The recent trend in some Orthodox media to refrain from publishing pictures of women, or even to digitally remove women from pictures, raises questions from many perspectives. Is it dishonest to offer only a partial portrayal of the community? Is it disrespectful of women to omit their images? Does this send a confusing message to our children about proper appearance when even a picture of a modestly dressed girl won’t be published?
There is another layer of questions I wish to explore.
From the perspective of halacha, Jewish law, the issue is somewhat ambiguous. After Rebbetzin Kanievsky passed away, I asked Rav Hershel Schachter whether a newspaper may publish modest pictures of women. He said if the woman is dressed modestly, there is no need to worry that a reader might be led to improper thoughts. I did not ask him for his reasoning and the following argument is mine, not his. Three prohibitions come into consideration when discussing the publication of pictures of men and women.
I. Three Rules
The Torah commands that Hashem should not see in our communities any “naked thing” (Devarim 23:15). The Gemara (Berachos 25b) explains that nakedness is forbidden if it can be seen, even if the viewers only see it through a window or through their eyeglasses. One could claim a picture or video of a person is not really nakedness – it is just ink or pixels. However, that would lead to the absurd conclusion that pornography does not constitute nakedness. Rav Ovadiah Yosef (Yabia Omer vol. 1 OC:7; vol. 6 OC:12) argues at length against this notion. Rather, we are forbidden to look at or publish a picture of any man or woman in a state of undress. But how do we define undressed? Additionally, men are forbidden to stare at a woman even if she is dressed properly.
The Torah commands us to divert our eyes or minds from our temptations. We recite it every day in Shema: “And do not follow the lust of your own heart and your own eyes” (Bamidbar 15:39). This verse prohibits us from thinking about committing acts of adultery. If you publish a picture or do anything else that causes a person to daydream about adultery, you have led that person to sin. While earlier authorities debate whether this prohibition applies to women, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggeros Moshe, EH 1:69) follows those who are strict. This means that publishing a picture of any person – man or woman – may be problematic if it causes readers to think about adultery.
Additionally, a rabbinic prohibition forbids men from thinking romantically about women during the day because it might lead to impurity at night (Kesubos 46a). The implications of this rule are far more expansive than the previous one. Due to women’s different biological nature, this prohibition does not apply to them (Iggeros Moshe, ibid.).
Putting this all together, it would seem that newspapers have to be careful not to publish a picture that will cause men or women to think about adultery or a picture that will excite men. This applies even if the people in the pictures are fully dressed. The concern is less about the impropriety of the picture and more about the impact on the reader. But to what extent? Should newspapers refrain from publishing any pictures of anyone lest it lead even a single reader astray?
II. Responsibility and Culpability
Most readers are familiar with the prohibition against speaking or publishing lashon hara, damaging gossip. An additional rabbinic prohibition forbids speaking or publishing positive stories about individuals because it might lead to people responding with negative stories (Arachin 16a; Bava Basra 164b). This is called avak lashon hara. The Chofetz Chaim (1:9:1n) asks why the sages needed to forbid this. Isn’t leading others to sin already forbidden under the prohibition called lifnei iveir? He explains that there is a low likelihood that someone will respond to a positive story with a negative story. Therefore, lifnei iveir does not apply and the sages had to institute a specific prohibition of avak lashon hara.
To explain the Chofetz Chaim’s reasoning, the Dirshu edition (ad loc., n. 7) quotes the Mishnah (Shevi’is 5:6,8-9) which deals with what you are allowed to sell during a Shemittah year. You are only allowed to sell items used for working the land (which is forbidden) if those items can also be used for a permissible purpose. For example, you are allowed to sell a cow that is primarily used for plowing because the buyer could, in theory, eat it. Recent authorities like Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggeros Moshe, YD 1:72) and Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Minchas Shlomo 1:44:3) and the contemporary Rav Asher Weiss (Responsa Minchas Asher 2:30) conclude that there is no concern of lifnei iveir if there is even a little doubt as to whether there will be a violation.
Since it is possible, even if unlikely, that someone will eat an animal even if he pays the high price of a plowing cow, you are allowed to sell that cow. Similarly, since there is a possibility that no one will respond to a positive story with a negative story, there is no prohibition of lifnei iveir and the Sages had to enact a separate rabbinic prohibition of avak lashon hara.
I suggest that, similarly, if a newspaper publishes modest pictures of men and women, there is no certainty that a reader will be led by those pictures to think about adultery or have other inappropriate thoughts. Even if that is a likely outcome, it is not certain and therefore does not invoke the lifnei iveir prohibition.
III. Who Decides?
All of the above leads to the conclusion that print media may publish modest pictures of men and women. However, they may not publish immodest pictures of men and women or pictures of modestly dressed people who are posed in such a provocative way as to definitely conjure improper images in the minds of male readers. But who defines standards of modesty? Who determines what is considered provocative?
From a halachic perspective, authorities disagree more than many people recognize. What should a newspaper with a broad readership do? Whose standard of modesty should prevail? I can see four possibilities: 1) The strictest view should be followed so that as many readers as possible will be religiously protected. 2) The most lenient view should be followed to accommodate all those who are following halacha as their rabbis teach it. 3) A middle-ground consensus should be sought that satisfies the majority of readers. 4) The newspaper should ask its own halachic authority and follow his view, wherever it points.
I am not sure which of the four possibilities is best. I believe creative minds can find other options, such as only publishing head shots of men and women. I leave that to those more strategically oriented. At the very least, we should acknowledge the complexity of the problem.