The following article was written by Breindy Lazor in response to Cheryl Kupfer’s On Our Own column for the week of January 6.
Your thoughts in last week’s column were an absolutely perfect reflection of everything going through my mind and the minds of many of my friends for the last few years. Thank you so much. I always enjoy reading your articles, and when I read this one I felt I had to write to you because the topic touches such a nerve with me.
As someone who grew up in the 80s and 90s in a “regular” (i.e. middle of the road) Orthodox home in Boro Park, I realize now that I witnessed a societal shift towards the right which happened so gradually that when I look around today I just can’t believe how different things have become. When did I ever think about who I was sitting next to on a bus? When did I ever pay a shiva call and find a mechitza separating men and women so that family members in mourning can’t sit beside each other or at least see one another? Who separated men and women at simchas such as a seudas bris where there would be no dancing? There has been an all-encompassing change on every level, touching on almost every facet of our lives as frum Jews. And that change is now so complete that few people even remember what things used to be like, and even fewer seem to remember what really counts and what Hashem really wants of us.
The last straw for me was the appearance of newspapers and magazines, in recent years, whose publishers refuse to print pictures of women. Despite certain writers, despite certain appealing stories, I made up my mind to stop buying these publications because I feel that by buying them I would be supporting something that is twisted. Like you, I cannot understand what could possibly be so horribly un-tzniusdik in showing a woman dressed modestly, and at the very least, from the neck up. One article in such a magazine featured a write up on the life and accomplishments of a very famous author, historian and Holocaust survivor, yet it was her husband who was pictured and not she. I think that was the issue that shocked me right out of ever buying the magazine again. What an affront to this woman, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized what an affront it was to all women.
The leap from making women invisible to viewing them as inferior is a small one, and I knew it would come eventually. It therefore came as no surprise to me that a woman might be beaten if she is pushing a carriage on Shabbos by men who don’t hold of the eiruv or that a girl might be spat on by a man who decides she is not dressed according to his standards of tznius. One thing I would like to point out is that it’s an even smaller leap from being viewed as inferior to believing you ARE inferior. The messages I received in school always revolved around tznius and there was always some terrible catastrophe that could potentially occur, to us personally or to society as a whole, if it wasn’t adhered to properly. We never learned about it as something beautiful to move towards; rather it was always about covering up so as to move away – away from sin and Gihenom. Small wonder that so many women and girls rebel against that message when they finally leave school. Smaller wonder that so many women and girls in our community have complexes about their bodies. Here I am, long out of school, yet the messages haven’t stopped, making it clear to me that I didn’t just have a few misguided teachers – my school was a microcosm of what our society would become.
To illustrate, some months ago I saw signs in Flatbush reprimanding women who wear “flesh-colored” stockings. The sign said they were inappropriate and may not be worn and had signatures of greatly respected roshei yeshiva. I was dismayed to see it and glad when I saw the signs had been torn down a few days later. Once again it was the familiar mussar message of, “Cover up, girls! Don’t let anyone know that you have legs, or any other potentially provocative body parts.” I was enraged. Why are men looking at women’s legs, determining whether their stockings are flesh-colored or not? Why are men analyzing women’s skirt lengths? And why are women always having the finger pointed at them?
It seems, as you pointed out, that recent events are an inevitable outcome of a) women constantly being guilted into feeling responsible for every ill in the world and b) the general public (women included) hopping on board and joining in the chanting of that message. In my opinion, the only way out of this is a two-fold approach: Those of us (men AND women) who have been doing the finger pointing need to stop playing G-d and making women or any particular group feel that they are responsible for all the troubles in society, and secondly, and more importantly – because the blaming will not stop so quickly – the rest of us need to stop buying into it! No one should be telling you that he or she knows what your relationship is with Hashem or how He feels about you. Each individual has his or her bond with Hashem and the responsibility to look deeply into himself/herself in order to grow spiritually and continue to strengthen this bond. With this awareness, the guidance of a rav then serves to support this journey. The rav (or rebbetzin or morah) becomes an enabler – not an accuser.