We just celebrated Purim, which has always stood out in my mind as unique among the Jewish holidays. Unique for the giddy exuberance it brings, the gastronomic indulgence, the focus on unity and community, the retelling of arguably the most dramatic tale of Divine salvation in Jewish history – but most of all for the strong, spirited heroine at its center.
Megillat Esther is one of only two books of Tanach named for a woman. And while the megillah conceals the hand of Hashem – it does not even contain His name – Esther’s role is not concealed but celebrated. Her femininity is not an obstacle but a path to a higher purpose. Through her beauty and charm, she wins access to Achashveirosh’s inner sanctum and to his heart, where she is later able to successfully plead for mercy on behalf of the Jews. Yet, unlike her predecessor Vashti, Esther conducts herself throughout with utmost humility, dignity, and tzniut.
A toy store recently distributed a catalogue of children’s Purim costumes. Children are shown modeling all the outfits. The selection was impressive – from astronaut to pirate to Raggedy Ann and Andy – with a host of choices for both boys and girls. So what’s the problem?
To be sure, the preconceived gender roles (boy as pilot, girl as flight attendant; boy as doctor, girl as nurse) reinforce stereotypes and subtly shape children’s sense of possibility. But what shocked my conscience so utterly is that in every photograph of a girl, the face was completely wiped out. Blanked. Blotted. Zombie-like.
The list of reasons why it’s wrong to literally erase the faces of Jewish girls is long indeed. What rankles most is that this misguided act of zealotry is carried out under the guise of Torah. The Torah belongs to each of us, to protect and keep it holy. Just as we would be concerned about the release of a faulty translation of the Bible, we should be concerned about actions carried out publicly in the name of Torah yet in complete dissonance with its ideals.
Perhaps those who treat women like a problem to be managed sincerely believe they are doing something righteous. Or perhaps they are out for attention or to out-frum their neighbors. Either way, their ever-devolving stands in the name of Yahadut do damage both within and without. How would you begin to explain the faceless photos to your child, whether boy or girl? What about to a neighbor or co-worker?
Sadly, these disturbing pictures are not the only example of this kind of thinking passing for piety. There are kollel students being advised to take off their glasses when walking down the street so as not to view immodestly dressed women. There are girls being discouraged from wearing seatbelts on dates because the cross-body straps call attention to the female figure. And then there are the infamous burqas of Beit Shemesh. Besides the disregard for safety inherent in those first two pearls of wisdom, what these practices reflect is an attempt to disengage from reality – from the world Hashem chose to populate with both zachar u’nekeivah (male and female).
I am not going to attempt a halachic exegesis on the laws of tzniut or male-female relations. I will leave that to those more qualified. But the idea that males of any age would be somehow led astray by viewing pictures of little girls in Purim costumes is so far beyond absurd that it would be funny if it weren’t so perverse. There are, to be sure, people out there with all kinds of obsessions, but that hardly means we should regulate our communal life around them.
Unfortunately, over-exposure is the norm in society today, and maintaining personal modesty requires careful calibration of our engagement with popular culture. Yet Torah is supposed to make us stronger, holier, more discerning, more focused, more respectful. That is, if we truly internalize it. What is all the learning in the world worth if at the first sight of a woman – or even a prepubescent girl – a man will lose control of himself? Of course, I don’t believe that is what normally happens. But even the inference offends.
On Purim, we celebrate v’nahapoch hu – everything gleefully topsy turvy – to remember the way our fate and our enemies’ both turned around, so that we were saved and they were slain. But topsy turvy thinking – like erasing the faces of beautiful Jewish girls – should have no place in our everyday lives.