Thou Shalt Not Objectify and Censor Women In Jewish Media Spaces

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The Layers Project Magazine responds to this disturbing trend, and explains why the statement put out by our rabbinic leadership is not enough.

Shira Lankin Sheps, Publisher and Founder
Hannah Dreyfus, Editor in Chief

We, too, read Shoshana Keats Jaskoll’s article, “Who needs rabbinic leadership? A call for Orthodox organizations to heed the voices of the women they cannot see,” with interest. She laid out a full description of the problem of women being removed from many Orthodox media spaces and highlighted why the attitude of “it only affects the Charedi communities” is a myth.

When, late on Thursday night, we read the Rabbinical Council of America’s response affirming that it had never been their “policy” to exclude images of women from its publications, we felt a glimmer of hope. We felt grateful that this organization — the largest coalition of Orthodox rabbis in America — heard what Jaskoll had to say and took it seriously. We appreciated the affirmation that this voice of authority believes that women belong in the public domain as role models — including their names, ideas, and faces.

But then the statement ended, and it stung. What was left unsaid was the condemnation of this new standard in the publications that are readily available throughout the Orthodox world.

What the RCA left out is crucial:  the clear, unmistakable and resounding message that this phenomenon is toxic for our impressionable young men and women, and flies in direct opposition to how we, as a community, understand Torah values. The RCA statement failed to set a boundary for our community. They failed to say this isnot ok.

While many of our communal problems start in the dark shadows of home life, this major problem starts at the top. Who was it that decided that women need to be hidden away? The leaders of Charedi communities, donors, advertisers, publishers? Who decreed that women should be removed from media spaces because it is not tzanua, modest, to look at our faces?

Why? We, as the faces being unceremoniously removed and blurred, deserve an explanation. Was it because it would cause men to have impure thoughts? Or because we are inherently holy and need to be preserved, hidden away under the veil of modesty? Where is this message given to us in the Torah? A problem stemming from the top needs to resolved by those who still preside at the top.

The Torah teaches us that there are two kinds of commandments. The positive commandments, and the negative. You should do — and you shouldn’t do. It’s the way the Torah educates us about how to make boundaries, understand right from wrong, and stay on the path of Torah observance.

The RCA gave us a positive statement:  “Of course women should be represented in media. We agree with that statement.” We are glad to know that this is their policy.

Now we need our negative commandment: “Thou shalt not objectify and censor women in Jewish media spaces.”

We need our leaders to stand up for our values and draw lines in the sand. We need them to speak aloud about the practical and psychological damage this phenomenon can and will cause in our communities. We need them to reject this “false frumkeit” and restore kavod habriot, respect and dignity to all people, to the way women are represented in our media.

Because we have another problem. There is nothing else to read. When we walk into our local Glatt kosher supermarkets and walk over to the magazine racks, there are Charedi newspapers and magazines and secular Israeli publications with bikini-clad women plastered all over them. When we check out at our local pharmacies, we have around 100 different mainstream American magazines to choose from that range from discussing latest celebrity gossip or recipes filled with bacon. What are we supposed to read that will reflect our cultural and religious sensibilities, and that we can feel comfortable having in our homes?

We have stopped reading those Charedi magazines. Children can understand the implication of women being removed from these spaces. They can translate that absence into the painful, erroneous message, “there is something wrong with girls” and then, eventually, “there is something wrong with me.”  They may interpret, somewhere along the way, that there is something inherently dangerous, unclean, unholy about female images. In a world where we are combatting on every level to raise our children to be sane, healthy and respectful adults, this phenomenon presents a minefield of poisonous messages about how women should see themselves, and how men should see us, too.

When our girls look to see themselves represented — when they want to learn more about potential role models — when they want to see how a Jewish woman’s grace and holiness shine through her face — where will they look? And when they don’t see themselves reflected back in the glossy sheets of “frum” magazines, where will they turn? What values will they find there? Both options will sexualize her, fetishize her, demean her or dismiss her.

When we don’t stand up and condemn this new social construct, we enable it.

We pray that the RCA and all of the communal institutions that claim to represent our rabbinic leadership take a stand to deliberately condemn the removal of women from our media spaces.

Tell us you want more for us. Tell us you see us. Tell us we deserve to be represented in a respectful way. Tell us it’s unacceptable to continue and enable this pathology.

We, the community members, will fight against this the best we can, by creating new magazines and new opportunities. But rabbis, tell us you will stand alongside us. Make boundaries for us that will show our daughters that they are holy regardless of their beauty, and our sons that we, women, are not objects to be fetishized and dismissed.

Women are as complex and flawed as men. We are multi-faceted and multi-layered. We are human and holy. Just like Man, Woman was created in the image of God.

What message do we want to teach our children?

The Layers Project Magazine is a publication that showcases intentional images of Jewish women and insights into their multi-layered internal worlds.

Shira Lankin Sheps graduated from Hunter College School of Social Work with an MSW in clinical social work. After working in the clinical field, marketing and photojournalism, she decided to start The Layers Project to help break down stigma and promote healing within our Jewish community. She feels strongly about presenting women, who are so often shown as shallow characters or fully removed from Jewish media spaces, as three-dimensional individuals whose lives are full and rich with resilience. Shira is the founder, Publisher and CEO of The Layers Project Magazine.