Sunday, November 22, 2009

Does a Chumra in Tznius Trump the Law?

One of my favorite stores in the world is B&H Video. They are virtual paradise for an electronics junkie like me. Located in Manhattan they are one of the largest dealers in video equipment - both consumer and professional. There is no store like it in Chicago –although other smaller versions exist in and around New York. If one wants to buy professional video equipment they will be hard pressed to find a dealer in professional video here in Chicago – certainly not one that displays any professional equipment as does B&H.

I buy virtually all my professional video equipment and supplies from them. They not only have it in great supply, they offer some of the best prices of all their completion. Their mail order department – which is how I buy from them - is probably an even greater percentage of business than their in-store sales.

All of this - in and of itself - makes me a fan of the store. But what makes this store unique is that it is completely Shomer Shabbos. Not only that - but its owners are very Charedi Jews. In fact I believe they are Chasidim.

As if that weren’t amazing enough their sales staff is heavily populated by religious Jews of all types, from bearded Chasidim to Modern Orthodox Jews. And non Jews. Including minorities.

I have always thought – What a Kiddush HaShem that store is. It serves all people and employs many religious Jews enabling them to make a decent living for their families. And it does not discriminate. It has plenty of non Jews working there. They are known as a force to contend with by competitors all across the nation.

I always get a kick out of calling them to order something. Often a very Chasidic accented Jew answers the phone to take my order. All their sales staff is knowledgeable and professional.

Which brings me to this story in the New York Times. B&H is being sued for sex discrimination:

In the lawsuit against B & H, filed in State Supreme Court in the Bronx, one current and three former female employees claim that they were denied sales positions because they are women. According to the lawsuit, this was a common practice at B & H.

Nakisha Cushnie, the lead plaintiff in the case, was “advised that these positions were not open to her due to ‘religious reasons,’ ” the lawsuit says.

Richard B. Ancowitz, the women’s lawyer, said there were no religious exemptions in antidiscrimination laws.

“It’s an upsetting thing, in this day and age especially, to not be able to get a job because of your gender,” Mr. Ancowitz said in an interview. “I thought we were beyond that.”

Although no managers expressly told the women that they were denied promotion because of their sex, Mr. Ancowitz said that the company had no saleswomen and had turned down other female applicants for sales jobs.

I completely understand the desire to maintain Chasidic standards of Tznius in their business. I’m not exactly sure of the exact Tznius issue but my strong hunch is that they do not want women to interact directly with the mostly male customers. One wonders, however, what they do about female customers.

But whatever the reason, it is pretty obvious that they discriminate - even if they deny it. There is no other way to explain the complete absence of any women in their rather large sales force.

Does the Chasidic standard of Tznius trump the law if the basic Halacha does not require it? I am not here to argue whether freedom of religion trumps laws about sex discrimination or not. Nor would I say that Halacha may be violated if the law requires it. If for example Bris Mila – circumcision - was outlawed (which it never will – but for argument’s sake…) then of course we are obligated to violate it.

I am talking about a Chasidic desire to keep women out of their sales staff because of their own specific Tznius reasons.

I think the answer to that should be very clear. They have no right to violate the law because of their own Chumros. If it is proven that they systematically deny women jobs in their sales department - just because they are women - then they have violated the law and in my view Halacha. It is Dina D’Machusa – the law of the land. We are obligated to follow it even though we might prefer not to - for Tznius reasons.

What we do in the privacy of our own homes and synagogues is a separate issue. Government interference in those places would in my view be unconstitutional. But in the public square… I think they lose on all counts. It will be interesting to see what happens.