From the Yated to Mishpacha, our magazines have presented the Jewish world with a definition of what it means to be a modest woman: She’s not in print. Even if she follows halacha perfectly, she is still not modest enough to be featured in the pages of our publications. This policy requires that even pictures of our great rebbetzins and leaders, past and present, cannot accompany the articles written about them. Rather, pictures of their husbands, their residences, and their speaking venues take the place of the special faces and spiritual beauty of our righteous women. This policy requires that historical photographs capturing unforgettable events in Jewish history cannot be included in our magazines if a woman is in the shot. This policy requires that non-Jewish female political leaders can never be featured. And this policy requires that girls above a certain age cannot be seen, giving the message, especially to young girls, that it is not tznius (modest).
If one has trouble with these assumptions, two options can be considered: 1) do not buy the magazine, or 2) purchase the magazine but tell ourselves and our children that this policy was created out of sensitivity to those whose practice it is not to see pictures of females in print.
What has come to the surface in recent months, however, is the recognition of a communal fallout due to not printing women in frum publications. Awareness is one of the primary goals of the initiative started by yeshivishe women to put pictures of women of all ages back into frum media. Certainly, one has the right to not bring pictures of women into one’s home, if that is his or her practice, but it is nevertheless important that the Orthodox community at large is aware of the messaging – both psychological and religious – that this practice communicates to men, women, and children.
Confusion about Modesty Standards and Practices in Mainstream Orthodoxy
My friend’s granddaughter was building with Clics, and the child was overheard saying that she couldn’t take her picture with her creation to be put in the magazine because “it’s not tznius.” This was a girl under ten from a non-chasidishe background. Why should she think that her picture is not tznius?
What is tznius? How is it defined? What is required of us? We should know what is halacha, minhag hamakom, and chumra, and our children and teenagers most certainly should know as well. Are we teaching our children that the Torah prohibits pictures of modestly-dressed women and girls above seven? If it is a minhag among certain sects, then how has it become the norm in Litvishe circles, where apparently this has never been the mesora?
When our publications tell us that featuring pictures of nine-year-old girls is unacceptable, things get a bit confusing. Even if the magazines are following the most stringent approach as to not lose the most right-wing subscribers, the message is still delivered to the rest of us that pictures are immodest. And it’s not just children. Our publications are teaching all of us, both men and women, that there is something not right with printing pictures of females. It has become the new societal norm. This can lead some people to think this practice is mainstream and halachic. And when rabbanim are not willing to go to print stating unequivocally that this practice is not halachic, the lines are blurred even more.
Unhealthy Messaging Regarding the Visibility of Women Being Inappropriate
Rabbi Ilan Feldman, Rav of Congregation Beth Jacob of Atlanta, made the following statement in support of the recent online petition in favor of printing women’s pictures in chareidi media: “The refusal to publish women’s pictures is the ultimate irony. In the name of modesty, women are objectified – turned into objects, who cannot be portrayed at all in public. It is as if their physical existence is an invitation to sin. This is the ultimate degradation of women.”
Interestingly, women from all over the Orthodox spectrum, left to right, are sharing the same uniform message about how the lack of images of women are a detriment to a healthy Orthodox society. The message to women is that even our faces and our covered bodies are too much to tolerate. The message to men is that even modest women are too much to tolerate. And the message to boys and girls is that women need to be out of the picture because, for some reason, it is a problem for men to see them.
This is called over-sexualization. Many wonder if the next logical step is that women should not even been seen in person. Certainly, this is not the message we need to give women and young girls today.
Inability to Combat against the Barrage of Immodest Images of Women in the General Media
Tznius education is a challenge in this day and age. In fact, a rebbetzin/parenting coach once told me to not even use the “T” word when discussing modesty with my girls. As girls and grown women observe the world around us, whether it be through a walk in the mall, a perusal of a catalogue in the mail, or spending some time online, it becomes clear that dressing in a tzniusdik way is countercultural to the outside world. For many, that may pose a struggle.
