Erased: Why the removal of female faces in the haredi world is a problem

“Wanton destruction of property is a sin... Yet certain individuals have decided, against all halachic literature, that vandalism is excusable when it makes women disappear.”

A father shows his son how to pull a woman's face off an anti-abortion organization's bus ad (photo credit: ISRAEL COHEN ON TWITTER)
A father shows his son how to pull a woman's face off an anti-abortion organization's bus ad
The image of a father holding his child’s hand has always been touching to me. Perhaps it makes me think of my own childhood, walking with my father, as he explained how the world works, telling me silly stories, or letting me explore the rough ocean waves while making sure I was safe.
There is something so loving and right about seeing a child’s small hand tucked in the grip of a father’s stronger one. And there is something about a father’s love and guidance that can be so influential on a child.
I suppose that is why this image is so painful for me to see.
In it, a religious man holds his child with one hand while using the other to rip an advertisement off the side of a bus. On a public street. In broad daylight.
Why? Because it has a woman’s face on it.
Defacing images of women and girls by haredi men is now a common occurrence. While it is tempting to say that it is the work of a few extremists, the fact is that this destruction is now so expected that ad companies refuse to show women’s pictures in certain areas knowing that they will be destroyed, and that the police are unlikely to chase the perpetrators. The Knesset even convened a committee meeting to discuss the horrific vandalization of a billboard campaign to raise awareness of violence against women.
“Wanton destruction of property is a sin. That’s a basic tenet of civilized society and fundamental in Jewish law. Yet certain individuals have decided, against all halachic literature, that vandalism is excusable when it makes women disappear,” says Rabbi Scott Kahn, host of the Orthodox Conundrum podcast.  
How did we get to the point that religious Jewish men destroy personal and public property, without shame, in broad daylight, while educating their small boys to do the same? What inspires this horrific behavior and what else may it be causing that we cannot see?
IN THE past few years, the Jewish community has experienced a lightning fast slide toward extreme notions of shmirat eynaim, or “guarding one’s eyes” from seeing things that may lead them to sin. The concept, meant to help men avoid situations that may lead to sexual thoughts and thus sin, has been recrafted as total segregation of the sexes outside of marriage and the erasure of anything female, anywhere.
Events such as weddings, which were once prime opportunities for people to meet and form their own marriages, are now strictly segregated. Printed depictions of Jewish life are devoid of Jewish women and girls. Even higher education and places of employment are segregated to fit this new demand.
This extreme segregation has led to magazines, school books, dinner ads, charity brochures, illustrated megillot and Shabbat books that show only men and boys. Cartoons and comic strips leave women out with the occasional mother represented by the back of her head. Even Artscroll has adopted this approach and made influencer Daniella Renov remove her image from her own cookbook.
While insular hassidic communities have had this policy in place for some time, the phenomenon of erasing women in the greater Orthodox community has existed for only 15 years or so. By not forcefully rejecting this practice, the Orthodox community has tacitly accepted that women should not be seen and that men are entitled to a female-free environment.
In 2015, in these pages, we discussed the trend and how it was being enforced with mafia-like tactics in some places in Israel. Since then, many articles have delineated the impact the erasure has on women’s financial, physical, and representative health. The lack of images of women coupled with the dearth of information on women’s health plus cultural norms has created a reality where haredi women’s health was ranked eighth vs. haredi men’s second place.
Female business owners have a distinct disadvantage when they cannot advertise with their faces or with real life models. The lack of women’s images as part and parcel of the average Jewish family and community leads to a lack of women’s voices being heard and directly to policies that are detrimental to them. Erasing women removes our humanity and redefines us as objects, sexual objects, to be hidden.
The impact of being seen mainly as a sexual object has been defined by many girls as traumatic.  R. from New York says, “I internalized the message I was inherently, in my essence, temptation first and foremost. I associated my being and my body with being an object for others’ sexual gratification, sins and fantasies. Before I could develop a healthy sense of self in being female, my identity became shame. I was told I was responsible for men. Their sins were my sins. And their thoughts were my sins. And I would be held accountable one day. As a young girl it was a burden too suffocating and too shameful for me to carry day to day and as I reached my teens I developed an eating disorder in an effort to change my body and to just be seen less. It took me a long time to recover from this.”
Despite the evidence of the damage done to women and girls, increasing numbers of institutions, charities, and publications censor images of females, aged six or older.
