On this last day of 2017 I would like to bring attention to some amazing recent articles that have gotten lots of attention concerning the public erasure of women’s images in Jewish Orthodoxy.
The first article is by tireless activist and talented writer Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll entitled, “Who needs rabbinic leadership? A call for Orthodox organizations to heed the voices of the women they cannot see.”
In it, Jaskoll takes the Orthodox Union and the RCA to task for not speaking up on behalf of women against this perversion of halacha. She writes –
“Both maintain that a key component of the Orthodox community is “listening to the rabbis.” Both have condemned in no uncertain terms the concept of Orthodox women clergy, and both have emphasized the vital position and importance of Jewish women in the community.
It baffles me, therefore, that neither the OU nor the RCA has taken a stand against the damaging practice of removing Jewish women and girls from publications that is taking over Orthodox society.”
Jaskoll cites statements from both the OU and RCA that extol the value of women –
“Both the OU and the RCA use glowing terms to depict Jewish women in their statements on women clergy:
From the OU: “…female role models are, of course, absolutely critical for the spiritual growth of our community. Communities depend, and have always depended, upon women’s participation in a wide array of critical roles, both lay and professional, that are wholly consistent with Torah’s guidelines.”
From the RCA: “…the Rabbinical Council of America encourages a diversity of halakhically and communally appropriate professional opportunities for learned, committed women, in the service of our collective mission to preserve and transmit our heritage….”
Considering their opinion that Jewish women’s participation in a wide array of critical communal roles is vital, Jaskoll found it concerning and seemingly at odds with their position when the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action highlighted and praised multiple haredi publications that have a policy to exclude women’s photos from their pages.
Mrs. Jaskoll’s article was so compelling it prompted the RCA to make a statement about it on its Facebook page –
“We read with interest Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll’s recent Times of Israel blog, “Who needs rabbinic leadership? Orthodox organizations to heed the voices of the women they cannot see,” in which she expresses concern over “the damaging practice of removing Jewish women and girls from publications that is taking over Orthodox society.” She raises important concerns about the treatment of woman in the Orthodox Jewish public square.
In response to her blog we would like to go on record as affirming that it has never been the policy of the Rabbinical Council of America or its members to exclude images of women from its publications. In fact, we have never hesitated to have photographs of women and, more importantly, their contributions celebrated in our publications and websites.
Furthermore, we are of the opinion that it is important for every member of the Orthodox community to have women and men of integrity, piety, learning, and public serve as role models. This includes the names, ideas, and faces of women in publications.
Rabbi Elazar Muskin
Rabbi Mark Dratch
Executive Vice President, RCA”
While it was heartening to read that the RCA doesn’t adhere to a female free policy concerning images, and moreover, feels it’s important that women who can serve as role models have their names, ideas, and faces shared, they failed to condemn those who seek to erase female role models from Jewish media and public life. It isn’t enough for our leadership to say that they themselves don’t have such a policy, they need to speak out against such policies.
The RCA and the OU never have problems speaking out against left wing movements that “break with tradition,” yet seem to have lots of hesitancy speaking out against right wing movements that “break with tradition.”
Why is this? Is it because centrist Orthodoxy feels that left wing Orthodoxy is a diluted form of Orthodoxy, just as haredi Orthodoxy feels that centrist Orthodoxy is a diluted form of Orthodoxy? Is it a question of “stringency guilt?”
At least on the surface, the RCA and OU seem to seek acceptance and approval from their right wing counterparts as a legitimate Orthodox movement, while at the same time seeking no such validation from left wing Jewish movements. There is no concern over giving offense to left wing Jewish leaders, and so official statements condemning their practices appear to be easier to procure.
It seems so many of the OU’s and RCA’s public statements on women self consciously speak to an audience of both their right wing members and the larger right wing Orthodox world, careful in their language to not alienate women seeking progress and recognition, yet making it clear that they stand in the same camp as their haredi brethren concerning female spiritual leadership roles. They try so hard not to offend or appear to be critical of right wing cultural practices that they end up offending and not protecting their own constituents. It’s obvious which audience they fear more, and hint, it’s not the women.
The Layer Project Magazine’s Publisher and Editor in Chief, Shira Lankin Sheps and Hannah Dreyfus weighed in on this recent conversation with this –
“When, late on Thursday night, we read the Rabbinical Council of America’s response affirming that it had never been their “policy” to exclude images of women from its publications, we felt a glimmer of hope. We felt grateful that this organization — the largest coalition of Orthodox rabbis in America — heard what Jaskoll had to say and took it seriously. We appreciated the affirmation that this voice of authority believes that women belong in the public domain as role models — including their names, ideas, and faces.
But then the statement ended, and it stung. What was left unsaid was the condemnation of this new standard in the publications that are readily available throughout the Orthodox world.
What the RCA left out is crucial: the clear, unmistakable and resounding message that this phenomenon is toxic for our impressionable young men and women, and flies in direct opposition to how we, as a community, understand Torah values. The RCA statement failed to set a boundary for our community. They failed to say this is not ok.
While many of our communal problems start in the dark shadows of home life, this major problem starts at the top. Who was it that decided that women need to be hidden away? The leaders of Charedi communities, donors, advertisers, publishers? Who decreed that women should be removed from media spaces because it is not tzanua, modest, to look at our faces?”
Their words touched on something I myself pondered in a Facebook post a few weeks ago-
“Doesn’t it seem that the battle of female image inclusion is a battle we are fighting against ghosts? Who actually makes up this phantom opposition?
I have heard publications blame the lack of inclusion on their “chassidish base,” advertisers who would be offended, private donors, and often anonymous poskim – but none take direct responsibility and even claim not to be in hashkafik agreement with not including photos of women.
So where are these specters and why can’t they explain themselves directly on their own behalf? I’m beginning to think this opposition movement is hiding in plain sight – the people deciding to erase women are the ones who have a media platform, yet deliberately choose to use it to create a fantastical alternate universe populated only by men – all the while blaming some other faceless entity.
Without names and faces, we are blindly swinging out into the air hoping to get a hit. Publications like Mishpacha will keep deflecting and putting the blame on the “ultra Orthodox” sensibilities of their subscribers and financial supporters. What I would be interested to see is an investigative report in their own magazine publishing a survey and detailed responses of those who support a “female free photo policy.”
I would love to hear from big machers on why they would stop financially supporting Mishpacha if it started printing photos of women. I’d like to see some names and faces of those who will proudly stand up for their principles to erase women from the frum media. Where are these people who have managed to decimate the images of women entirely under the radar – perhaps even pretending to be appalled at the exclusion of women when asked about it? It’s time for them to stand up and be identified.”
Sheps and Dreyfus bring up another important point along these lines – it’s time for Jewish leadership who stand opposed to this public erasure to stand up and be identified – in no uncertain terms. It will be interesting to see what 2018 will bring. Stay warm and stay safe tonight!