Women, Tzniut, and the Geulah

As I write this, it’s Rosh Chodesh Nisan. I feel as if it’s been a lifetime since Purim which is the last time our lives were even close to normal. The COVID-19 pandemic has upended our lives and left us in a real life version of the twilight zone. Meanwhile, we still have to get ready for Pesach, but we have to do it by ourselves. And we have to prepare ourselves for much smaller Sedarim so unlike our usual Sedarim that include extended family. 

I’m finding ways to cope.

I’m still keeping up my everyday hygiene and putting on real clothes. I don’t put on makeup every day, but I do put it on sometimes. I make time for showering and hair care. Since I’m low risk, I do go out for the necessary errands but I take advantage of the extra exercise. Every now and then, I dance to some peppy music, preferably with lyrics that remind me that Hashem is in charge and that He will get us out of this. 

Speaking of Hashem getting us out of this, there are a couple of teachings involving Yetziat Mitzrayim that I love. 

One is about the women in general. The men in Mitzrayim had lost faith so they separated from their wives so as not to father another generation of slaves. We women didn’t lose faith, but instead of convincing the men with logic, we made copper mirrors and we used them to put on nice clothes and make ourselves look beautiful. The men couldn’t resist so they went back to their wives and thus was conceived the generation that left Mitzrayim. 

Another teaching is about Miriam bat Amram. He had separated from his wife because he didn’t want to father a son who would be murdered. Miriam spoke up and put him in his place. She told him that he was worse than Pharaoh because he was preventing girls from coming into the world. Amram could’ve argued that there was no point to that, but he knew that Miriam was right, so he went back to his wife. Thus was conceived Moshe Rabbeinu who led us out of Mitzrayim. 

I write a lot about the importance of women not hiding and I find it very ironic that I now have to hide my face when I go outdoors (I’m healthy but my doctor suggested wearing a mask as an extra precaution). At least I know that the men have to do this too.  

With all the craziness of COVID-19, I was wondering when someone would come up with the idea that women are at fault by not being careful enough with tzniut. I didn’t have too long to wait- my friend posted something she had seen recently in Eretz Yisrael. My husband was also disgusted with it and asked “Is there suddenly nevuah?!”

But I decided that I would go with it. Of course we women need to be extra careful with tzniut. But it’s going to be TRUE tzniut. After all, it was women coming forward and making themselves seen and heard that got us out of Mitzrayim. Hiding is NOT tzniut. There’s even math to prove that. 

If I need to wear a mask outside as a precaution, then I’ll wear one. But I’m going to make sure my face is out there even if just on social media. I’m not going to stop speaking or writing. I will not disappear. And I invite all women to join me (while taking all necessary precautions, of course). Who knows? We women might bring about the Geulah this time just as we did in Mitzrayim.

 

May Hashem grant a Refuah Shleimah to the sick, continued good health to the rest, Parnassah to all, and may He bring us all Home very soon. 

 

Women, Emuna, and Knowing Our Place

As a general rule, we women are exempt from “Mitzvot Aseh SheHaZman Gramah” (time-bound positive commandments). However, there are a lot of exceptions to this rule. One of these involves the mitzvot of Chanukah. The principle behind is “Af Hen Hayu B’Oto HaNess” (they too were involved in the miracle). So true. As a child, I remember learning about Chana and her seven sons and their Kiddush Hashem. Later, I learned about Yehudit and how she used cheese and wine to disarm the Syrian-Greek general. She killed him and brought his head to the besieged Jews, raising their morale and confusing the enemy. We just celebrated Chanukah last month and soon we’ll be celebrating Purim which is another exception. Not only are women involved but one woman is the lead heroine of the story. I always took pride in the fact that my middle name is Esther just like that heroine.  

             This shouldn’t be news. We women have always been the guardians of Emuna. We were the ones who never lost our faith in Hashem throughout history even when the men did. And our Torah gives our women full credit by telling their stories. We have our Imahot (Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, and Leah), Yocheved/Shifra, Miriam/Puah, B’not Tzelofchad (Machlah, Choglah, Noa, Milcah, and Tirtza), Devorah, Yael, Ruth, Esther, etc. Later, our history tells us about such women as Bruriah, Ima Shalom, Gracia Nasi Mendes, Gluckel of Hameln, and others whose names I don’t remember right now. In modern times, we have such women as Sarah Schenirer, Nechama Leibowitz, Rebbetzin Henny Machlis, and Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis. 

             Not long ago, I joined a group on Facebook called “Women Emuna Builders.” Our leader, Esther, goes on various treks to the kevarim of tzaddikim to daven. A couple of months ago, she was here in NY and I met up with her and other ladies at the Ohel Lubavitch.

