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The Jewish Ethicist: Limits of Protest

The Jewish Ethicist: Limits of Protest

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 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

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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 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

August 5, 2006

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Visitor Comments: 4

(4) George Whelton, August 18, 2006 12:00 AM


It is incorrect to believe the reason for a "fashion" show is to oogle pretty women. Actually people are interested in "new" fashions of the coming season and must stay up to date to stay in a fickle business. People don't want to view ugly garments on fat and ugly people. That would not sell anything.

(3) Joey, August 6, 2006 12:00 AM

The mother in question should perhaps look into the details of this event, if she doesn't know them---for example, what exactly will her daughter be wearing? She could then decide based on some kind of cloth-skin ratio.God bless and best of luck!

(2) SarahRachel, August 6, 2006 12:00 AM

Not Necessarily So

It isn't necessarily so, the comment that ". . .most of these shows have men present and are showing off the models more than the clothes."So what if there are men present. These men are doing their jobs, they are not there to fantasize about the models - they have better things to do. They are thinking about their businesses. There are likely to be men present in whatever profession your daughter chooses - after all, men make up half the planet's population! The idea that men are not able to control their thoughts and urges is ridiculous, not true, and gives absolutely no creedence to men's honor and ability to act as human beings rather than animals. The statement that the models are being shown off more than the clothes is also incorrect. The models are simply the vehicle for the clothes. The clothes are nothing without the right model to showcase the clothes in their best light. The bottom line is, your daughter might make a fine model and be able to earn a wonderful living this way, and should not be denied the chance to do that. If one company doesn't have the type of clothing that is suitable for her to model, then find another company that does. There are plenty from which to choose.

(1) Anonymous, August 6, 2006 12:00 AM

Fashion Show is not Beauty Pageant

I read most of the Ethicist columns you print. However, I must say you may have missed the point with this one. A fashion show is to show the fashions. A beauty pageant is one which shows off the contestants. While I support boycotting beauty pageants, I just don't see the same objectification of fashion models. Am I the one who's missing something here?

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