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 unique 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