Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Highest Common Denominator

One of the ongoing problems in Orthodoxy is what is known as the move to the right. This is most manifest in matters of modesty between the sexes but it applies in many other areas of Jewish life as well.

There have been many explanations articulated to explain this phenomenon. One of the more detailed ones is Dr. Chaim Soloveitchik’s Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy. Therein he argues that the reason we are moving rightward is because we stopped listening to our own family Mesorah and are now looking only at ‘the book’ as a source and guide for how to live.

An example of this is the Shiurim – the minimum Halachic measurements for fulfillment of various Mitzvos on Pesach such as the amount of Matzah, Marror, and the size of cup used for the Daled Kosos – the four cups of wine.

Instead of asking a father what the family Mesorah is for those things we now look in a Halacha Sefer and follow that. So that where our fathers ate a smaller amount of Matzah or used a smaller cup for the Daled Kosos, we choose the larger sizes based on what we read. The reasoning is as follows. If we want to be sure of fulfilling the Mitzvah properly why not use the largest size? After all – there is no maximum size.

To show how absurd that argument is - there is a rather famous anecdote about the size of the Chofetz Chaim’s cup - an heirloom he left to his family. It was far smaller than the Chazon Ish’s minimum required size. The family refused to use it!

Is there any question about the Chofetz Chaim’s careful observance of even the smallest detail of Halacha? Would he have used a cup – year after year – for the Daled Kosos that he thought did there was even the slightest question about?

Dr. Soloveitchik is right. This is indeed what is happening. But there is another aspect to the ‘move to the right’ that I think exacerbates the problem. Especialy in matters of Tznius between the sexes. Whether it is in dress; or in mixed seating at weddings; or at concerts; or public transporation; or shopping at the super market; or even when taking a walk in the street. The problem is one of good Halachic intentions gone awry. The following anecdote will illustrate the genesis of this kind of thinking.

A close friend of mine described what happened at his wedding about 50 years ago. Mixed seating was the norm at most Orthodox wedding at that time. Even in Charedi circles. Only Chasidic weddings were separate. My friend’s wedding was mixed. But a when a Chasidic Rebbe he was close to and invited saw the wedding was mixed he said that he could not stay since he would not sit at the same table with a woman other than his own wife. So my friend quickly accommodated him and put together two tables - one for the Rebbe and one for his wife. He asked some of the guests to separate from their spouses for this purpose.

From this anecdote one might make the following argument. Why not just have separate seating for everyone? After all that is certainly universally acceptable according to Halacha. Why not just set the standard of Tznius high enough so that it will be accommodate everyone? Wouldn’t that be the fairest way to assure that everyone will be treated equally? …that no one will be sitting awkwardly at separate tables while most of the people in the room are sitting at mixed tables?

This argument was bought by the Charedi world and today - one rarely finds mixed seating at a wedding... even in some right wing Modern Orthodox circles! Never mind that one can see pictures of the great Gedolim of yesteryear sitting together with their wives at a table along with other couples. Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet tells of how R’ Yaakov Kamenetsky would proudly introduce his wife who was sitting next to him at a wedding when people came over to greet him at his table.

That would never happen today. Why? Because of the misguided notion of utilizing the biggest Chumra as a common denominator. The Charedi argument might be to say… So what? Why not raise the level of Kedusha and not rely on Kulos - leniencies? They will say that not everyone holds that one may have separate seating at a wedding. Isn’t it better to be holier?

My answer to that is that one does not have to be holier than the Gadol HaDor. If he sat with his wife and other couples at the same table then so can the rest of Klal Yisroel. Chasdim don’t? Fine that’s their business and their right. But don’t impose their Chumros on the rest of Klal Yisroel.

However that is not how the world works any more. We now worship the false ideal that adopting the Chumra is the great equalizer that creates some sort of unity. I disagree. I think doing that has the opposite effect and turns a great manyFrum people off – and might even be a source discomfort and of disunity. Most people if asked privately will say they prefer sitting with their spouses.

At weddings where couples are given the choice in the invitation to sit with their wives or sit separate – the vast majority of responses come back asking to be seated with their spouses - even among Charedi couples. Those wedding have very few separate tables. And why should that not be the case? If a husband and wife enjoy each other’s their company - why should they be denied that privilege? If one works all day long and looks forward to spending a night out with their spouse why should that be taken away from them?

And yet the idea of creating a sense of unity by catering to the greatest number of Chumros has become the norm. Anything less is seen as substandard Judaism in certain circles.

Then there are the Mehadrin (gender segregated) buses in Israel. The extreme right wing has insisted on it for their neighborhoods. Not to be seen as less religious than the most extreme elements of Meah Shearim, Charedi Poskim who in the past never gave this issue a second thought - have endorsed the idea. So we now have an increasing number of buses that have separate sections - men in the front and women in the back.

The argument is the same as above. Separate seating on a bus is Halachicly acceptable for everyone. But mixed seating is not. So why not just make all buses separate? Problem solved? No. Only one problem is solved. But other problems are created.

For example what about families touring Israel unfamiliar with the bus routes trying to stick together? Can they be assured getting off at the right stop together if on a crowded bus they cannot even see each other?

What about an elderly couple where one spouse might be dependent upon the other? Should they be separated? Nonetheless on the Mehadrin lines they will be at a minimum harassed if they dare sit together.

And what about the inherent unfairness of a situation where there is more of one gender on a Mehadrin bus than another? If there are a lot more women then men - why should a woman be forced to go sit - or even stand in the back of the bus while seats remain empty in the front? Let a woman try to sit in the front and see what happens even when the segregation is impromptu, unofficial and even illegal - as is the case in Ramat Bet Shemesh! Or better yet look what happened few years ago to a 70 year old woman there ... or what happened to Mrs. Miriam Shear in Jerusalem on the number 2 bus to the Kotel!

There are many more example of this - far too many for one essay.

Going the Frummest route is not always the best route. I would argue that it is the worse route. If there is no clear Halachic necessity or if even if there is a difference of opinion as to the Halachic necessity of incorporating Chumros into our lives, it is unfair to drag those who are perfectly within our rights to be lenient into a more stringent world just because of some false notion of leveling the playing field.

If we continue along these lines, it will be the death of normalcy. We will all just become a community of extremists where the only difference between us will be what Nusach we Daven. That is definitely the direction we are going if things don’t change.