Original ad for plastic dolls (left) and in 'AMI' magazine, with mother and daughters removed ( ad for plastic dolls (left) and in 'AMI' magazine, with mother and daughters removed (
TO UNDERSTAND how this erasure and increased segregation affects Jewish men and the Jewish family, The Magazine spoke to a number of men and therapists.
Most requested anonymity due to the personal nature of the subject matter and for patient confidentiality.
“Moshe,” 19, is from a Modern Orthodox community. “By redefining women as nothing more than the object of male desire, men have become forcefully hypersexualized. This puts men in a very uncomfortable position in which we are reduced to little more than our base desires and not allowed any emotional depth. The insinuation that I have no agency over my own sexual urges is insulting and this apparent lack of control is used to explain away any actual issues I may be struggling with. The effect religious guilt has on men and its contribution to the growing men’s mental health crisis cannot be understated.
“When men are told that sexualizing women is both inherent in their nature and also incredibly sinful, we internalize that... when we do something that, in our minds, constitutes engaging with our sexuality, which thanks to the culture of erasure can mean even seeing the image of a woman, the religious guilt crashes down full force. The desire to avoid this guilt causes more anxiety, which makes every interaction more guilt-inducing.”
“Aaron,” in his early 20’s, spoke candidly about his struggles.”I’m married and have struggled with a pornography addiction for over a decade. It’s unfortunately extremely common for young men, and in my personal experience it’s been entirely due to the frum societal culture of extreme separation of the sexes.” He acknowledged the importance of halachic boundaries but says, “the social creation of separation is what creates toxic relationships, unhealthy marriages, warped senses of oneself, and sadly, pornography addictions.”
Shlomo Lieberman, a clinical social worker in New York, has worked with the frum community for over 30 years. He says that in his experience the extreme segregation and erasure has “turned women, literally, into the forbidden fruit and has contributed significantly to the sex-addiction I see in my patients.”
Additionally, he says, it deeply impacts the marital dynamic. “Men aren’t learning what women’s needs are. They don’t even recognize that they have needs. It’s not out of maliciousness, it’s simply that they haven’t learned to see them as whole beings with needs. Where do they interact with them? Girls’ and boys’ schools now have different vacations, brothers and sisters don’t spend much time together. Where will they learn to speak to girls, to understand them or to value their opinions? Not in school, not via books or magazines, and now not in the family.”
He says that the majority of a person’s learning is passive learning, “If they don’t see women represented in society, in magazines, in the family... they learn very clearly that their opinions simply aren’t that important.”
Elementary school educators see the results of this in their students. Rabbi Moshe Nachbar says that the erasure of all things female in frum publications normalizes something that isn’t normal: the idea that women can’t succeed or achieve. In his role as an educator in a Modern Orthodox school in Florida, he feels it “breeds a dismissiveness in boys’ attitudes towards girls, their intelligence and achievements.”
Another school administrator of an elementary school in the New York area that has both girls and boys (separately) agrees, “males exposed to a segregated gender system compounded by a lack of female representation in publications lose the ability to identify the real value of women, often overlooking or devaluing their qualities. Worse, this leads to men stripping themselves of the unique human feature of forming interdependent relationships to combine forces and reach levels beyond their own. Lack of empathy and selfishness are just a few of the many issues I see as a result.” He sees that it causes girls to lack confidence in their own opinions and abilities. It is something he works actively to counter.
Liebermen says that as the extremism gets worse, the issue gets worse and he sees more and more couples ready for divorce mere months after getting married. Lieberman says he helps men unlearn what they have passively acquired and to learn that women’s needs, opinions and perspectives matter.
A hassidic husband and father who grew up in the hassidic world, where segregation and erasure are an ingrained part of the culture, says, “Even when you’re living on the margins of the community – doing things that make you a rebel, the female aspect of worldview stays with you. Wives were part of the system, something that had to be done, dealt with.”
He says, “Girls were to be chased, manipulated and experienced, not dated or thought of as a partner. It wasn’t possible to think of women as anything other than a function to be managed/exploited. We simply aren’t trained to see the female experience or to consider her perspective. It takes a long time to unlearn this and realize that there is an entire other experience that women have – I’m actually embarrassed to say that this conversation has made me aware of the fact that while I am active in helping boys deal with the system, I haven’t even thought of how much worse it must be for the girls.”
Talli Rosenbaum, individual and couples therapist and certified sex therapist, explains why erasure carries into marriage in this way. “Creating intimacy requires seeing a person as a human being and not an object. Complete gender separation creates an environment where women and men are mysterious to one another, and that makes the experience of understanding one another very difficult and often requires skill building after the fact. The erasure of women acts to perpetuate the idea of a woman as an object. This actually detracts from the authentic goal of Jewish marriage as two people who are reim ahuvim who connect with mutual respect and love.”