On the left, I’m with Esther Avta, founder of Women Emuna Builders. On the right, I’m with the ladies. From left, Meira (me), Ilana, Maggie (@hopesandprayer), Esther, Jennifer, and Mazal.

None of us are Lubavitchers, but we davened and we hope that Hashem answers our tefillot with “yes.”

             Not long ago, I read things from people who think that I and others need to know our place. Well, you know what? I think that I and other women are precisely the ones who do know our place. We are the ones who have maintained emuna and bitachon even when the men didn’t.

             There’s an interesting irony. In the secular world, if a woman takes a stand for traditional values, then at best, she’s pitied as a victim of society’s sexist attitudes. At worst, she’s ridiculed as an old-fashioned prude. In the Jewish world, if a woman takes a stand for traditional values, then even if it doesn’t happen immediately, she becomes a heroine for the history books. For example, Sarah Schenirer had a lot of detractors at first among rabbis who didn’t like her innovation. But by the time she passed away, everyone recognized her as someone who had saved our girls and preserved Torah Judaism.

             A few weeks ago, we read about one of those heroines who did know her place when the men didn’t. Tamar did what she had to do and when Yehuda thought he had to punish her, she showed proof of HIS mistake, thus putting him in HIS place. To his credit, he acknowledged it with “Tzadka Mimeni” (she is more righteous than I am). Many scholars and commentators, including one of my teachers, say that when Yehuda said this, he earned the zechut of being progenitor of Melech HaMoshiach.

             We women have always known our place. For some of us women, that place is more behind-the-scenes. For others, that place is more front-and-center. Neither one is more or less tzniut than the other as long as it’s about the individual woman and where she can do the most good for herself, her family, and Klal Yisrael.

             Our Torah and our history have never erased our women. We need to take our stand for that tradition and not allow ourselves to be erased or silenced.   

 

The Man’s Preference

A few times, I’ve seen things on my social media feed about women wearing what men prefer. And I’ve seen different attitudes to it. There are women who feel that their husbands have every right to say something about what they wear and who feel that it’s a team thing. There are other women who feel that if a man wants a woman to wear or not wear something, that’s a red flag of a controlling type. Then there are the women like me who take the middle ground.

Before I go any further, I will say that no man has the right to dictate what his wife wears or doesn’t wear. That actually is controlling and abusive.

That said, I do say that a woman needs to look attractive for her husband. He’s the most important person in her life (not including her children) and he deserves to see her looking good. This does not mean that she has to get dressed up fancy except for situations that call for that. It’s OK for her to wear a jeans skirt and t-shirt for those casual times. The key is to make sure that her jeans skirt fits her properly and makes her bottom half appear long and shapely and that her t-shirt fits her, flatters her top half, and is in a pretty color that makes her face glow.

If finding something pretty and flattering is difficult and time-consuming, then you need to make time to weed out your wardrobe. Go through everything and get rid of anything that doesn’t flatter you. If something needs cleaning or tailoring, get that done. Then, organize your clothes- tops here, dresses there, skirts there. Finding a flattering outfit, even a casual one, should be as easy as opening your closet and/or drawer and grabbing the first items your hands touch.

Some women think “he’s supposed to love me no matter how I look.” If he’s a truly good guy, he will, but in that case, why wouldn’t you want to make him happy too? You might think it’s a small thing, but it’s those small things that make a difference. While most men don’t care much about fashion or style, they do notice how a woman looks.

I also think a man has the right to state his preferences and a woman is right to respect them. Most men are not into girlie things like fashion/style and couldn’t care less about what their wives wear. But some men do have preferences. It could be because they do actually like fashion and style- I know men who do. It could also be because he travels in certain circles and wants a wife who will fit into those circles. I know at least one woman who specifically wanted a husband who would fit into her circle and I don’t see anything wrong with it. I do agree that no one should sacrifice any part of themselves for the sake of fitting into any social circle, but it just means that if the woman doesn’t fit naturally into the man’s circles, they’re just two good people who aren’t bashert.

Regarding the man’s preferences, I do not think the woman needs to sacrifice her own style, but there’s nothing unhealthy about respecting his preferences and incorporating them into her look.

For example, if he has a favorite color, work with that. Find versions of that color that flatter you and have them in your wardrobe along with other colors you love.

My husband’s favorite color is blue. Here I am wearing versions of blue that flatter me. But as my friends and family know, I love other colors too and my favorite color is green. I don’t limit myself except to colors that flatter me.

I’ve read many times in secular fashion magazines and books that men prefer a woman in jeans and a t-shirt because she looks natural and approachable. If your husband does prefer jeans skirts, have a few in shapes that fit and flatter you and wear them for casual times.

Some men even have preferences about hair covering. Maybe it’s about what his mother wears or maybe it’s about the women in his social circle. As with base items, work with that. If he likes hats as a hair covering, then have a few flattering hats in your covering arsenal and wear them at least sometimes. If he likes shaytls, find a great shaytlmacher and get yourself one that flatters you and wear it. If there’s a covering that he likes but that you don’t like, talk with him and figure out a compromise.

