefit certainly deserves to be branded a fool. While his intention may be sincere, he is inventing a new religion instead of enhancing his performance of Judaism.   Beit Ha-BechiraBava Kama 87a.)

Noam Stadlan is vice-chairman of the department of neurosurgery at NorthShore University Healthcare system. He is a member of the board of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), and executive vice-president of Skokie Valley Agudath Jacob Congregation.

Posts are contributed by third parties. The opinions and facts in them are presented solely by the authors and JOFA assumes no responsibility for them.

If you’re interested in writing for JOFA’s blog contact blog@jofa.org. For more about JOFA like us on Facebook or visit our website.

 

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