I am proud to the have the honor of being a semi-regular columnist at the Queens Jewish Link, and have come to really love this publication. It is a breath of fresh air as compared with many other Orthodox publications, as below.
When the editors of the QJL and I were contemplating this arrangement, we struggled somewhat with what my byline should be. Ultimately we came up with “Middle of The Road”. That is because perhaps my greatest passion as a writer and speaker on Jewish topics is on a re-assertion of what, in my view, used to be mainstream values in the Orthodox community – neither “Ultra-Orthodox/Chareidi” nor “Religious Zionist/Mizrachi/Modern Orthodox” – but rather what used to be the predominant “Middle Path”, now seemingly absent from the public square of Jewish Thought and Practice. (I have written about this at length) . I continue to believe that the silent majority out there still identifies with this point of view, although it is sadly shrinking due to the reluctance of much of the Orthodox Rabbinic and Lay leadership to proudly teach these values to the younger generation so as to not offend and incur the wrath of the more extreme voices.
One area that frustrates us “middle-of -the-roaders” intensely are the many events that cry out for a response from our leadership, but unfortunately one one hears only a deafening silence, presumably due to fear of offending the extremist voices among us. In particular this occurs on those rare occasions when the Jewish people finally find a sympathetic ear in world opinion – a moment in time happens when the usual anti-Israel, anti-Semitic, anti-Torah slant in the media is silenced for a bit – only to have somebody or some Jewish organization behave in such way as to squander that opportunity, with nary a voice raised in protest from our leaders. Unfortunately, there are a great many examples of this; I will only mention some glaring ones from this past year by way of example.
We now have many reports of scenes, caused by misplaced piety, which rather than upholding Torah values, brings shame, ridicule, and disrepute on all Orthodox Jews
One recurring example is the unfortunate phenomenon of religious men refusing to sit next to women on an airline flight, and causing arguments and flight delays and a huge Chilul Hashem, in that the world looks at us as religious extremists who (a) appear to consider women as unclean and repulsive [although untrue], (b) are not concerned about the delay and aggravation that is caused to other passengers, and (c) feel entitled to impose their religious beliefs and practices on others, regardless of their willingness. This blog is not the place to get into the Halachic issues involved. Clearly, although it is preferable for a man not to sit next to a woman – especially on a very long flight – due to inevitable touching that may occur and possible inappropriate thoughts that might be aroused, it is permissible, even to sit between two women, if necessary. It should be clear, therefore, that if a man wishes to be machmir (personally stringent) and avoid sitting next to a woman by pleasantly and respectfully asking her to switch seats, graciously accepting a refusal if given, the problem would not be in the newspapers. Nor would this problem occur if people planned flights together with others so that they would take up their own row, or even bought an extra seat or fly business class, if they absolutely wished to avoid the problem. Instead, however, we now have many reports of scenes, caused by misplaced piety, which rather than upholding Torah values, brings shame, ridicule, and disrepute on all Orthodox Jews. There are many stories about Gedolim of the past, such as Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l, who stayed seated when a woman sat down next to them, and unobtrusively got off the bus at the next stop, as to not offend his seat-mate. What response have we heard from our leadership to stop and avoid this problem? I have not heard any.
On another front, the black eye that was given to the Torah world by the contemporary problem of Agunos – where so many women are being victimized by the evil extortionist ex-husbands who are misusing Halacha to make their lives and those of their families miserable – was finally being salved somewhat. There are more and more positive things happening to help resolve these issues, such as the growing acceptance of a Halachic pre-nup that operates not as a cure to the problem but as an effective vaccine that prevents Agunah situations from happening. Or the growth and success of ORA in convincing recalcitrant husbands to release their wives. Or the growing number of shuls that will not give aliyos or any kibbudim to such a person. Or the emergence of Botei Din that were more sensitive to the plight of women, and redoubled their efforts to see to it that they were being dealt with equitably. Far from a solution, to be sure, but significant progress was being made. Only to be ruined by the stories of prominent Rabbis involved with illegal schemes to torture husbands into giving a get, for which they themselves charged extortionist prices. The public response from our leadership? The messages that we decry such violence, or that we will redouble our efforts to ostracize recalcitrant extortionist husbands, or that we encourage Halachic pre-nups to become a universal practice? Other than from some Modern Orthodox Gedolim, I did not hear any.