My husband loves my mitpachot and so do I.

Ultimately, if he’s a good guy, he’ll remember that what you wear is up to you. But if he is a good guy, there’s nothing wrong with making him happy even on this seemingly small thing.

Face-ing Our Maker

I think Elul is my favorite month of the year. OK, it’s my birthday month so that does give me a bias, but it’s also a good time for soul-searching and reconnecting with ourselves and with Hashem. We’re getting ready for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and on those days, we need to be prepared to face our Maker. Pun intended.

Hashem gave us this time of year precisely to remind us that He wants to see our faces and hear our voices. We can’t hide ourselves from Him nor should we. And we need not hide ourselves from each other either. 

As my readers know by now, I am adamantly against the erasing of women from Jewish media. There are publications that won’t do a story on a woman so that they won’t have to use a photo. Or they’ll do a story on a woman but they’ll use photos of her husband, her father, and her sons, but nothing of her. They’ll show ads for professional services featuring photos of the men but not of the women. There are also groups that honor men and women for their fundraisers but they’ll use only photos of the men for the ads and mailings. 

This policy is harmful and dangerous for a number of reasons. 

They claim that it’s about “tznius,” but it’s actually a corruption of tzniut. True tzniut demands that women and men be seen as human beings and treated with basic human dignity but this policy turns women into objects and that’s the opposite of tzniut. 

It demeans men by implying that they’re not capable of controlling themselves and behaving like mentschen.

It deprives us of needed role models. We do not hold up our tzaddikim and tzidkoniot throughout our history for nothing. Plus, according to my friend, psychologist Daniel Hoffman, PhD, when dealing with body image issues, people need healthy role models, including women. When we erase women from view, we lose out on that. 

It erases part of our history. Judaism has always recognized women, from the Tanach through the Mishna/Talmud through the Middle Ages/Renaissance all the way up to and including modern times. We have enemies trying to erase our history and we shouldn’t be doing it to ourselves. 

It makes a Chillul Hashem. There is still a prevalent belief that Judaism is biased against women and policies that erase women only reinforce that belief. Of course we don’t water down Halacha for the outside world, but this policy has no basis in Halacha or Mesorah. 

It’s wrong for mental health. Daniel Hoffman points out that when people have anxiety about something, avoiding that thing only makes the anxiety worse. Here, we have men who are anxious about getting impure thoughts over the mere sight of an Ishah Tznu’ah. Avoiding the sight of women only worsens that anxiety. 

So now we know it’s wrong. What can we do?

Last spring, before Shavuot, my friend Merri came up with the hashtag of #Iwontdisappear as a way of going into Shavuot and receiving the Torah. We women were there too and we deserve to show our faces and not be erased. Now that we are in the Slichot week before the Yamim Noraim, I think it’s a good time to use that hashtag along with my hashtag of #facingmyMaker and the one of my friend Ann, #frumwomenhavefaces. We need to raise awareness of this so that more and more people will speak up. 

As we approach the Yamim Noraim, instead of hiding, let’s try to present our Maker with the best face possible.

We Won’t Be Erased or Silenced

Aside from this blog, I write a column in a local Jewish newspaper about how to dress well and look good within tzniut. Three times (in two years), I have written articles for that column about the erasing of women. I (and many other women and men) agree that the policy of not using photos of women in Jewish publications and ads is harmful and dangerous. The only feedback I have seen up until now was positive.

But then came my third article. I wrote it as a shout-out to my friend Merri who came up with the hashtag of #Iwontdisappear. I shared the article on Facebook in the hope of the newspaper getting good feedback about it. I’m not sure if they got any positive feedback, but they certainly got some negative feedback. The only response printed was by the paper’s Rabbinic Consultant. He felt that while erasing women from photos is “silly,” but those publications have a right to do it. As it is, this paper has already taken a stand by using photos of women and therefore, the paper doesn’t need to publish any more articles on the subject.

There’s a part of me that’s laughing about how I’ve been promoted to chief troublemaker. But then there’s the part of me that knows how dangerous this is.

