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Between Cheerleaders and Blurred Faces: A Nuanced Look at Chumras Parshas Tazria Metzora

I’d like to begin by reading to you an article from this week’s USA Today:

“The Houston Texans aren’t even bothering with the pretense.

On their website is a photo gallery of the finalists from last weekend’s cheerleader tryouts, and visitors are encouraged to vote for their favorites. Are these action shots of the women that highlight their athletic ability or dance skills? Do they include a list of their qualifications?

Of course not…

Cheerleaders from two NFL teams have filed gender discrimination complaints in the past month, detailing the demeaning ways in which they were treated. Restrictions on what they can and can’t post on social media. Rules that prohibit contact with players, and put the onus on the women to avoid it.”

“Is it any wonder?” continues the author, “The underlying premise of NFL cheerleaders is degrading, presenting women as nothing more than objects to be leered at. With skimpy, suggestive outfits as their “uniform,” their only purpose is to titillate.

This is not a criticism of cheerleading overall. In some forms, it very much is an athletic endeavor, a hybrid of acrobatics and gymnastics. The International Olympic Committee has even recognized cheerleading as a sport and it could some day make an appearance in the Games.

Proponents will say that most women who are NFL cheerleaders are professionally trained dancers who just want the opportunity to do what they love. That they play an important role in maintaining the team’s positive image with promotional appearances and community service.

All of which is true.

But that isn’t the real reason 26 of the 32 NFL teams have cheerleaders, and everybody knows it. They’re there to be eye candy, blow-up dolls come to life.”

And then you have this, about a growing trend in the Orthodox community, from a recent op-ed in the Times of Israel, “Entire magazines are devoid of women. There are children’s books, textbooks, comics, and advertisements in which no mothers and no daughters are represented. Beautifully illustrated Shabbat zemirot booklets have grandfathers, fathers and sons; there are no grandmothers, mothers, or daughters. I even have an illustrated Megillat Esther sans Esther.

It’s a bizarre and sad world in which Jewish women are considered immodest, no matter how modestly they dress and act…

Mishpacha is one of the most prominent publications to omit images of women and girls. When it recently profiled Mrs. Yehudis Jaffe, the article was accompanied by photographs of the educator’s husband and father.

Similarly, in these publications, advertisements show smiling male professionals — real estate agents or dentists, for example — yet their female colleagues are represented by flowers, shapeless icons, or simply a name. The uneven portrayal of men and women doing the same job looks ridiculous, but worse is the fact that, since photographs are worth a thousand words of marketing, the female business owners are at a competitive disadvantage with regard to their market share, with reduced chances for livelihood and clientele.” (Shoshana Keats Jaskol)

When I sent a picture of Rachel Shar to our graphic designer for the invitation to our upcoming dinner, she wrote back, “Would you like me to blur Rachel’s face?” She was joking, of course. But that’s the world we live in.

And it’s a world that is not, in any stretch of the imagination, Halachic. There is no law that states that women’s faces must be hidden from view. There is no law that states that when we wish Mazel Tov to a couple on their baby we only say the man’s name and not the woman – who pushed that baby out!! There is no law that directs us to marginalize women from the world. This is not Jewish Law.

Now, I think, I hope that people who do have such practices acknowledge that. Most of them are knowledgeable enough to acknowledge that this is not Jewish Law. What they will tell you is that it is a chumra, a stringency. Not Jewish Law but an adopted practice, taken on voluntarily, for one purpose or another.

Now in many circles, ours included, the word chumra has a dirty connotation. And I understand why it does, but I don’t think it should. Because chumras do have a place in Judaism. There is an important principal that we learned today from the Metzora – the man or woman, who according to our Sages, has a talking problem. He or she simply cannot resist gossiping. So how do we rectify such behavior? How do we get it out of our system?

The Torah’s approach is by being a little stringent, maybe even a little extreme. The gossiper is excommunicated for a short and sometimes long period of time. They live in complete solitude and don’t get to speak to anyone. And yes, no social media.

The principal is that by going to the opposite extreme, by not speaking at all, one ultimately finds their way back to a healthy way of living.