Which brings me to this week’s cause de jour. We were all horrified at the events in Paris last week. I sat glued to the news last Erev Shabbos, waiting to hear what would be the fate of our brothers and sisters at Hyper Cacher. I imagined this happening, G-d forbid, on a busy Friday at the local Kosher market, and how fearful and angry we would have been. And then, on Sunday, came the amazing march of millions of people protesting this action, with the full support of much of the civilized world. I was proud to see Prime Minister Netanyahu marching arm in arm with world leaders (except for one particular leader. . .), and then to hear his magnificent speech in the main synagogue in Paris. The picture of the Prime Minister together with the various world leaders was on every newspaper worldwide, and was the cause of much hope and goodwill. (This despite the absurd inclusion of the crocodile-tear bearing Mahmoud Abbas, ימ”ש, in a demonstration against terror).
All good press . . . until the story came over the wires, from many places, about how Chareidi newspapers had published a photoshopped version of the iconic photo in which the female leaders who appeared in the picture were removed.
Scores of media outlets had a field day with this story. Which resulted, predictably, in a shift of the focus from the glory of this worldwide unity and support, to an opportunity to bash Orthodox Jews as fundamentalist denigrators of women, who could not tolerate the appearance of a modestly dressed woman in their newspaper, certainly not as an important world leader.
The Guardian, a newspaper known for its unfriendly attitude towards Jews in general carried the explanation of this decision by the editor of HaMevaser:
Binyamin Lipkin, editor of Hamevaser, said the newspaper is a family publication that must be suitable for all audiences, including young children.
“The eight-year-old can’t see what I don’t want him to see,” he told Israel’s Channel 10 television station. “True, a picture of Angela Merkel should not ruin the child, but if I draw a line, I have to put it there from the bottom all the way to the top.”
He also said he did not want to tarnish the memories of the people killed in the attacks.
“Including a picture of a woman into something so sacred, as far as we are concerned, it can desecrate the memory of the martyrs and not the other way around,” he said.
I will not waste the reader’s time in refuting this dangerous nonsense, and decrying how this statement creates the impression of a perverted attitude towards women and proper Chinuch of our children. What exercises me, however, is this:
Do I expect to hear any statement from our leaders disassociating themselves, or giving us hadracha as to how this phenomenon causes major Chilul Hashem and ruins moments of grace for the Orthodox community and how we need to learn from it? I am not going to hold my breath.
Now I understand that major Gedolim have given instructions to other Orthodox publications to not publish any pictures of women. Presumably this is because they are concerned about a slippery slope in which if they allow pictures of women who are dressed 100% within the Halachos of Tznius, there may be slippage over time to other pictures which might be seen as more problematic. In this I am happy about the policy of the Queens Jewish Link, which, as Rabbinic advisor Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld has told me, relies on the good sense and taste of the editors and publishers of the paper to allow pictures that will show only positive and dignified images of women. Surely this is the way of the “Middle Group” I mentioned above, being neither too lax nor too stringent in portraying Yiddishkeit and Women in a wholesome and proper light. But if these publications feel that any picture of a woman, no matter how modest or dignified, should not be shown, than why show any picture at all? Or at least show it in a way that they are not altering the truth, as did HaModia, to their credit. Do they not realize the damage they will do – not only to world opinion of Orthodox Jews – but to the Chinuch of their own children, who will undoubtedly discover that the news that they are being fed is doctored and censored and unreliable, thus encouraging the curious even more to find outside sources for their information? Do they not understand that a growing number of Chareidi young people are either being radicalized in being over-zealous about Halachic matters, or cynical about the false messages that are being presented by their community?
In closing, I want to state clearly that I am not, G-d Forbid, casting aspersion on the actions, or lack thereof, of Gedolei Yisroel. Rather, I am giving voice to the exasperation of many that, too often, the messages that are being heard from the leadership, or lack of such messages, are a product of the pressure of extreme voices who are the “squeaky wheels” that garner attention, rather than those of the silent but shrinking majority who are far more nuanced and moderate. I know, from personal conversation with several leading Gedolim, that their emphasis is on דרכיה דרכי נועם (The Torah’s ways are of Pleasantness) and they are upset and frustrated by the messages that are often published as being supported by “The Gedolim” when they do not support these attitudes. I implore more and more of the silent majority to speak up, and let the true leadership know that we are supportive of the “Middle Road” way that used to be the norm, and we want to hear the messages that they really wish to proclaim, and not the rhetoric that the extremist voices are constantly pushing for.
Baruch Hashem we, in Queens, live in an island of relative sanity in the Orthodox world. May the example of our communities grow, and our Hashkafa become prominent as it once was in the Jewish world.