First, the policy of not using photos of women is not “silly.” It is harmful and dangerous for many reasons:

  • When even a woman’s face is considered too provocative to be seen, it turns the woman into an object. That’s the antithesis of tzniut no matter how much these publications claim it to be about tzniut.
  • It infantilizes men by implying that they cannot control themselves. B”H, I know a lot of men who are mentschen and who know how to treat others with respect and Derech Eretz. They know that it’s not my job to hide.
  • It puts the entire onus of tzniut on the women while forgetting that men are just as obligated in tzniut as the women.
  • It harms the woman’s parnassah by diminishing the impact of any ads for her professional products or services. The publications won’t erase the photos of men because they know that photos have an impact. The editor of my paper once told me that it’s important to have photos because they make the article come off better.
  • It deprives our girls of visible role models. The only images they’re seeing are the images from the secular world. Many of these images are not tzniut-appropriate and most are unhealthy. And our girls are seeing these images no matter how hard we try to avoid them. The only effective way to combat them is to give them healthy images of our Nashim Tzidkoniot. There are those who say that these girls have their mothers and grandmothers, but our communities hold our Nashim Tzidkoniot as role models because they know the importance of having good role models. And with healthy images, our girls can see these women as real people whom they can try to emulate.
  • It erases our history. One of the wonderful and unique things about Torah Judaism is that we have always held our Nashim Tzidkoniot as role models throughout history. And we used images of them as a matter of course until the 1990’s. We have enemies trying to erase our history and we don’t need to do that to ourselves.
  • It’s a Chillul Hashem. There is a prevalent belief that Torah Judaism is sexist/biased against women. This policy only perpetuates that belief and makes it harder to counter with the truth. It’s true that we do not change Halacha or water it down to please the secular world and of course we shouldn’t do that. But this policy has no basis in Halacha or Mesorah. So is it really worth it? I say no.
  • It’s dangerous on a physical level. Especially in the era of MeToo, we need to teach our children- boys AND girls- about self-respect and body autonomy. The policy of erasing women makes a clear statement that women and girls are too provocative to be seen and that men and boys cannot control themselves. That undermines our efforts to teach our children how to respect their own personal space and to respect others’ personal space.

So much for “silly.”

The response also stated that if other publications want to have this policy, it’s their problem and not ours. First, we’re all Jews and if this policy is harmful, then it is our problem. Second, if there are people trying to pressure our paper and others into going along with this policy, it’s very much our problem. And the pressure they’re putting on the paper to shut me up means that it’s definitely our problem.

The response stated that since they already take that stand by using photos of women that this paper is not the place for such things. Actually, the fact that it’s reaching so many people and touching that nerve is exactly why this paper is the perfect place for such things. It means that my writing is making a difference. That’s why I write in this paper (they don’t pay me money).

Sunday day and evening

We women do not deserve to disappear or to be silenced.

#Iwontdisappear

#Iwontbesilent

We Won’t Disappear

There has been a recent trend among many “frum” publications and institutions in which women are not seen. The publications won’t use photos of women or girls. If there’s a story involving women, they might use photos of the men involved but nothing of the women. Or they might blur or pixilate the woman’s face. Or they might photoshop the women and girls in some way. I recently saw an ad via social media that was supposedly for children’s clothing, but they removed the face of the girl and replaced it with a doll face. That goes beyond disrespectful all the way to creepy. The institutions might advertise fundraising events in which women are honored, but only the men are displayed. Or they might advertise their services and while they’ll show the male professionals, they won’t show the female professionals.

 Of course, all of this is done in the name of tzniut. As if we women are not supposed to be seen because the men can’t control themselves.

 The truth is that there is NOTHING tzniut about erasing women from view.

One of the main points of tzniut is that men and women deserve to be seen as people and not as sexual objects. By erasing women from view, even when they are dressed b’tzniut, they are only hypersexualizing women and turning us into sexual objects. That’s the exact opposite of tzniut.

 Plus, tzniut is just as incumbent on men as it is on women. Erasing women only puts the onus further on the women. That is, the men are fobbing their responsibility off on the women. Not good at all.

One of our responsibilities as Jews is to be an Ohr LaGoyim and bring good values and teachings into the world. When we make Torah and mitzvot look bad in some way, it’s a Chillul Hashem. There’s a very prevalent belief in the secular world that Torah Judaism is sexist/biased against women. Erasing women from view only perpetuates that myth and thus is a Chillul Hashem.

 I am proud to be part of a group of people- women and men- who are trying to raise awareness of this. Recently, my friend Merri came up with an idea. Every day until Shavuot, she’s posting selfies with the hashtag of #Iwontdisappear. My friend Ann suggested adding the hashtag of #frumwomenhavefaces and that was well-received. Shavuot is when we celebrate receiving the Torah and mitzvot, including the mitzvah of TRUE tzniut which demands that we women be seen. I myself have been doing this. I don’t want my daughter or my niece to ever feel that they have to hide themselves over someone else’s misguided idea of tzniut.  

Making cholent

In honor of Rosh Chodesh Sivan, I’m adding this post.

Sunday day and eveningOn Shavuot, we’re supposed to be celebrating Torah and mitzvot. Let’s celebrate the mitzvah of tzniut (among others) by showing our real selves and not letting ourselves be erased.

#Iwontdisappear

#frumwomenhavefaces