We find this principal in many places. Maimonides, in his work on ethics writes, “A person who has a bad temper should act as follows: If he is struck or cursed, he should not take it to heart at all. He should continue to act in this manner for a long period of time until his trait of anger is uprooted from his heart. [So too o]ne who is arrogant should degrade himself greatly. He should sit in the least honorable seat and wear worn-out clothes which shame their wearer. He should do the above and the like until the arrogance is uprooted from him…So too should a person behave regarding all character traits. If he is on one extreme he should move to the opposite extreme and accustom himself to such behavior for a good while until he may return to the proper middle path.”

It’s true for character flaws and it’s true for mitzvos and aveiros. If one finds themselves slipping in one area or another of Jewish Law, and let’s say for our intents and purposes, in an area that relates to sexuality, and in order to combat their weakness they do something a little extreme, something out of the ordinary – all the power to them.

Where it gets complicated is when that stringency impacts more than myself; when my spiritual growth is paved on someone else’s expense. Which is why I am not a fan of blurred faces or omitted names becoming the standard in Orthodox Jewish circles. To me, although they are radically different, it has too much in common with the cheerleaders we spoke of earlier. We have the objectification of women by showing too much and the objectification of women by showing too little. Both objectify women. Both present an unhealthy view to men and women alike. Both impact impressionable girls trying to understand themselves and who they are, damaging their self-image. And both impact impressionable boys trying to understand the other gender, paving the way for all sorts of problems in their future relationships with the other gender.

Now I showed this paragraph to someone before I spoke and he said, “You know, the only thing people will walk away with is that you told them that magazines like Mishpacha, that blur faces are no different than magazines like…” Well, you know what he was referring to.

Well, I guess I sort of did say that. Didn’t I?

But to be perfectly clear, the oversexualization of women and the erasing of women are coming from very, very different places; different universes to be exact. Underexposure, the blurring of faces and all that it’s associated with, while I disagree with it, is coming from a place of holiness; an extreme sensitivity to sexuality in a world that pretends no such thing exists. I have sympathy for where they’re coming from, but I don’t like the solution.

Overexposure is coming from a place of hypocrisy, a place that speaks loudly of women’s progress and behind closed doors and not even behind closed doors, demeans women through and through.

But both of them, as different as they are, in my opinion have consequences that I would like to avoid. Both of them objectify and marginalize. The good does not outweigh the bad.

And here’s where I’d like to add a few qualifications:

One, we are talking about chumros, stringencies, self-imposed additions to Jewish Law. This would be entirely different if we were talking about Jewish Law. As you know, there are certain laws which are uncomfortable to some, at times painfully so. When we encounter such laws, we try as best as we can to be sensitive, to search for leniencies if appropriate, but at the end of the day we abide by them, because it is the law. The same is not true for chumras, which are not obligatory. Before accepting or imposing such stringencies we want to be really sure that it’s a good idea.

The second qualification is this – when we throw away the bathwater, when we protest, when we speak up about the marginalization of women, let’s not throw away the baby. Meaning, let’s not institutionalize a chumra with negative ramifications. But the person, the individual who says they don’t want to have a smartphone because they’re afraid of all the stuff that’s out there – cool. The individual who doesn’t frequent certain places because of what they’ll see – that’s great. The person who is a little stiff in their interactions with those of the opposite gender because they’re afraid of where it may go – all the power to them.

Those are chumras (and some of them many not even be!) that I applaud. If done correctly, with wisdom and with sensitivity, they could only serve to enhance one’s life. And when we see such an individual, or maybe, yes maybe even a whole group of such people who choose to opt-in to a certain, more stringent lifestyle; people, or groups of people who have made a conscious choice to do something or to not do something, we should look at them, not with scorn, but with envy – here is a man or woman who chooses to go above and beyond.

As a society and as a community, we don’t have to choose between cheerleaders and blurred faces. We could just do what’s right. We could study the beautiful laws that we possess that recognize the power of sexuality on the one hand and the dignity of every man or woman on the other. As individuals, there is room for the personal chumra; we can do more, and frankly, we should do more, in this area or in any, as long as it’s done with self-awareness, with wisdom, and with a deep sensitivity to the people around us.

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