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?