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.