Hillary and hypocrisy
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Hillary and hypocrisy

By now, everyone knows that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is a hot number in some quarters. The Times, a chasidic Brooklyn newspaper published in Yiddish and better known as Der Zeitung, removed her and another woman from an official White House photograph because their presence in it might cause men to have lustful thoughts. I can only assume that the men were not removed from the photograph because no one cares whether women have lustful thoughts.

News outlets the world over reported on Hillary’s disappearance – not because Der Zeitung had never before edited women out of photographs, but because this particular one is historic, something the newspaper itself acknowledged in a statement. It is a snapshot in time that captures a scene in the White House Situation Room, as a president of the United States and his national security team anxiously watch a live feed of a raid to run to ground the world’s most wanted terrorist mastermind.

Keeping the faith: One religious perspectives on issues of the day For tampering with this specific photograph, Der Zeitung is being ridiculed. By association, so is Judaism, which is part of what was wrong with what Der Zeitung did. We should be grateful, at least, that Clinton is secretary of state and not president, because then editing her out likely would have been front-page news, not just a little tidbit to amuse the masses or fodder for comedy clubs and late-night TV hosts.

Much of the criticism of Der Zeitung, however, is more than a bit misdirected, certainly by those of us who live in the land of the free and cherish our right to think as we choose and to believe as we choose. We should not be ridiculing Der Zeitung, but celebrating its ability to follow its own path.

In its statement, Der Zeitung explained its position: “[O]ur policies are guided by a Rabbinical Board,” it said. “Because of laws of modesty, we are not allowed to publish pictures of women….We are proud Americans of the Jewish faith, and there is no conflict in that, and we will with the help of the Almighty continue as law-abiding citizens, in this great country of ours, until the ultimate redemption.”

What troubles me more than the ridiculing of someone’s sincerely held religious belief is the hypocrisy of some within the religious Jewish community who joined in the criticism of Der Zeitung. They argue that the newspaper’s public assertion of its notion of tz’niut, the laws of modesty (not the notion itself), has caused embarrassment to Judaism and its laws – otherwise known as a chilul HaShem, a desecration of God’s holy name.

The hypocrisy of that complaint astounds me, not because I do not see a chilul HaShem here (I do), but because it ridicules a community for upholding in its own way the intent of the law, not just its letter.

According to some versions of the rules concerning tz’niut, women must wear long-sleeved clothing and full skirts, and they must keep their hair covered. Why? “Said Rabbi Yitzchak: Four inches or so [of bare skin exposed] by a woman is lewdness….Rav Sheshet said: A woman’s hair [uncovered] is lewdness.” (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate 24a.) Both men were apparently referring to married women. The point was that women’s bodies can be sexually alluring to men other than their husbands and even their hair can have that effect, a not incorrect assumption no matter how “politically correct” one chooses to be.

However, while long-sleeved full-skirted dresses that are also form-hugging fulfill the requirement not to expose any skin, they otherwise leave very little to the imagination, yet many supposedly tz’niut-observant communities allow women to dress that way. While expensive wigs fulfill the requirement to keep heads covered, they otherwise display hair-dos often far more attractive – and yes, sexier – than a woman’s natural hair, yet many supposedly tz’niut-observant communities allow women to wear such wigs.

Who is guiltier of a chilul HaShem – the community that stands by its standards no matter what others think, or the one that would honor the letter of the law while ignoring its intent?

That being said, as a matter of Jewish law, Der Zeitung had no right to publish the altered photograph.

To begin with, doctoring official federal government photographs violates federal statutes. The image itself came with a notice forbidding its manipulation “in any way.” That makes what the newspaper did a violation of the rule of dina malchuta dina – the law of the land is the law. There is nothing in federal law that requires publishing the photograph, but there is a prohibition against substantively tampering with it.

In its statement, Der Zeitung acknowledged this error. The photo editor, it said, recognizing the historic nature of the image, acted in haste and “did not read the ‘fine print’ that accompanied the picture, forbidding any changes. We should not have published the altered picture, and we have conveyed our regrets and apologies to the White House and to the State Department.”

There also is the chilul HaShem aspect. Even if there was no prohibition against tampering with a government-issued official photograph, the newspaper’s editors should have known that Clinton’s removal from a well-publicized image would be noticed and that this could put Judaism in a bad light (could, not would; the possibility alone is bad enough).

The newspaper is also guilty of inadvertently being a motzi shem ra, a “bringer out of a bad name”; in other words, a defamer of someone’s character. I say inadvertently, because the sin of motzi shem ra is the spreading of false information about someone in order to belittle him or her. That was not the intention of Der Zeitung, but it is the result of its action. Judaism, of course, and its supposed attitude toward women are what are being belittled in the general media.

Der Zeitung did not directly acknowledge either sinful act, but it did deal with their repercussions in its statement:

“The allegations that religious Jews denigrate women or do not respect women in public office is a malicious slander and libel…,” it said. After extolling Clinton, her record, and the regard in which she is held by Der Zeitung’s community, it added, “The Jewish religion does not allow for discrimination based on gender, race, etc.”

It is a wonderful statement, but it will not get anything close to the notice the doctored photograph received.

The episode teaches us – or should teach us – how even the most well-intentioned acts can cause harm. Jewish law is less about what we do or do not do and more about how we think through our actions before we do them. That may be too high a standard for us mortals, but that is no reason that we should not strive to meet it.

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