"was launched to cater to the cultural, emotional, and spiritual needs of Jewish women; to combat the erasure of women from Jewish media; and to share in the challenges and triumphs of being who we are."
As I'm trying to cover both sides of the argument, so that readers can make up their own minds about where the truth really lies, I thought I'd include this essay from The Layers Project Facebook page, about their side of the debate:
(Please note: Maybe I just missed it, but I couldn't find any pictures of frum women looking fat, ugly or unhappy on The Layers Project Facebook page. Everybody was perfectly made-up, most pictures were wonderfully back-lit and professionally taken. How empowering!)
Here is an essay from the Publisher, Shira Lankin Sheps, and Editor in Chief, Hannah Dreyfus of The Layers Project Magazine — a magazine that publishes images and in-depth insights into the lives of Jewish Women.
"We, too, read Shoshanna Keats-Jaskoll’s article, “Who needs rabbinic leadership? A call for Orthodox organizations to heed the voices of the women they cannot see,” with interest. She laid out a full description of the problem of women being removed from many Orthodox media spaces and highlighted why the attitude of “it only affects the Charedi communities” is a myth.
When, late on Thursday night, we read The Rabbinical Council of America - RCA’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?
Why? We, as the faces being unceremoniously removed and blurred, deserve an explanation. Was it because it would cause men to have impure thoughts? Or because we are inherently holy and need to be preserved, hidden away under the veil of modesty? Where is this message given to us in the Torah? A problem stemming from the top needs to resolved by those who still preside at the top.
The Torah teaches us that there are two kinds of commandments. The positive commandments, and the negative. You should do — and you shouldn’t do. It’s the way the Torah educates us about how to make boundaries, understand right from wrong, and stay on the path of Torah observance.
The RCA gave us a positive statement: “Of course women should be represented in media. We agree with that statement.” We are glad to know that this is their policy.
Now we need our negative commandment: “Thou shalt not objectify and censor women in Jewish media spaces.”
We need our leaders to stand up for our values and draw lines in the sand. We need them to speak aloud about the practical and psychological damage this phenomenon can and will cause in our communities. We need them to reject this “false frumkeit” and restore kavod habriot, respect and dignity to all people, to the way women are represented in our media.
Because we have another problem. There is nothing else to read. When we walk into our local Glatt kosher supermarkets and walk over to the magazine racks, there are Charedi newspapers and magazines and secular Israeli publications with bikini-clad women plastered all over them. When we check out at our local pharmacies, we have around 100 different mainstream American magazines to choose from that range from discussing latest celebrity gossip or recipes filled with bacon. What are we supposed to read that will reflect our cultural and religious sensibilities, and that we can feel comfortable having in our homes?
We have stopped reading those Charedi magazines and will not return to them until they have put women's images back in their pages. Children can understand the implication of women being removed from these spaces. They can translate that absence into the painful, erroneous message, “there is something wrong with girls” and then, eventually, “there is something wrong with me.” They may interpret, somewhere along the way, that there is something inherently dangerous, unclean, unholy about our images. In a world where we are combatting on every level to raise our children to be sane, healthy and respectful adults, this phenomenon presents a minefield of poisonous messages about how women should see themselves, and how men should see us, too.
When our girls look to see themselves represented - when they want to learn more about potential role models when they want to see how a Jewish woman’s grace and holiness shine through her face, where will they look? And when they don’t see themselves reflected back in the glossy sheets of “frum” magazines, where will they turn? What values will they find there? Both options will sexualize her, fetishize her, demean her or dismiss her.
When we don’t stand up and condemn this new social construct, we enable it.
We pray that the RCA and all of the communal institutions that claim to represent our rabbinic leadership take a stand to deliberately condemn the removal of women from our media spaces.
Tell us you want more for us. Tell us you see us. Tell us we deserve to be represented in a respectful way. Tell us it’s unacceptable to continue and enable this pathology.
We, the community members, will fight against this the best we can, by creating new magazines and new opportunities. But rabbis, tell us you will stand alongside us. Make boundaries for us that will show our daughters that they are holy regardless of their beauty, and our sons that we, women, are not objects to be fetishized and dismissed.
Women are as complex and flawed as men. We are multi-faceted and multi-layered. We are human and holy. Just like Man, Woman was created in the image of God.
What message do we want to teach our children?"
