Monday, July 28, 2008

The Back of the Bus

Normalcy in the Torah world. That’s been one of my mantras for a long time. The only question is -what is normal? Who defines it?

If you are a Charedi living in Israel one way it is defined is by making certain that woman never sit anywhere on a bus except in the back. The reason is modesty. Apparently in certain segments of the Charedi world women are seen primarily as sex objects - Michsholim – obstacles that cause erotic thoughts in men. No matter where they are or how they dress.

To that extent - women are taught that they must do everything they can to avoid being seen in public. There are variations on this theme. But in its most Charedi incarnation it is pretty extreme. Examples abound. One of the most recent is an edict by a Chasidic Rebbe who forbids women who attend weddings from dressing up in their Shabbos finery in public. He suggested they wear some kind of over coat to hide their Shabbos clothing from a viewing public until they arrive at the women’s section of the wedding party.

Can anyone spell ‘Burkha’? I know one woman who can. She is now sitting in jail awaiting trial for abusing her children

A group of Charedi Rabbanim called the Rabbinical Transportation Committee has come out with a new edict. They have called on all women ‘to keep out of men’s eyesight whenever they travel by bus — by making their way to the back of the vehicle.’ This - in an effort to pressure the bus lines into giving them more segregated buses.

These two edicts from different sectors of Charedi world show a growing and abnormal trend in Judaism.

It didn’t start yesterday. A couple of years ago a Beis Din of Tznius was established in Charedi enclaves in Jerusalem in order to approve which kinds of clothing were modest enough by Charedi standards. They also give Hechshrim – rabbinic approval to various stores and encourage women to shop only at those stores.

And then there are all those Charedi delinquents who take matters into their own hands and commit violent acts in the name of those standards. Those criminals are of course condemned by their leaders. But their excuse for the violence comes from years of indoctrination about their extreme modesty standards being the only acceptable ones. This is normal for them.

But is there an objective standard for normalcy in Judaism? How far does the right of a community go in imposing their standards on the public?

In my view those rights stop at another persons door. No community has the right to impose their standards on others if they do not violate Halacha.

Some will argue that in certain communities those extreme standards are Halacha for them and loosening standards for others means violations of Halacha for them.

But I beg to differ. If one wants to impose their standards in a closed community like Kiryas Joel, they may have a right to do that. But they have absolutely no right to impose that standard across the board in an entire country even as a means of protest. By telling all women to go to the back of the bus they are in effect sending a message that this is normal behavior – that they are seen as nothing more than sex objects by even the most religious of men.

It is demeaning to a normal young woman to send her this kind of message. This is not how a moral and civilized society acts. Modestly dressed young seminary women are not automatically seen as sex objects. Edicts like this and the ones mentioned above are nothing more than a not so subtle attempt to Talibanize Judaism.

I believe that instilling such attitudes in young seminary women can easily cause relationship problems for them later on when they start dating. It will be terribly awkward for a young woman to see her date and think that when he looks at her - he sees only a sex object.

So - I take issue with Mrs. Shira Leibowitz. She says:

“I see Haredi women who sit at the back as being the Israeli Rosa Parks,” said writer Shira Leibowitz Schmidt, one of the leading proponents of segregation. “We see it as a stand against the deterioration of standards in the public arena, and view the chance to sit at the back without men gazing at us as a form of empowerment.”

This is not a stand against the deterioration of standards in the public arena. As I said, this is the Talibanization of Judasim.

I agree that moral standards have been deteriorating in western cultures, and that a stand should be taken to counter that. But this isn’t it. Moving young modestly dressed American seminary students to the back of the bus is not the way to do it. What it does instead is turn normalcy on its head!

That said - in a democracy people have the right to petition their government to allow segregated buses for their own community - provided that it does not inconvenience the public at large. But not via a call to Talibanization.

So how does one define normalcy in the Torah world? I’m not sure. But at least I can define abnormalcy. It is following extremist edicts like these. In my view they ought to be totally ignored and I urge parents who visit a daughter attending seminary in Israel to take a bus ride together!