The Celebrate Israel Festival on May 31 at Pier 94, slated to be the largest gathering to date of Israeli-Americans in New York.
When questioned by non-Jews or the unaffiliated about the role of women in Orthodox life, I have sometimes found it helpful to explain how the Torah approach diverges from a seminal principle of American jurisprudence.
In the landmark 1954 decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the U.S. Supreme Court held that “separate but equal” educational facilities – the philosophical underpinning of legal segregation for more than half a century – were unconstitutional. Separate, wrote Chief Justice Warren, is “inherently unequal.”
As the court recognized, segregation meant subjugation, having the purpose – and effect – of keeping black Americans from reaching their full potential as citizens and human beings.
Yet when it comes to the respective places of men and women in Jewish life, separate does not mean unequal. The Torah understands, and celebrates, the differences between men and women: Women are masters of the inner life – the spirit, the home, and the family. Men are more externally oriented, impelled to conquer the world around them, and challenged daily to maintain their connection to God. Recognizing these differences, the Torah carves out distinct domains for the sexes in many areas of Jewish law and practice.
Sometimes this translates into physical or spatial separation as well, but such distance is a means of facilitating men and women’s unique avenues for growing closer to God, and of preventing contacts (during prayer, for example) which may impede that endeavor. Subjugating women is not the Torah’s purpose. It is, unfortunately, the effect that some in the Orthodox world seek to achieve in the name of the Torah.
Which brings me to the rising boil of controversy in Israel regarding so-called mehadrin bus routes. These lines cater to haredim by forcing women – who are expected to be modestly dressed – to enter through the rear doors and sit in the back rows of the bus. (Married couples traveling together usually sit in the middle section.) If there are no seats in the women’s section, female passengers must stand – regardless of how many empty seats there are in the front half of the bus.
Gender-segregated buses are nothing new in Israel, but a recent incident involving a visiting Canadian woman has stirred up new debate about them.
According to published reports, a haredi man on a bus to the Old City demanded that the married, 50-year-old woman give up her seat in the front of the bus. She refused. The man yelled and reportedly spat at her. Other religious men joined in, and in the ensuing melee, the woman was pushed out of her seat and onto the floor. Hers is not the only story of harassment. On January 24, a group of women petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court to review the legality of the mehadrin bus routes. On the other side of the litigation are Israel’s two main private bus companies, Egged and Dan, as well as the Transportation Ministry.
The gender-segregated lines are not a creature of statute, but a business decision of the bus companies, which several years ago decided to acquiesce to the demands of the increasingly powerful haredi sector. Just last year, Egged added 11 new mehadrin routes. Drivers are required by the bus companies’ own guidelines – but not by law – to enforce the mehadrin rules. In reality, it is largely a self-regulating system.
Unfortunately, some passengers choose to play vigilante when the rules are not followed to their satisfaction. Mehadrin buses are not marked as such, and thus a woman coming aboard may not realize that the bus is meant to be separate-seating. It is one thing to politely and quietly inform a woman that this is a separate-seating line; it is something else entirely to scorn, shame, or threaten her – let alone to lift a hand to get her to move.
There are several things wrong with this picture. Let’s start with the most obvious: relegating women to the back of the bus. The practice is nothing short of offensive, calling to mind the kind of odious hierarchy that the Brown Court sought to erase. As Israel is being unjustly accused by its enemies of apartheid policies against the Palestinians, shall its own Jewish residents so brazenly discriminate against each other?
Clearly, the people behind Israel’s mehadrin bus routes have trouble distinguishing between separation and subjugation. In New York, an Orthodox bus line seats men on one side of the aisle and women on the other, with a mechitzah down the middle. While one might disagree with the rationale behind the separation, at least the manner in which it is carried out does not offend the dignity of female passengers. Seating women in the back, however, sends the message that women are second-class citizens. It is the very antithesis of chivalry. And certainly not the Judaism I know.
Second, the haredi public’s zeal for separate seating has overtaken the duty of menschlechkeit. Segregating men and women in public accommodations is at most a geder or chumra, a safeguard designed to protect the sexes from potential halachic violations. It is no sin for a man to sit next to a woman on a bus. Those who advocate separate seating must recognize this in order to avoid actual violations of halacha in the name of chumra. To embarrass another person in public is a sin so great that our Sages taught that one who does so loses his share in the World to Come. How then can anyone see fit to humiliate a woman simply to get her to change her seat?
Moreover, deliberate touching between the sexes is forbidden. So how can it be justified to put a hand to a woman for the sole purpose of ejecting her from her seat? There is another way. Whether a bus is designated to have separate seating or not, any man who wishes not to sit next to a woman can take another seat, or, if there is none, he can stand.
To be sure, some anti-religious women may relish the chance to provoke haredi sensibilities by purposely taking a seat in the section reserved for men. Whether such women are viewed as villains or heroes should be irrelevant to how their intended targets react to the provocation. As observant Jews, we are charged with honoring Hashem’s name at every opportunity and, conversely, avoiding any desecration of His name. With those stakes, there is little margin for error.
And yet the media are replete with examples of attacks on perceived troublemakers in the name of protecting Torah. Consider the reports of clothing stores in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak being burned down for the crime of selling immodest clothing. Or the riots in Boro Park last year in which yeshiva students set a police car on fire after an Orthodox man was arrested for a traffic infraction.
Sadly, such actions prove the anti-religious camp’s central accusation: Those who wear their piety on their sleeves do not always have God in their hearts.
As for haredi women, several have been quoted in the news in support of the mehadrin bus routes. I suspect the majority of their peers would line up the same way. But the lack of internecine protest does not make the segregated bus practices any less unjust. If anything, it reflects the fact that these women live in a community where they are used to taking a back seat to the men.
Once, on a visit to Israel, a friend and I decided to attend a Simchat Beit Hashoeva (chol hamoed Sukkot celebration) at a synagogue in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem. The streets were teeming with men, women, and children rejoicing in the festive night. Inside the building, hundreds of men in full black regalia thronged the sanctuary in song and dance. My friend and I followed the masses of women making their way up the staircase. What I saw at the top will haunt me forever: In a dark, stifling room, women angled to peer through the small, slitted windows on the single wall that looked down into the sanctuary below. Only a few could reach the peepholes at a time.
The scene reminded me of a cattle car, a comparison I do not make lightly. This was not separation of the sexes; it was subjugation of women, utter indifference to their presence. Perhaps the bus segregation practices do not rise to this level, but it is a difference of degree rather than kind.
Given the track record of the Israeli high court, it is not difficult to guess what the outcome of the mehadrin bus challenge will be. But whether or not the gender-segregated lines earn the court’s approval, haredi leaders should take a good, hard look at what they are fighting for.
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