Do Orthodox Jews Object to Having Their Pictures Taken?

by Brett Levine

In Orthodox Judaism there are prohibitions against working on the Sabbath, and taking a photograph is considered work. There are also taboos against making completely solid images that could be regarded as icons to be worshiped, but there are no specific restrictions against being photographed. Despite the lack of specific prohibitions against being photographed, there are times that Orthodox Jews would prefer not to be a picture's subject.

Religious Prohibitions

Judaism's prohibition against the production of images is predominantly directed toward three-dimensional objects. Exodus 34:17 states "do not make any idols." This passage, and others referring to the creation of idols, are interpreted by Jewish scholars to refer to the ultimate betrayal of God by Jews. No reference is made, however, to more contemporary practices that involve the capture of an individual's image, because that image is unlikely to be worshiped. One of the primary prohibitions for photographing Orthodox Jews is that men and women not be touching, as is illustrated by Richard Rinaldi's quest to photograph complete strangers touching. As his Orthodox Jewish subject put it, "Only men, right?"

Photography Is Work

An Orthodox Jew will not consent to having a picture taken on the Sabbath, between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday. Jewish law prevents working on the Sabbath, and taking a photograph is considered work. One of the specific actions that is prohibited on the Sabbath is transporting an object in the public domain, so carrying a camera would violate this law. Every other aspect of taking a photograph would also constitute work, so the simple act of turning on a digital camera, or winding a manual camera, would violate the prohibitions of the Sabbath.

Representing Women

A distinction has to be made regarding photographing Orthodox men or women. Jewish law prohibits ogling, and some Orthodox Jews interpret this to mean that there is a ban on photographing women. The Talmud prohibits staring at an attractive single woman or any married woman. As a result, Orthodox Jewish newspapers regularly crop women out of photographs. One cropped out former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and another eliminated two members of the Israeli cabinet from a publicity image.

The Contemporary View

There are complex religious and cultural elements that factor into the equation of photographing an Orthodox Jew. In certain instances, Orthodox Jews may even allow traditionally hidden practices and rituals to be documented. A key issue remains how issues of tolerance and respect can be maintained. In 2006, Orthodox Jew Erno Nussenzweig sued photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia for publishing his image without his permission, although the suit was later dismissed.The judge ruled that because the image was art, and not used for commercial purposes, it did not infringe on Nussenzweig's right to practice his religion.

About the Author

Brett Levine is a writer with more than 17 years of experience writing for a range of national and international publications. His articles have appeared in "Art Papers," "B-Metro," "Alabama" magazine, "Object," "Urbis" and "RealTime." He holds a Master of Arts in arts administration.

Photo Credits

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