Jewish and social media lit up last month over an advertisement published in the Flatbush Jewish Journal, a Brooklyn weekly.
The ad was placed by social media personality Adina Miles, famous for her rabble-rousing Instagram account “Flatbush Girl,” and was meant to show appreciation to City Councilman Chaim Deutsch for helping her in a local graffiti clean-up effort. When the Flatbush Jewish Journal refused to run the ad because it contained a picture of a woman and the word “girl,” Miles placed an emoji over her face and changed her name to “Flatbush Boy.” The advertisement ran.
This incident, though extreme, is not the first of its kind. For years, a number of Orthodox –specifically haredi – publications have refused to publish photos of women and even their names for the sake of modesty.
In 2015, the website Behadrei Haredim blurred the faces of the Israeli government’s new female ministers in a picture taken at the home of Israel’s president. That same year, two haredi newspapers in Beit Shemesh blocked a sock ad that showed the feet of a two-year-old female child.
In 2011, the Brooklyn-based newspaper Der Zeitung made headlines when it removed then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from a photograph taken in the Situation Room of the White House.
It wasn’t always like this. The Lubavitcher Rebbe was known for his efforts to elevate the position of Jewish women. In fact, he was insistent that if a boy was on the cover of the Chabad children’s magazine The Moshiach Times, a girl had be there as well.
In 1973, Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, founder of the Hineni outreach movement, took center stage at Madison Square Garden to spread her message. No one questioned her place on that stage or her right to be a public leader.
Over the past couple of decades, however, a shift in our values has rendered the presence of women in some Orthodox publications practically non-existent.
“Censorship of female pictures in magazines is just one of many chumras being put on the community,” said Flatbush Girl Adina Miles. Comparing the phenomenon to the spread of antibodies on an invading virus, Miles said “it’s just one of the many gut reactions to the outside world banging on our doors.”
The basis for the practice is unclear. The phrase Kol kevuda bas melech penima (a woman’s beauty lies within) from Psalms and Hinei Sarah ba’ohel (Behold, Sarah was in her tent) from the Chumash are commonly cited as texts from which the laws of tzniut (modesty) are derived. The Rambam follows a Gemara in Kesubot that uses the phrase from Psalms to rule that a woman should not leave her home more than once a month – a view clearly not accepted by Orthodox Jews.
But somewhere along the line, critics charge, interpretation has become skewed and women have disappeared.
“Certainly if she is tzanuah, there is no halachic case for [the removal of women in publications],” said Rabbi Mordechai Weiss, an award-winning educator and speaker. Like many others who have closely followed the controversy, Rabbi Weiss believes the growing practice of censorship is an example of a shift to the far right in Orthodoxy.
“I think most people in society are able to look at modest pictures of women without it eliciting impure thoughts,” said Rabbi Steven Pruzansky of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, New Jersey.
Rabbi Pruzansky calls the practice an “unnecessary stringency.”
“Extremism is what I would call it,” said Naomi Klass Mauer, publisher of The Jewish Press, which has always featured pictures and names of women. “I think everything is moving to the right.… It’s not a halacha if the woman is dressed properly.”
Others posit a different explanation for the dwindling appearance of women. Earlier this year, in a “Headlines” podcast interview hosted by Dovid Lichtenstein, the renowned posek Rav Dovid Cohen said that “sales competition” is behind the removal of women from some Orthodox publications. Once a publication decides it will not print women, there is a domino effect.
“Their competition,” Rav Cohen added, “can’t let them be frummer, so they stop doing it [as well].”
(On that same podcast Dovid Lichtenstein noted that when HaRav Chaim Kanievsky was looking through a biography of his wife he asked, “Where’s the Rebbetzin?” because all the pictures were of him.)
Rabbi Simon Jacobson, former editor of the Algemeiner Journal, said it’s all about the readership of the publication. “If their constituency is one that will not tolerate women’s pictures, they are serving their constituency.” To Jacobson, it has to do with the wishes of advertisers and readers more than the will of the publishers.
Whether the decision stems from religious or business reasons, the effect is equally negative.
“It’s overly sexualizing women,” said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of interfaith affairs at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. “It’s not a question of dressing provocatively. It’s saying that because you are a woman, you are provocative. That is a dangerous message.”
Critics of censoring women in Orthodox media point to a growing backlash among many Orthodox women.
“Now it comes down to the women in the communities themselves really feeling disenfranchised and resentful,” said Allison Josephs, founder of Jew in the City, an organization devoted to correcting public misperceptions of Orthodox Jews.
As an activist, Josephs prides herself on respecting different ways of life, even if she herself may not necessarily align with their schools of thought. However, after interacting with women in haredi communities who voiced their discomfort with the practice, Josephs realized there was a problem.
A reason for the resentment, she said, is the burden it places on the women. In general, women are commanded to dress modestly while men must keep their minds in an appropriate place. “We’re supposed to exist in a partnership and meet in the middle,” said Josephs. “When women are removed completely, then men don’t have to do their job at all.”
On the other hand, some women don’t feel burdened at all. A chassidic woman who heads a Jewish organization said she views the removal of women from Orthodox publications as protection for the women, not subjugation.
To others, however, the insistence on the removal of women’s names and pictures from the public sphere is far from beneficial. In practice, they say, it goes against the history of Judaism.
“Hashem saw it appropriate to include female names when He wrote the Torah,” mused Josephs. “Are we more frum than Hashem?”
In an Instagram post on July 10, Adina Miles wrote, “What kind of message are we sending our daughters & sons when they look through a magazine & there are no female faces to be seen?” Miles rallied Orthodox men and women alike to join her social media campaign and share pictures with the caption #FrumWomenHaveFaces.
“The main goal,” she said, “was to start a conversation within the mainstream of the community, which I am proud to say has been accomplished.”
Other men and women are jumping on the bandwagon. A Facebook group called “Put the Women Back in Frum Media!” encourages its members to protest for the inclusion of women in Orthodox publications and has fostered an initiative to create a new magazine that would prominently feature modestly dressed women.
The Layers Project, founded by Shira Lankin Sheps, was created in order to publish photographs of Jewish women and give them a space to talk about their experiences without being censored. “We need to stop removing women from what we read and do the opposite,” wrote Sheps in a blog post titled “Put Women Back in Orthodox Media.”
The rising opposition is taking the lead in undoing the damage. It is not uncommon now to find essays and articles speaking out against the removal of women from Orthodox media outlets.
“For the first time ever,” said Miles, “alternate voices have a platform that can’t be censored.”
One voice that stands out is that of Merri Ukraincik. Her essay “The Invisible Jew” (published last month on hevria.com and in The Jewish Press) describes her fear of all women being systematically washed out of society.
“I lack the power to alter the course of a tide that washes our footprints from the shore as if we never touched down at all,” she writes. “But I know I’m not alone.”
Ukraincik, like many other Jewish women, is determined to combat the invisibility before it silences all women.
“Women have a very strong voice, especially when we join together,” she said. “It’s our greatest strength in trying to effect change.”
Women like Merri Ukraincik, Adina Miles, and Allison Josephs, seek to change what has become the status quo. Women like Naomi Klass Mauer, through The Jewish Press, and Shira Lankin Sheps, through her Layers Project, are tirelessly defending a woman’s right to an uncensored presence in print and online.
Beneath the blurry images and silhouettes, you can almost hear the voices of generations of Jewish women. They are perched on the precipice of a new world, bracing themselves for an anticipated leap into acceptance and inclusion.