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The Jewish Ethicist: Limits of Protest

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May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem

Should I boycott my daughter's fashion show?

Q. My teenage daughter is very proud that she has been hired as a model for a fashion show, and she would like me to come. I have always considered these shows demeaning to women, and boycott them on principle, but my daughter doesn't really understand this and will be deeply insulted if her mother doesn't attend.

A. I commend your instincts. There's nothing wrong with women's clothing
designers showcasing their new creations for potential customers, but
most of these shows have men present and are showing off the models more
than the clothes. Judaism recognizes the importance of beauty in
strengthening the attraction between husband and wife, but our ideal of
modesty completely rejects the idea of flaunting our bodies before
anyone, and certainly before strangers.

It follows that boycotting these events as an act of protest, even if
you personally are interested only in the designs, makes an important
statement. The Talmud tells us that anyone who has the ability to make
an effective protest and fails to do so bears responsibility for the
lapses of others. The reason is that his or her silence will be
interpreted as condoning wrongdoing.

"Anyone who has the ability to protest his family members and failed to
protest, bears responsibility for his family members. Towards the
residents of his city -- he bears responsibility for the residents of his
city. Towards the whole world -- he bears responsibility for the whole
world." (1)

The source for this responsibility is the concept of mutual
responsibility, in Hebrew "arvut." The book of Leviticus describes the
dangers which befall us if we abandon and despise God's commandments.
Among the tragedies, it tells us (Leviticus 26:37), "And each man will
stumble over his brother, as if before the sword, yet no one is chasing.
And you will have no ability to stand before your enemies." The Talmud
explains that this means that "each man stumbles in the sin of his
brother -- this teaches that all Israel are responsible for each other."
(2) It seems unfair that one person should suffer for the sins of
another, but it is understandable if we believe that each person is
responsible for encouraging others to follow a constructive path in life.

The Talmud then goes on to explain that this responsibility is
particularly great for a person's family members. And Maimonides writes
that one of the most difficult things to atone for is showing
insufficient care for the moral education of children. He counts among
transgressions that are obstacles to repentance "one who sees his
child in a corrupt lifestyle and doesn't protest, for his child is in
his control and if [the parent] were to protest [the child] would
withdraw; so if it is as if he actually causes [the child] to
transgress. And this also includes anyone who has the ability to protest
what others are doing, whether many or few, and didn't protest but
rather abandoned them in their failure." (3)

So we must acknowledge that boycotting this demeaning event has an
important educational message. Against this, however, we must notice a
consistent condition mentioned in these admonitions of our sages. The
first passage we cited opens: "Anyone who has the ability to protest."
Maimonides explains that the parent is encouraging wrongdoing because
"if [the parent] were to protest, [the child] would withdraw." The
responsibility to protest is conditioned on the ability to make an
effective protest.

But when our protest is likely to be unproductive, or counterproductive,
we have to respond accordingly. The Talmud also teaches: "Just as it is
a mitzvah for a person to say something that will be heard, so it is a
mitzvah for a person not to say that which will not be heard." (4) This
too applies particularly to a child, and Jewish law teaches that a
person who rebukes a grown child too sternly may also be guilty of
inducing him to transgress. A servant of the great sage Rabbi Yehuda the
Prince saw a man spanking his grown son; she uttered, "This man should
be placed under a ban, for he transgresses the commandment "Don't place
stumbling block before the blind," and this refers to someone who hits a
grown son." (5)

So while you can certainly not evade responsibility for trying to
inculcate constructive values in your daughter and your community,
careful thought is necessary before concluding that boycotting this
event is the most productive course of action. If she is completely
convinced of your support for her success and independence, then your
absence could make a powerful educational message. But if she gets the
message that you are trying to limit, control or manipulate her then you
might find that you are weakening your educational impact on your
daughter, rather than exercising it.

Given that you personally, as a mature woman, are part of the legitimate
audience for a fashion show, and that your presence is of great
importance to your daughter as a sign of your encouragement for her
achievements, it may be that the lesser of two evils is to attend after
gently explaining the reasons why in general you avoid these events.
Then your presence will be properly interpreted. If conversely you
decide not to go, you should emphasize to your teen that you are very
proud of her success and independence, but it is really against your
conscience to be present at an event which in your opinion reduces women
to objects for men's amusement.

SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 54b. (2) Babylonian Talmud
Shevuot 39a. (3) Maimonides' Code, Laws of Repentance 4:1. (4)
Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 65b.(5) Babylonian Talmud Moed Katan 17a

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The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

The Jewish Ethicist is a joint project of Aish.com and the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem. To find out more about business ethics and Jewish values for the workplace, visit the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem at www.besr.org.



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