The last thing we need is to add fuel to the fire with the steady message that, even when we do dress modestly, we should not be seen. Doing what is required of us according to halacha is monumental in this generation; girls and women don’t need the message that it is not enough. They need images of tasteful and refined women to show them that they have something to aspire to and be proud of. And, inundated as we are by the world of print and online media, in-person role models may not be enough.
With the pressures of externals evident in our culture, and the unabashed consumerism that infiltrates even the most religious of our communities, women, girls, men, and young men would benefit from having images of realistic and modestly-dressed frum women and role models available to them. When they flip through the pages of a magazine, they should be seeing our unostentatious religious women and mothers who are not in print to serve as fashion models but, rather, are there to serve as role models. As the pendulum swings further in both directions, our communities struggle with two extremes: modesty and flashiness. Imagine the effect if our magazines decided to combat these trends and offer images of the inspiring, tsniusdik, Torah-devoted women they write about? Something powerful.
The Extremist Portrayal of Orthodox Jews
Imagine a potential baal teshuva who picks up a weekly mainstream Orthodox magazine to learn more about contemporary Orthodox Jews and culture. Among the advertisements and articles, there is not a woman in sight. There is an article about a family vacation with a father and young children, a tribute to a rebbetzin with the picture of her husband, an ad for a children’s book featuring a Shabbos table sans the Ima, and an ad for a yeshiva dinner honoring a couple but only showing the male honoree. Maybe the potential baal teshuva might recognize that this is due to religious Jews’ sensitivity to modesty. But wait – then there are the many advertisements featuring luxury condos in Jerusalem, exclusive real estate opportunities in Miami, expensive vacations in the Alps, designer clothing boutiques, and an assortment of high-end home improvement ventures.
The truth is, the absence of women in our publications looks absurd at best and backwards and Taliban-like at worst in the eyes of the non-religious. It makes religious men appear as if they are lacking a normal level of self-control. It feeds into the stereotype that Orthodox women are second-class citizens, that they are not heard or seen, literally. Not publishing pictures of our modest Jewish women fails to create a vision of a religious society that is inclusive of women in a healthy way, one which reflects our Jewish values as well as the respect the Torah has for women. It can’t be easy for contemporary, educated and accomplished men and women to see past this when considering whether to embrace Orthodox Judaism.
A Lessened Presence of Women in Orthodox Communal Life
To be sure, in Orthodox communal life, our women run chesed organizations, PTA boards, and mikvah associations like CEOs. In fact, there’s no stopping what a frum woman can do, and sometimes it is precisely this example of the do-it-all frum superwoman that causes a pressure on everyone to do it all. However, not publishing women’s pictures in ads and publications does result in a lessened public presence of women in communal life. For those women interested in contributing to their communities in ways beyond PTA, the message needs to be conveyed that their contributions are valuable in the Orthodox communal scene, that conversations on communal issues can and should include them as well.
What does this have to do with not publishing pictures of women? The truth is, visuals are compelling. Pictures are a way of communicating what and who we feel are important. While the faces of women have been erased from Jewish life in print, we cannot allow the message to be given to women of all ages that their talent, intelligence, and insight is not equally valuable and respected. We cannot afford to leave our young girls and women out of the picture – and the conversation.
According to Mrs. Yaffa Palti, the essence of the Torah hashkafa towards tznius can be rooted in the Hebrew word for face, panim. At its root, panim is almost identical to the word pnim, which means “innermost.” Who we are – our spiritual essence – is expressed through the face. The point of tznius is to be able to connect to the beautiful inside of a person without the distraction of externals getting in the way.
Jewish women have never had the tradition to cover our faces and, please G-d, never will. By excluding women’s faces, their essence as nshei chayil is disregarded as well. It is a mistreatment of our value of tznius. To emphasize the external and deny the internal is most certainly not in our tradition, either.
At the very least, let’s put the faces of our women back in.
Alexandra Fleksher holds an M.S. in Jewish education from the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and a B.A. in English communications from Stern College for Women. Her essays on contemporary Jewish issues have been published in various blogs and publications. She lives in Cleveland, Ohio, with her husband and four children. This article first appeared in The 5 Towns Jewish Times, vol. 17, no. 43.