Another therapist who works in the yeshivish world says, “I grew up with hassidim who called women a ‘dus.’ A dus is a ‘thing.’ What’s the effect? Erasure of women means literally seeing a woman as a nobody, a thing. Opinionless. Someone who serves my needs of being holy and superior.”
“Yosef,” a hassidic man from New York described a painful marriage dynamic where, despite being in terrible physical pain during intimate relations, his wife insisted they continue, “because she was taught that men need sex and it was her job to provide it.” He had to insist that she see a doctor.
“She had no sense of self, of her own worth.” He says it took them years of therapy to get to a place where they communicated fully, expressed their needs and unlearned the damaging results of severe segregation. “We are human. We need emotional connection to our spouses.”
When asked if it’s truly important for women to be seen in depictions of society for a healthy community, Liebermen says, “If we want our boys to see women as people, not as sexual objects – and that’s how we treat women when we erase them, as sexual objects that need to be hidden lest we sin or until we marry them – then we cannot treat them as such.”
IN THIS Rofeh Cholim Cancer Society illustrated ad, all patients and medical staff are male. (Courtesy)IN THIS Rofeh Cholim Cancer Society illustrated ad, all patients and medical staff are male. (Courtesy)
SOME CLAIM that not showing women and girls protects them. A haredi social worker in Israel says his wife does not allow her picture to be shown to prevent it from being used by groups which share images of religious women’s faces, taken from their social media accounts and photoshopped onto other women’s – often nude – bodies. “The groups are almost certainly religious,” he says. “There are Hebrew groups, English groups and Yiddish groups. Some require that you prove you’re religious before you get accepted. Once a single person creates the image, it will be viewed by thousands.”
There are also channels and accounts dedicated to what is called “frum porn” where images of women are shared unbeknownst to them. He believes it is very possible that those who most loudly insist on the erasure of women do so to cover up this deviant behavior – “just as some of the most vehemently homophobic people are themselves homosexual.”
Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of Boca Raton, on a recent Headlines podcast, told host David Lichtenstein of the policy of erasure, “I think it’s a mistake. If we want the young women in our community to grow up to see images of role models... They need to not be erased. They need to know that they matter and they need to know that the Torah doesn’t demand that they hide in the shadows or that their faces be blotted out.”
Mishpacha magazine prints in Hebrew and English and is arguably the flagship weekly publication of the Orthodox world with a global readership of over 250,000. It shows no images of women or girls above the age of six in its publications, Mishpacha and Family First, but does on the online version of Mishpacha.
According to its publisher, Eli Paley, the main role of the magazine is to unify and elevate Jewish society.
In an interview with Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, on his podcast Behind the Bima, Paley stated that according to rabbis, there is no halachic basis for not showing women’s images. He says that he chooses to censor women and girls in order to enable the magazine to influence as many people as possible, including those with the most extreme views.
 As Mishpacha gained popularity, it set the trend for smaller publications and institutions – even women’s health organizations – that cater to the Orthodox world. Now, Torah websites have replaced women with images of chairs and flowers. In advertisements for breast cancer screening, women are replaced with lettuce, and in depictions of health clinics, men run the office, are all of the healthcare givers and indeed, all of the patients. Women do not exist even in caricatures of Jewish life.
Numerous emails requesting a conversation with Paley, prior to the writing of this article to discuss concerns for the community went unanswered and Mishpacha declined to comment for this article. It would seem that in attempting to moderate the extreme, Mishpacha has unwittingly brought extremism to the moderate – to the detriment of us all.
The Jewish family has always been the strength of the Jewish community. And it is this strength that is being torn asunder with the erasure of women and girls. Extreme segregation and erasure of women harms us. It dehumanizes our girls, hypersexualizes our boys, leads our fathers to destroy, and removes the influence of our mothers. The erasure of women upends the balance placed into the world.
Extremism can’t be fought with extremism and intolerance can’t be beaten by intolerance. To unify and elevate Jewish society, to help men and women have healthy notions of self, and of how to deal with the opposite sex, we must honor the place of both women and men in the community. It is time to realize that the erasure of women was a failed experiment and bring the gantza misphacha, the entire Jewish family, back into the picture. 
The author is a writer and an activist. She cofounded Chochmat Nashim to fight rising extremism and raise the voices of Jewish women, and first wrote about the erasing women phenomenon in The Jerusalem Post in 2015, under the title ‘An immodest obsession.’