Tuesday, 10 May 2011

The Clinton Non-Photo

Originally published on 5/10/11, 6:32 pm.
The story is all over the news, both within the Jewish media and the general one. Even CNN has a piece on it (see http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/us/2011/05/09/tsr.snow.manipulated.photo.cnn?iref=allsearch). A Yiddish, clearly chassidic newspaper in Brooklyn presented a story on the killing of Osama bin Laden (significantly, I think, under a banner B'Ibud Risha'im Rina, In the Fall of Evil Ones There is Joy) and with the story also published what is now being termed that iconic photo of President Obama with his National Security Team in the White House Situation Room watching the attack on bin Laden's lair. There was, though, one difference in this case. The women in the photo, including Secretary of State Clinton, were removed from the one published in this paper. Comments abounded on this slight of Mrs. Clinton and, perhaps with more intensity, what was deemed to be a slight of women, especially women in powerful offices, in general. In another vein, there was just simply mockery.

Clearly, on a personal level, I was somewhat critical of this action to 'photoshop' the photo. Halachically, I clearly disagree with the standards and even the understanding of tzniut expressed by this paper. Yet, as one who believes strongly in the concept of eilu v'eilu, I also believed that, within this framework, I was called upon to temper any critiques I may have of this action with a recognition, on this level, I would still have to respect this action as part of the corpus of Torah. In this regard, I felt for the editor of this newspaper as he responded to the questions of the CNN reporter about what the paper did. My thoughts were on the Rashi in Chukkot that states that the nations of the world will laugh at us in our practice of chukkim. The editor knew that he was being seen by the world as a fool yet he stood firm simply stating that he was following the Jewish laws of modesty. While I would disagree with his understanding of the halacha, the fact that the world may mock this behaviour cannot be one of my arguments. In the editor's mind, he believed that he was just following Torah and he handled himself in this regard in what I felt was a positive manner. He made it clear that this should not be seen as an attack on the value of women but beside that, he simply defended himself as simply following Torah. He was thus doing what he felt was right even though he knew that the world was laughing. Is this not what Rashi says will happen when we follow chukkim?

But isn't this also exactly the point -- this is what Rashi says will happen when we follow chukkim. There is another problem when we try to take chukkim and express them as understandable from a human perspective. It is when we do this, in fact, that we really open ourselves up to mockery that could even border on chilul Hashem, when the world mocks what we define as our Torah behaviour not because it mocks our behaviour but rather mocks the reason we give for this behaviour. It is such a phenomenon that occurred in this matter with the result that Torah was portrayed as foolish not so much in what the paper actually did but how people interpreted the reason for the paper's actions.

While the editor of this newspaper simply stated that he was following the Jewish laws of modesty, the Jewish Week, in describing the events, said that the position of the paper was that it "would not include any images of women in the paper because it could be considered sexually suggestive." The paper's actual comment in part was:
“In accord with our religious beliefs, we do not publish photos of women, which in no way relegates them to a lower status… Because of laws of modesty, we are not allowed to publish pictures of women, and we regret if this gives an impression of disparaging to women, which is certainly never our intention. We apologize if this was seen as offensive.”
It would seem that the Jewish Week understood that in stating that it was following the Jewish laws of modesty the paper was implying that the paper was contending that any image of a woman could be considered sexually suggestive. That is a jump. The laws of tzniut can be understood as having many different considerations and the reason this paper may not publish such photos may have nothing to do with a belief that such a photo would be sexually suggestive.
Stating that the paper did not publish the photos because they were potentially sexually suggestive, though, really opens up the action to mockery. I just saw the small clip from the Colbert show on this matter. It was embarrassing; Torah was mocked. But really it was not the action of Torah that was mocked but rather the explanation that is given for this action. And perhaps the greatest mockery is in the very fact that we give such a reason. The problem is that once the paper referred to the laws of modesty, the Jewish Week expressed its explanation of what they believed this meant: laws of modesty mean concern for sexual suggestiveness. The greater problem, though, is that the Jewish Week got its impression from the very way we describe the laws of modesty. The laws of tzniut are actually most complex and they are not exclusively, even essentially, about sexual suggestiveness. That is the reason given in order to simplify this concept of tzniut and in the humour of the Colbert show, what is really being mocked is this false simplicity.

When you can have Jewish women believing that they should dress in a manner similar to a Muslim woman in a burka, what you have is not just extremism but a total lack of understanding of the very concept of tzniut. They are not just stupid; they simply do not know what they are talking about. This is where I draw the line on eilu v'eilu. I am assuming that the people truly behind the policy of this paper to not publish photos of women have adopted this policy based upon a thoughtful investigation of the concept of tzniut and, while I may disagree with this understanding, I still am called upon to respect it to some extent. That is though when such conclusions emerge from a true investigation of Torah which in this matter includes a full study of the concept of tzniut with all its complexities. Yet, I have no tolerance, even under eilu v'eilu, for simple understandings of what are actually deep and complex Torah concepts and for explanations given under these parameters. The world will mock us -- and in a certain way, in such a case, rightfully so. We are not being mocked for following God's edicts even as we do not understand them. We are being mocked for applying a simplistic and foolish understanding to God's edicts and making decisions based upon such foolishness. If one believes that the whole purpose of the laws of tzniut flows from the sexual suggestiveness of women and that these laws, for this reason, called upon this paper to 'photoshop' these women out of the paper, one deserves the mocking of Colbert -- for such a person caused a chilul Hashem in people thinking that the God of Torah believes this.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

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