So, before I got sent this, I was part of the way through writing what I'm about to share with you, which is the much deeper spiritual reasons why it's not a good idea to jump on this 'who needs rabbis anyway?!?!' bandwagon that likes to paint any law that stops ME from doing WHAT I WANT TO DO as 'bad' and 'backwards' and in need of change.
Haven't we heard all this before? Wasn't 'womens' lib' in the 70s meant to empower us all and help us to have 'equality' with men, and didn't all that bra-burning and anger just lead to enormous heart-ache for woman kind as she got sucked into work-place egotism and soul-destroying promiscuity? (And please, let's not even talk about H.W. whose name I don't even want to spell out in case my filter decides to delete this whole post....)
I'm still waiting for someone to tell me how forcing me to put pictures of myself into the public arena is empowering me.
When The Jewish Press recently covered my Secret Diary of a Jewish Housewife book, I was essentially co-erced into having to agree to have pictures of myself and my family to illustrate the piece.
I didn't want that, but I understood that the piece wouldn't run without it and I was hoping that maybe, I'd sell a few more books as a result. I really didnt'! God showed me the hard way that selling myself out like that didn't get me anywhere.... But these are still the more mundane reasons why all this 'force women's pictures into frum media' stuff is giving me the heebie jeebies.
Let's take a look at the more spiritual side things, now:
Why do we have to keep mitzvahs?
They usually went along the same, well-worn path: the person I was arguing with would make it very clear that they simply couldn’t understand why they had to do things like keep kosher, or keep Shabbat.
The more thoughtful amongst them would also have ‘logical arguments’ why these things were unnecessary or outdated these days, like the classic ‘pork and trichinosis’ reason that went like this:
‘In the desert, they didn’t have refrigeration, and people could develop trichinosis and other nasty food poisoning type things from eating pork. That’s why it was forbidden. Today, we don’t have that problem.’
There are so, so many deeper spiritual reasons why a Jew keeps kosher, starting with the fact that ‘God said so’ and going through a whole bunch of different ideas like freeing soul sparks, elevating and rectifying the world and keeping a Jewish soul ‘pure’ and unsullied by ‘unkosher’ characteristics.
Trichinosis is not in the picture at all, but when you’re trying to discuss mitzvahs with people who lack a certain spiritual sensitivity and awareness, the discussion often gets boiled down to ‘tangibles’ that have nothing to do with what’s really going on, because the material world is the only one they can really relate to.
In so many ways, the ‘put more women in frum publications’ discussion is reminding me of the ‘pork and trichinosis’ discussion, although it’s clearly far more subtle and harder to spot.
On the one hand, (as I’ve written about on Emunaroma before, in this article and others) there are ‘luminaries of fire’ in the frum Jewish world that are promoting a very harsh, stringent and judgmental attitude towards women, that completely ignores the enormous weight of the Jewish requirement for men to guard their eyes.
To put this in simpler terms, halacha makes it clear that most of the onus is on men to guard their eyes from seeing forbidden sights, than on women’s skirts.
The basic laws for tznius for women and girls is actually pretty simple, when all is said and done, and boils down to:
- Cover your elbows, knees and neckline - bare minimum.
- If you're married, cover your hair.
- Don't draw unnecessary male attention to yourself, by action or appearance.
Yes, I know reams and reams have been written about all the fine points of tznius, but this is the basic bottom line.
And this is what the Shulchan Aruch says about guarding the eyes (taken from the excellent Guardyoureyes.com website, which has helped hundreds, maybe even thousands of men overcome their internet immorality addictions:
The Four Primary Laws of Looking at and Thinking about WomenBelow is a summary of relevant rulings. Familiarize yourself with these laws, and you will have a ready and practical guide to live by: (Shulchan Aruch Even HaEzer, Chapter 21, Law 1)
(1) It is forbidden to look at a woman if she is dressed immodestly. (There are different laws regarding one's wife.)
(2) a. If you know of an area where immodestly dressed women are present, it is forbidden to enter this area. An alternative route must be taken.
b. If there is no alternative route, or the alternative route is impractical or costly, you are permitted to pass through the area providing you make every reasonable effort to avoid seeing the immodest sights.
(3) It is forbidden to have thoughts of desire for any woman. (There are different laws regarding one's wife.)
(4) It is forbidden to derive pleasure from looking at the beauty of a woman, even if she is modestly dressed. (There are different laws regarding one's wife.)
