Murder Victims, Modesty, and Memory

Less than a week before eleven months of mourning were complete, Ruth Fogel, who was murdered along with her husband and three kids, was blotted out again. Worse yet this blotting out was done in the name of religon.

A week before the memorial service for the eleven months, Ruth’s father took a picture of her and her family to Machon Meir and asked them to include an announcement of the memorial service in the weekly pamphlet they hand out to synagogues, “B’ahava u’vemuna” (In love and faith). The picture showed her beaming at her husband, her eyes full of joy and shared happiness.

The phamphet made its way to synagogues around the country. Her husband was there in the announcement of the memorial service. Her sons were there. But Ruth was gone and in the place of those joyful eyes was a smudge. When Ruth’s father saw the photo he was very upset.

It is typical of extremist halacha logic to focus on one principle above all others.

Machon Meir apologized, but not for smudging out her face. Rather they regretted publishing the picture at all. Their policy is to never publish the face of women. They say this is necessary because some of the synagogues on their pamphlet distribution list have modesty rules that forbid the publication of women’s pictures.

In fact, they viewed the smudging of her face as a sign of respect. What more could a woman want than modesty? Rabbi Schlomo Aviner explained in a video:

Had she been asked when she was alive – this is what she would have wanted,” he said about Ruti Fogel and her blurred people. “Just because a person a dead doesn’t mean their picture can be taken lightly. (Translation: Ynet).

Except we know she didn’t want to be blurred. We don’t need to guess.  We know this because Ruth appears speaking at length in a video to promote the community (see above). Her face was not blurred. We also know this because Ruth posed for pictures, including the one given for the memorial service announcement. We know this because we can presume her father knew his daughter better than Rabbi Aviner .

Nor did the family want her face blurred. Her father, Rabbi Yehuda ben Yishai, told News 1 “It grieved me very much”. The family delivered the photo unblurred. Several other announcements used the unblurred photo.

Apparently keeping those distribution numbers up is more important than honoring a family’s loss. Yet even if distribution numbers were more important than compassion towards a murder victim and her family, one can’t actually be certain it improved their distribution. Not everyone considers modesty the only value. kehilat haShimsoni in Modiin refused to let the doctored pamphlet in their shul. Their rabbi, Chaim Navon, alluding to the name of the pamphlet said “We see no love and faith here”.

There is something terribly wrong when modesty becomes so important it eclipses all other concerns. In the Tenach (Micah 6:8) we read:

הִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם, מַהטּוֹב; וּמָהיְהוָה דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ, כִּי אִםעֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד, וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת, עִםאֱלֹהֶיךָ.

What the LORD doth require of thee: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God. (JPS translation)

Modesty can’t stand alone. Like the members of Kehilat Shimsoni, we are required to also consider justice and mercy.

There can be no justice when the face of a murder victim is blotted out. The essence of crime is to lose sight of a person and turn them into an object. This is what allows people to perpetrate such gross acts of violence. When one human being murders another he is blotting out that person’s humanity.

All that person has left is their memory once they are gone. To blot out the memory is a death upon death. Since faces help us remember, to blur a murdered person’s face is effectiely joining forces with the murderer. When we blur the face of one who has died, we don’t honor the victim, we do the work of the criminal.

Faces are what make us human. Faces are what make us real. Simply hearing about spitting and cursing in Beit Shemesh didn’t move our hearts, but seeing anxiety and fear in a little girl’s face did. Hearing about 3 men arrested in beit shemesh for stoning a car was just a news item. Seeing the victim talk about her futile appeal to common Jewishness and her obvious fear that she might have been killed by rock throwing, bleach bottle tossing thugs, brought the crime to life.

Faces are what connect us to G-d. In some versions of the Kabbalistic tradition the sephirot are mapped to the human face. The left eye is Binah. The right eye is Chochma. The mouth is Malchut. Understanding, Wisdom, and the ability to act in the world – all blotted out by Machon Meir.

The face represents identity. When a blind person wants to know someone they feel their face. When a sighted person wants to know someone they look in to the eyes. They read the smile.

Our faces tell the story of our lives. Each smile builds the crease that will become smile and laugh lines in old age. Each frown builds the creases that will mark our losses and frustrations in old age. Even when crime, disease or accident forever change the face, that too becomes our story. As acid attack survivor and burn victims advocate Katie Piper said a year and a half after the attack, “I think my face is beautiful and tells a story “.

Machon Meir blotted out the identity of Ruth Fogel. Ruth Fogel’s face gave us a chance to see who she was, but none of the people who received “In love and faith” could connet to it. Ruth Fogel’s face also told a story, but none of the people who received “In love and faith” could ponder it.

In Jewish tradition the face represents the essence of someone. When the Torah wants to signal a particularly intimte encounter between two people or between God and a human being it says that that person an God spoke face to face. פנים אל פנים . After Jacob wrestles a blessing from the angel, he says that he saw God face to face (Gen 32:31). Before Moses received the tablets on Mount Sinai, he spoke to God face to face, like a man to his friend ( Deut 33:11).

The phrase פנים אל פנים (face to face) is used five times in the Tenach and each time it signals redemption. Jacob wrestles with the angel before he makes peace with his brother. Moses sees God face to face in the tend of meeting before he recieves the Torah, also known as the Tree of Life. Gideon sees an angel face to face before he destroys the altars to Baal. (Judges 6:22). In Ezekiel’s vision, when God rescues Israel, God says he will speak “face to face” with Israel so she can find her path back to good. (Ezekiel 20:35).

When someone we love dies, their memory is all we have. Their memory is all we have to give others. We are alone in our grief except for those who know the face of the one we love. To broadcast the face of a lost loved one is above all an act of chesed to the family. It allows their daughter to live on just a bit longer in the memory of others. It creates a community of people who know her face and can understand at least just a little bit what the Fogel’s lost.  Community and memory will never give us back what we have lost, but it may give us a way to redeem it.

No one has the right to take that away from the Fogels. Most certainly not a Torah institution.

הִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם, מַהטּוֹב; וּמָהיְהוָה דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ, כִּי אִםעֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד, וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת, עִםאֱלֹהֶיךָ.

What the LORD doth require of thee: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.

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