Erasing Women

By now you’ve probably seen both versions of the picture. The original photo from the White House Situation Room, taken May 1, 2011, shows President Obama, Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Director of Counter-Terrorism for the National Security Council Audrey Tomason with other high-ranking officials watching intently as the raid to nab Osama bin Laden unfolds. Then there is the doctored version, in which Clinton and Tomason are neatly airbrushed out of the picture, replaced by shadows. Why? Because it appeared in the May 6 issue of Di Tzeitung, a Brooklyn, New York, newspaper published by Orthodox Jews, who have a long history of erasing women from the category of full personhood.

The newspaper quickly asserted a constitutional right to commit whatever fraud it chooses, on the grounds that it does so in the name of religion, where truth is of no value. “Because of laws of modesty, we are not allowed to publish pictures of women,” the paper brashly announced. It also apologized for violating White House instructions against altering photos. Then it went on the offensive: “The allegations that religious Jews denigrate women or do not respect women in public office is a malicious slander and libel.”

Not all Jews think alike, of course, any more than all Christians, Muslims, or Mormons do. There are plenty of religious Jews who don’t denigrate women. But there are plenty who do, and those who do are far closer to the mainstream of 3,000 years of Jewish tradition than those who don’t.

Exhibit number one is the counterfeit picture itself. I’m fond of a little immodesty from time to time, and this isn’t it. Clinton is fully clothed in a conservative suit, and Tomason is barely visible at all. Di Tzeitung’s message was that it’s impossible for a depiction of a woman to be anything but immodest—even though a picture of a man can be perfectly okay. This treats women differently from men, diminishing their rights to be depicted in any form, and thereby denigrates them.

Shabby Jewish treatment of women goes all the way back to the Torah; it is Eve, after all, who gets blamed for Adam’s lust. Deuteronomy shows God treating wives like tradable chattel; when a man dies without a son, his brother automatically inherits the widow as a wife without bothering to ascertain her views. (This law is still enforced by the Israeli government today.) Jewish law forbade women from acting as judges, or even offering evidence in court, while barring daughters from receiving any inheritance from a man who had sons. As first-century Jewish historian Josephus put it: “The woman, says the law, is in all things inferior to the man. Let her accordingly be submissive.” Islam, which split off from Judaism in the seventh century, was downright feminist by comparison: women’s testimony counted half as much as a man’s in court, and daughters could inherit half as much as sons.

After the destruction of Jerusalem in the second century, Judaism entered the Talmudic age, in which the position of women grew even worse, starting with the command of the rabbis at Yavneh for men to thank God during morning prayer for not making them slaves, women, or Gentiles. The Talmud teaches in various spots that “Women are light-minded,” that they are “gluttonous, eavesdroppers, lazy and jealous… querulous and garrulous,” and “addicted to witchcraft.”

Jewish polygamy was permitted and officially practiced nearly to the dawn of the Enlightenment. Jewish law also had an elaborate set of rules governing concubinage, which was a great deal for men who could afford it. Virginity was required for brides; if the groom discovered otherwise on his wedding night, “Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die: because she hath wrought folly in Israel, to play the whore in her father’s house: so shalt thou put evil away from among you.” After marriage, the Talmud is most specific in defining the frequency and preferred techniques of sexual intercourse. If a wife did not live up to her husband’s expectations, a list of her failings would be read aloud in the synagogue, and she could be divorced unless she corrected her mistakes.

Even in modern times, Jewish law treats women as less than fully human. Israel does not recognize civil marriage; God experts are granted complete control over marriage and divorce. In a 1969 case, a husband was sentenced to fourteen years in prison for committing six indecent assaults and three rapes. His wife sued for divorce. However, since the man refused, the couple remained married; the wife had no recourse under the religious law mandated in Israel. A former Israeli Minister of Religion explained that: “We have a legal system which has always sustained the people. It may contain within it some thorn that occasionally pricks the individual. We are not concerned with this or that individual, but with the totality of the people.”

Jewish law has also been obsessed with the phenomenon of menstruation. Even today, in Orthodox congregations husband and wife may not touch each other during her menstrual period, even by means of an intermediate object, nor pass objects between them. As Jonah Steinberg details in his article, “From a ‘Pot of Filth’ to a ‘Hedge of Roses’ (And Back),” (Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Fall 1997), couples may not share a bed nor sit together on a seat. The husband may not eat directly from his wife’s leftovers (though she may eat his); he may not see parts of his wife’s body that are usually covered, smell her perfume, gaze upon her clothing (whether or not it is being worn), listen to her singing, or discuss sexually exciting subjects with her. At the end of seven days, the wife must visit a ritual bath after nightfall, where she must remove all foreign objects from her body, comb her hair, blow her nose, and wash herself thoroughly, before spreading her legs for inspection to make sure she’s acceptable again. We’re not talking about the dark ages here: we’re talking about twenty-first century Israel and Brooklyn, USA.

Judaism is not the only religion that denigrates women—they all do, to a greater or lesser extent. (Nor is religion the only societal institution that does so.) The great conundrum is that in all parts of the world, throughout history, women still tend to be more religious than men, any way you choose to measure it.

Going back to the doctored Situation Room image, some believers in equality will find hope in the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance’s reaction. JOFA is a group that works to increase ritual, spiritual, and leadership opportunities for women within Jewish law. Commenting on Di Tzeitung’s erasure of Clinton and Tomason, Executive Director Robin Bodner said the picture “goes a step further by revising history to remove important women leaders from the historic room in which they were present. It reminds us of how much work is still to be done!”

Still, is it worthwhile to aim for small victories like not erasing women from a picture, or is it better just to consign the Torah and the Talmud to the history shelf and let common sense govern the treatment of gender differences today?