OY VEY

Will Ultra-Orthodox Jews Handle a Woman on the $10?

A sect that opposes showing female images debates what happens when dollars include women.

06.30.15 9:15 AM ET

Ultra-Orthodox Jews are wondering what sects that forbid displaying images of women are to do once a woman unseats Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill.

Haredim are Orthodox Jews who follow a very strict interpretation of Biblical laws and reject much of modern culture, with a minority going so far as to ban public images of women under modesty laws. That won’t be so easy when a woman is on the money they use. The Treasury Department this month announced plans to replace Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill by 2020 with that of a woman.

One letter writer posed the question of what the fringe ultra-Orthodox will do when the $10 is female to the editor of the Country Vue, a Haredi newspaper in upstate New York.

“Dear Editor, How are they going to handle this one? While we were all wondering how the newspapers will handle it if chas v’shalom Hillary Clinton was elected president and they will not be able to print up the picture of the United States… A new, more immediate problem has come up. What is the ‘frum’ world going to do with the new $10.00 bill once a woman is on the bill? Can they carry the picture or bring it into their house?”

The response was predictably tongue-in-cheek:

“There are two sides to every argument and that is why there are two sides to every dollar bill. I guess from here onward, when counting bills we’ll keep them all upside down.”

Some ultra-Orthodox papers have become notorious worldwide for attempts to erase women world leaders from their pages, pixelating their faces or, in some instances, replacing them with haphazard photoshop jobs of mens’ heads. In the most famous instance, perhaps, Yiddish-language paper Di Tzeitung removed Hillary Clinton from the famous Situation Room photo about Osama bin Laden’s capture.

It later apologized for altering the image despite fine print demanding that it not be altered, but not for re-imagining history.

“In accord with our religious beliefs, we do not publish photos of women, which in no way relegates them to a lower status,” the paper told The Washington Post. “Because of laws of modesty, we are not allowed to publish pictures of women, and we regret if this gives an impression of disparaging to women, which is certainly never our intention. We apologize if this was seen as offensive.”

More recently, Angela Merkel and other female world leaders disappeared from an image of the free-speech march after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, published on the pages of Israeli paper HaMevaser.

Of course, $10 bills are hardly ubiquitous. ATMs typically spit out $20 Jacksons, while $1 Washingtons are easily the most numerous. (The second-place honor, surprisingly, goes to $100 Franklins.)

Those whose modesty requirements disallow women can opt for a fistful of ones instead.

But groups seeking such alternatives are fringe groups, even among the far right.

Most Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jews are quick to say women—on money, TV, or in newspapers—don’t pose a problem for them.

Writing for the Five Towns Jewish Times on this subject, Rabbi Yair Hoffman dove into interpretational disputes around what counts as “histaklus”—looking, staring, or ogling—and what that means for what is allowed.

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“Most [learned rabbis] seem to learn that it is, in fact, not halachically forbidden to look at pictures of women, but that it is strongly discouraged,” he wrote. “It could very well be that in modern times where there are a plethora of images there really is no concern that someone will go beyond the pale of what is acceptable and start ogling.”

It boils down to an individual interpretation, and the pixilation police are a minority.

“The policy that some haredi papers have in place regarding publishing photographs of women is just that: a company’s policy,” Avi Shafran, a Haredi rabbi who is the director of public affairs for the Agudath Israel organization, said. “There is no prohibition in Jewish religious law against depicting a woman’s face; and, certainly, not on using a product or currency that depicts a woman.”

“Haredim, believe it or not, use pancake mix featuring Aunt Jemima on the box and Canadian currency decorated with Queen Elizabeth,” he added.

Indeed, even Israeli currency has been feminized: Golda Meir, a former prime minister, appears on the 10,000 shekel banknote.

In fact, Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, head of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, is puzzled that the U.S. is so far behind the times.

“I think what’s interesting is why it took so long for it to happen in America, forgetting Judaism for a second,” she said.

Moreover, Weiss-Greenberg says the practice of hiding women is “a very recent innovation”—and one women within communities that practice it have voiced displeasure with.

“Historically, if you look at Yiddish newspapers, and you look at Haredi newspapers, they had pictures of women until very recently, until the last 10 years,” she said. “This is a new way of doing things, of erasing women.”

Weiss-Greenberg thinks it may stem from the Jewish custom of occasionally putting up gates near where a transgression may occur.

“It’s this notion that in order to not transgress… we set up certain boundaries so that we don’t even get close to that situation,” she said. “But it’s only supposed to go so far.”

And for the vast majority of Jews, even ultra-Orthodox ones, she says this likely won’t be a problem.

“There’s a very large Haredi population in Israel… and this has not, you know, come up as an issue in recent years, certainly,” she said. “If they have a problem, they can send [the $10] my way.”

Those who do object, however, might do well to start stocking up on Lincolns. That is, if they don’t also object to looking a rasha—or wicked one—in the face.

“We all know it is forbidden to stare at the face of a rasha, and who’s to say that the men on these dollar bills are something to look at?” the Country Vue editor continued. “Get the picture?”