The Torah is defined as flint, a hard stone that is sturdy and unbreakable. It is therefore ironic that the year 5770 saw the Torah stretched as a rubber band – with the extremes causing the fraying of the bonds of Torah and Klal Yisrael and with no respite in sight.
Take women’s issues, for one. On the left of the rubber band, Orthodoxy was stretched to the breaking point, and likely beyond it, by such non-Orthodox innovations as female clergy and female prayer leaders. The negative reaction from the Torah community was as swift as it was unequivocal (as unequivocal as a free-thinking, stubborn nation can ever get), leading to the freezing of both innovations for the foreseeable future, if not permanently. (Why do I have the sense that there is more coming ?)
While the retreat was alternately portrayed as either tactical or substantive, the bottom line was the same: an admission by the innovators that such actions have no place within the framework of the faithful Torah community.
While the leftists were inappropriately shoving women into the public domain, the haredi community in Israel was inappropriately shoving women far into the private domain. The right of the rubber band was stretched (broken?) so that the Torah became unrecognizable.
The trends started several years back but became exacerbated in the recent past. There are Israeli communities these days with restaurants that have no public seating, lest it lead, I suppose, to mixed eating. It is a terrible infringement on normal family life, part of which involves families eating out together or husbands and wives taking time together. The Mehadrin bus lines that have become popular furthered this trend, with separate seating for women in the back (bad symbolism, there).
The latter entered the public fray again with the recent announcement that the new, long-delayed (and I mean, long-delayed) light-rail in Yerushalayim will have Mehadrin cars as well, with separate seating for men and women. This prompted the usual litany of complaints about the encroachment of religious law in the public sector, and about the coercive nature of that community.
In truth, I understand the economics of both: faced with a choice of the haredim starting their own transportation system or accommodating their requests, Egged simply catered to their customers and gave them what they wanted – a Mehadrin line. That makes good business sense. So, too, the director of the new light-rail system said that if haredim boycott the light-rail, it will fail – so, again, a prudent business decision was made, though it would seem more logical to me to have separate female and male cars on the light-rail, rather than force women to the back of one car.
It is the religious imperative of such a setup that escapes me. Where exactly does the Talmud, the Rambam, or the Shulchan Aruch mandate such a separation in the public realm? Rav Moshe Feinstein famously wrote that incidental contact even on crowded public transportation is sexually innocuous. Normal people are unaffected by it, and generations of pious Jews conducted themselves accordingly. One wonders what has changed. Just because something can be done – by sheer numbers of consumers – does not mean it should be done, and certainly not on a religious basis.
Some argue that the Torah may not mandate such separations but tzniut (Jewish modesty) always strives for higher standards. Yet a group of haredi rabbis recently prohibited the wearing of the burqa (only eye slits are visible), which a group of peculiar Jewish women in the Bet Shemesh area have donned, saying that Jewish law does not require such concealment. But on what grounds can it be prohibited? The Torah certainly does not prohibit or demand it.
As we have seen on the left side of the rubber band, just because something is not explicitly prohibited does not make it permissible, prudent, or sensible. There are customs and values that define the Torah community, and we twist and elongate that rubber band at our peril. Eventually it snaps, and we become a people defined by our eccentricities rather than our wisdom, by behavior that is weird rather than rational, and by our segregation from society rather than by our integration in it and elevation of it.
It is sociologically fascinating that it was the Edah Hacharedis that put the kibosh on the burqa, apparently sensing intuitively that this was beyond the pale. Certainly, nothing is simple, and the overreaction on the part of the haredim can easily be seen as a response to the laxity in moral matters and relations between the sexes that characterizes much of Modern Orthodoxy and of course the general society.
In some quarters, tzniut is openly derided, even as in other quarters it is taken to unprecedented excesses. And it goes without saying (all right, I’ll say it) that everyone fancies himself/herself in the sane, normal, mainstream, broad-middle of the Bell Curve. (My rebbi used to say, accordingly, that each person feels that someone driving faster than him is a maniac, and someone slower than him is an idiot. Each person thinks he drives at the optimum speed.)
But we do see how the extremes, right and left, dim the light of Torah and drive away Jews who unthinkingly perceive the Torah as having no real norms – subject to the whims of every generation and fad – or having no real limits in its demands on us.
Rav Soloveitchik said it well, in U’vikashtem Misham (Ktav, page 54): “This is the tragedy of modern man: that, instead of subordinating himself to God, he tries to subordinate his God to his own everyday needs and the fulfillment of his gross lusts.”
Or, said another way, in an exaggerated fear of his gross lusts. The Torah gave us the perfect prescription for all our needs – spiritual, moral, ethical, social, psychological and physical. It behooves all of us to reinforce the rubber band, experience joy and fulfillment in the Torah we were given and not one we create ourselves, and find true service of Hashem in our subordination to His will.
Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, New Jersey, and the author most recently of “Judges for our Time: Contemporary Lessons from the Book of Yehoshua” (Gefen Publishing, 2009). He blogs at www.rabbipruzansky.com.