By contrast, while the ‘luminaries of light’ in the frum Jewish world occasionally speak about the women’s responsibility to make things as easy on the men as possible and to respect themselves more by dressing tzniusly, they mention the obligation on men to guard their eyes again, and again and again.
If you’d like to know some of the deeper reasons for why there is such an emphasis on men guarding their eyes, and how it’s actually directly connected to rectifying the world, spiritually, take a look at THIS awesome article by Rav Eliezer Berland. Here's a little taste of the deeper spiritual reasons for guarding our eyes:
If a man walks in the street while guarding his eyes, then he’ll raise up all the holy sparks that are to be found amongst the klipot. When a man closes his eyes, he burns up all the klipot, and within every klipa is a spark of holiness. When a man walks in the street, guarding his eyes, he frees that holy spark.
it could be argued that at least in theory, a man can avoid the internet and avoid seeing women’s faces / bodies online. (My husband tried to go ‘cold turkey’ on the internet for precisely this reason, and it was a big reason why he quit law, and we got completely poor, so it’s not as easy as it sounds, by any means…)
But let’s say the man is a plumber, technician, shop owner and can avoid the internet somehow without bankrupting his whole family.
That man can’t avoid billboards on his street. He can’t avoid frum newspapers, books and other publications (not unless you want to completely cut the poor guy off from every form of communication and interaction, including the most traditional.)
If you put pictures of Jewish women in frum papers, books and magazines, and if this guy is one of the few, rare, precious souls who is still tenaciously trying to rectify the world by guarding his eyes, you just put another stumbling block before the blind.
Sure, if the guy is already filling his face with Youtube, and movies, and his friends’ glamorous wives and girlfriends and daughters on Facebook, he won’t bat an eyelid, and he’ll accuse the holier men out there of being ‘overly sensitive’ or ‘misogynist religious dinosaurs’, or whatever the latest put-down happens to be.
It’s the guys who don’t have a problem with images of women all over the place who really have the problem, spiritually.
Because they are the ones who aren’t really doing what God actually wants them to do.
And not only that, they are trying to change Judaism to accommodate their own spiritual weakness, instead of ‘fessing up to the fact that they actually love ogling women they aren’t married to.
So on the one side, we have ‘luminaries of fire’ trying to force women into burkas because they aren’t willing to acknowledge that the onus is on them to guard their eyes, and then on the other hand we have the semi-letches that think it’s ‘progress’ to encourage more pictures of women all over the place, so they can leer and letch after them.
And we religious women are kind of caught between the two, at the moment.
Let’s be clear: both of these approaches are incorrect, and not what God wants.
The ‘luminaries of fire’ are a huge problem in the frum Jewish world, currently, and not only men are ‘luminaries of fire’. It’s going to require an awful lot of prayer, and an awful lot of mutually-respectful discussion to sort it all out, going forward.
But my world is the world of the BT, the women who grew up ‘not frum’ and who are now professing to be orthodox. And so it’s those women I’m really talking to now, because I so understand the frustrations and the appearance that we are ‘missing out’ by not having our images in frum Jewish publications etc.
So many of us have careers, outside interests, things we care about, and how can we promote all these things properly if we aren’t doing the ‘social media’ and publicity thing 100%, like our non-frum peers?
To those ladies, I want to say that it can seem like this is all outmoded sexism and nonsense, and an unnecessary restraint on our legitimate self-expression, etc. But really, there are far, far deeper reasons for us staying out of the limelight, in the same way we aren’t avoiding pork just to avoid food poisoning.
I am seeing so many blessings in my marriage and with my children, and I’m sure 100% that much of it is because I’m trying my hardest to keep Hashem’s laws when it comes to tznius, even when it’s really confusing and I feel like I’m probably missing out in some way.
Let me give one small example of how this is working: when I came off Facebook and Twitter a few months ago, my audience on Emunaroma literally doubled in the space of a couple of weeks. I have no idea how or why, but I did the right thing, and God sent me some more siyatta dishmaya with my blog.
There is a huge, social-media illusion going on that being more ‘out there’ is the only way to achieve things like self-fulfillment and financial success.
But really? God is running the world. God is deciding which books get sold, which people get heard, which bank accounts get filled up and which ones get emptied.
And the more we and our husbands are trying to do the right thing by God - even if it makes no sense to us, on so many levels - the more blessings we’ll ultimately see in our lives.