A Modern Story about Pygmalion and the Haredi Rabbi

Yesterday, an interesting story hit the newspapers in Israel  Rabbi Rafael Cohen, chief of the northern city’s kosher division in the city of Tiberias, called for a boycott of all stores that display mannequins in bathing suits, claiming that to merely look at these figures, “damages the souls of the passerby.”

He even threatened to publish a list of stores that continue such displays, saying that “The residents of Tiberias should not set foot in stores of that kind, and that will cause them irreversible damage …. ‘Modest’ mannequins, he said, are acceptable but added, “But there are mannequins that are really revolting, mannequins in bathing suits that damage our souls.”

Are “kosher” mannequins next?

The above story makes one wonder: From where did Rabbi Cohen derive his prohibition? In my discussions with members of the Haredi community, they point out that “lusting” after immoral images is expressly forbidden in the Torah, “When you use these tassels, let the sight of them remind you to keep all the commandments of the LORD, without going wantonly astray after the desires of your hearts and eyes” (Num. 15:39).

However, Jewish law does distinguish between “merely looking” (ri’iyah) and what may be termed “fixation” (derech histaklut), and it would seem that the Haredi rabbi has conflated these two categories together.

To use an illustration: A porno video is made for histaklut, not r’iyiah and anybody with a modicum of common sense ought to immediately grasp the difference. Merely looking at a mannequin is certainly permitted, but being fixated at its presence—well, this reflects more of a psychosis or fetish. This idea is explicitly spelled out in the Shulchan Aruch as well [1], and the principle applies no less to the question of looking at idolatrous idols. [2]

The Mishnah in Avodah Zarah 3:4 tells us about a most remarkable story that is relevant to this discussion. The 1st century rabbinic sage Rabban Gamliel I (ca. mid  1st century C.E.) used to frequent Aphrodite’s bathhouse.

Judging by Rabbi Cohen’s standards,  Rabban Gamliel’s behavior should have been very dubious indeed; I doubt Rabbi Cohen and his legion of Haredi supporters would have approved of any Orthodox rabbi or Jew today attending a bathhouse adorned with the sexy image of Aphrodite “staring” at him.

Yet, even standing in front of the Aphrodite goddess was of no religious consequences whatsoever because the statue was nothing more than an adornment for the bathhouse as the Mishnah plainly states. Remarkably, the Mishnaic Sages realized the statue was nothing more but a graven image.

All in all, the Haredi folks may want to read the old Greek myth about Pygmalion,  a man who  once fell in love with a statue he made. It seems that he was not the only one ….

Postscript:  An American Pygmalion?

Shortly after this story came out, similar incident occurred–not in Israel–but in the United States. In the town of Reading, Ohio, a barbecue restaurant displayed a scantily clad mannequin can keep her spot outside a Cincinnati area barbecue joint, but local officials want her to cover up a bit.

The life-size figure stands as a busty beacon outside a restaurant in suburban Reading owned by Kenny Tessel. He told zoning officials at a hearing Wednesday night that the advertising gimmick has boosted business 40 percent.

The 5-foot-10 mannequin is on the street wearing a bikini top and tight short-shorts, leading some residents to complain about her lack of clothing. Tessel brought the doll to Wednesday’s hearing draped in a long, sleeveless gray T-shirt. The board said Tessel may continue to use the figure only if it’s dressed more modestly in front of the restaurant, too.

What a remarkable coincidence! Who would have imagined that a similar story would occur elsewhere around the world? So I started thinking: What are the differences between the mannequin in Tiberias and its parallel story in Reading? Maybe there’s an important distinction to be made. Whenever going by a dress shop; or a swimming suit shop, one expects to see a mannequin display whatever happens to be the fashion of the day.

However, with respect to the Reading mannequin, some people just felt its appearance was in bad taste, especially since it involves a family restaurant. Ultimately, it is the community leadership that decides the standards used by stores–and such matters cannot be decided by one person’s decision.

Jewish law frequently has to make subtle distinctions between cases, which on the surface appear similar but are not.

Postscript B: May 14th, 2009.

Well, the merchants of Tiberias were finally heard. When Mayor Zohar Oved got wind of the matter on Wednesday, he spoke with the Head of the Religious Council, Yaakov Sheetrit, and called for Cohen to be suspended. “I deplore Rabbi Cohen’s strange actions, which upset the delicate balance between the city’s different sectors,” Oved said. Tiberias is an international tourist city,” he added, “and as such it contains tourist zones which operate peacefully alongside neighborhoods with a religious character ….

The bond between religious and secular in the city is a close one and I will not allow a rabbi acting as he pleases and with no support, to upset it,” he declared.

And let us say, “Amen.”



[1] Y.D. 142:15, see Be’or Halacha.

[2] BT. Shabbat 149b and BT Avodah Zara 50a with the gloss of Tosfot, s.v. בחול אסור.