Myth: Tzniut demands that we hide.
Truth: True tzniut demands that we not hide.
I think that if I had to pick a favorite month of the year, it would be Elul. I may be biased because Elul is my birthday month, but I also appreciate the extra tefillot and soul-searching that we’re doing right now. We’re supposed to approach the Yamim Noraim with the mindset of working on ourselves and becoming better people. Of course, that means facing up to ourselves and to Hashem. Notice the word “facing…”
From me, you get the truth.
Hashem wants to see our faces and hear our voices. That includes men and women. We can’t hide our faces or ourselves from Hashem, nor should we. And we shouldn’t hide our faces or ourselves from each other.
I’m very proud to be part of the Queens Jewish Link. Not only do I appreciate its overall quality, but I’m proud of the fact that all faces can be seen and all voices can be expressed. This paper is committed to halachah and to tzniut done the right way. And I applaud Rabbi Schonfeld for not caving in to pressure to erase women from this paper. This means that when I write about the issue of erasing women, whether it’s here, on my blog, or on other forums, I get the question of “Aren’t you preaching to the choir here? What’s the point?”
The answer is that in order to solve a problem, the first step is to be aware of the problem. The issue of erasing women is an insidious one and too many people are not paying attention to it. I admit that I myself didn’t pay too much attention to it until other writers began saying something. Or there are people who do notice but dismiss it as just mishegas and not worth speaking up. Or there are people who do notice but who dismiss it as “their problem and not ours” and who say “live and let live.”
Erasing women from view is unhealthy and dangerous for a number of reasons. It turns women and girls into objects, which is the exact opposite of tzniut (despite the claims that it’s for tzniut reasons). It brings male-bashing to a whole new level by implying that men and boys are incapable of being mentschen and controlling themselves. It deprives men and women of role models (don’t say we don’t need them; our tzaddikim and tzidkoniyot are not held up as role models for nothing). It erases part of our history (we already have enemies trying to do that). It makes a chillul Hashem by perpetuating the myth that Judaism is biased against women. It’s also unhealthy from a mental-health standpoint. According to psychologist Daniel Hoffman, PhD, if people are anxious about impure thoughts over women, then avoiding women only makes those anxieties worse.
In other words, it’s not just silly or mishegas.
As for it being “their” problem, there is no “not caving in” to pressure unless there is pressure to begin with. That means that those who endorse the erasing of women are trying to make it our problem as well. And in this case, considering how unhealthy and dangerous it is, the best defense is a good offense. In addition, even if it’s not in our communities, it does happen in others. Fellow Jews are being harmed by it. That automatically makes it our problem. When it comes to “live and let live,” that applies to different practices that are otherwise harmless. But as I’ve stated, erasing women is anything but harmless.
None of this is to say that anyone should be forced to show pictures of themselves in public. There are men and women whose personal style is more subtle and who prefer to not be conspicuous. If they know themselves enough to know that and to work with it, that’s true tzniut. And if they choose to not use photos of themselves in publications or ads, that’s fine. But it has to be their choice and not someone else’s.
There is also nothing wrong with publications setting standards of tzniut for the pictures they publish. If the publication says that they will only use photos of women wearing very high necklines that fall on the neck, it means that if my photo appears in such a publication, I wouldn’t look my absolute best because those super-high necklines don’t flatter me (I do better with jewel necks and boatnecks). But I wouldn’t protest, and if it’s a photo of me I’d use jewelry or scarves to compensate. If the publication says that the woman must be wearing long sleeves that cover her wrists, I wouldn’t protest that either. This is one area where “live and let live” does apply. I may not agree with those specific standards, but I do agree that women (and men) need to be presented with dignity.
So what can we do?
First, use the popular PSA: If you see something, say something. If you see articles like this one, contact the writers or the editors, thank them, and let them know that this issue is important.
Second, if you do not see something, say something. If you see an ad or article aimed at women and men but with the faces of men and no women, contact them and make them aware of how wrong it is. Be polite about it and remember how insidious this is and that they may not be 100% aware of how wrong it is.
As we approach the Yamim Nora’im, let’s remember that we’re facing our Maker, literally and figuratively. Instead of hiding our faces, let’s work on presenting the best faces possible.