Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Men Sitting Next to Women on a Bus

Is it permissible to sit behind a woman on a bus? What about next to a woman? If you are seated and she sits next to you, may you continue sitting there? What if there is an empty seat next to a woman. May one sit down next to her?

I am pleased to report that according to one Posek at least - the answer to all these questions is yes, provided one takes care to avoid Negiah - physical contact. This gives rise to questions about the very concept of Mehadrin buses – buses that are divided by sex. In Israel this means – men in the front and woman in the back. People who agitate for Mehadrin buses do so to avoid any possible intermingling of the sexes.

But are Mehadrin buses really necessary? Are they worth fighting for? Are they worth going to war for? Are they worth beating people up for? The answer to all of these questions is no.

In light of the above Psak it would seem that the desire for Mehadrin buses is not at all based in Halacha but primarily in the Hashkafic desire of Chasidim. Chasidim go to great lengths to avoid any interaction between the sexes. Way beyond what Halacha requires. And way beyond what most non Chasidic Charedim even require – let alone modern Orthodox Jews. Only Chasidim require it - and apparently not for Halachic reasons. That is probably why the Mehadrin buses from Monsey to Manhattan are nicknamed Chas-buses -‘Chas’ being the first syllable of the word Chasid. It was established by the Chasidim of Monsey who were the first Orthodox Jews to widely populate that area.

Mehadrin buses are not Halachic buses. Even Chasidim must realize that this is not a Halachic requirement. It is only to fulfill a Chasidic ‘Hidur’. Hence the name Mehadrin.

The word Mehadrin is rooted in the word Hidur, which means beautification. The concept of Hidur is based on the Pasuk: ‘Zeh Keli V’Anvehu’ – ‘This is my God and I will glorify Him’ (Shemos 15:2).

It is usually applied to various Mitzvos Eseh - positive commandments like - Tzitzis and Sukkah; Lulav and Esrog. The most famous example of Hidur Mitzvah is the way we light the Chanukah Menorah. Our custom is one of maximum Hidur (Mehadrin Min HaMehadrin) which is based on the Gemarah in Shabbos (21b). The primary requirement of this Mitzvah is to light only a single candle in every household every night of Chanukah.

The debate is over whether it is worth having Mehadrin buses in order to to avoid any possible contact whatsoever even though we are not required by Halacha to go to such lengths. One may ask, Why not? What’s to be lost if we go the ‘extra mile’ and separate the sexes on a bus?

The answer is very simple. It is a Bein Adam l’Chavero issue – man’s interaction with his fellow man. By supporting Mehadrin buses we are inconveniencing many people.

First there is the ‘back of the bus problem’. Why should woman sit at the back of the bus? The supposed answer to this is based on a Gemarah that forbids walking behind a woman. But that does not apply to a bus. The Gemarah says walking. Not sitting.

Even though some women have said they prefer the quiet and privacy of the back of the bus, far too many women consider it to be a second class area reserved for second class people. That is in fact how the back of the bus is looked at around the world. And I know from personal experience that the back of the bus is where the diesel fumes from the bus motors are the strongest. And the rumbling vibrations from the motor are felt the most. It makes me nauseous just thinking about it.

And then there is the problem of separating families on a crowded bus.

Imagine a family of tourists on a crowded Mehadrin bus in Israel. They do not know their way around and get on a crowded bus. The women are forced to go to the back and the men are in front out of sight from each other. Imagine one of them missing their stop. The men get off and the women don’t.

What about the elderly couple that need each other for support. A elderly man in ill health being helped by his wife. These are serious inconveniences that in my view do not justify a Hidur which is not required by Halacha at all.

And then there are all the Meah Shearim types who resort to violence at will. We all know about the infamous attack by them against Mrs. Miriam Shear who dared to sit in an unofficially designated men’s section of a virtually empty non Mehadrin bus. And there have been plenty more of those attacks since on other innocent people - as was the case with an older couple in Ramat Bet Shemesh.

It is for these reasons that all Mehadrin buses should be opposed. The Hidur involved for one segment does not outweigh the clear imperatives of Mentchlichkeit - the common decency one should have towards their fellow man. Especially when they are violated in the extreme by people with the Meah Shearim mentality. It would be one thing if this only affected their own people. But these buses are public and in areas where there are lots of tourists. It therefore affects all segments of Jewry not just residents of Meah Shearim.

One might ask, what about the fact that Negiah cannot be avoided because of the extremely crowded conditions on buses in places like Meah Shearim where public transportation is the primary means of travel? The answer to that is to add more buses – enough so that they will no longer be so crowded. That will more than satisfy the Halacha - even L’chatchila. Any crowded bus - separate or mixed - is uncomfortable. Even unhealthy!

One more thing. In case anyone is wondering which modern Orthodox Posek Paskined that one may sit next to a woman L’chatichila on a bus - it was Rav Chaim Kanievsky in a Sefer called Nezer HaChaim (Shaila 213 ; 214).