Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Accommodating Extremism

If someone sees a beautiful woman – no matter whether she is Jewish or not, one is required to recite a blessing. This is not speculation. This is a Halacha in the Shulchan Aruch (OC 225:10) as explained by the Chafetz Chaim in his magnum Opus, the Mishna Berurah (note 32). (Although he says that in our day we should do so without Shem U’Malchus. That is - without mentioning God’s name directly or His sovereignty over the universe.)

This is true of all things of beauty. Chazal mandated that we acknowledge God’s creations with a plethora of blessings to cover the good; the bad; the ugly and the beautiful.

This does not mean we have to go out of our way to find beautiful women in order to recite a blessing. But it does seem to suggest that the current tendency among many on the extreme right to avoid any visual contact with women in the public square has gone way overboard. Whether it is separate seating on buses, at weddings, or separate sidewalks ...or in one of its worst incarnations the haranguing of an 8 year old girl trying to attend an all girls elementary religious Zionist school in Bet Shemesh... Chazal never mandated the kinds of things being done today in order to avoid the sight of even an 8 year old girl, let alone a woman sitting next to them on a public transport.

I experienced a very unpleasant experience like this one time on an airline that had a group of Chasidic passengers. I have traveled with Chasidic passengers before, but only experienced the following one time by passengers that I can only describe as extremists in their views regarding women and Tznius.

After being seated on a very full plane a flight attendant came up to a female passenger sitting next to me and asked her if she would be willing to change seats with a Chasid so that he wouldn’t have to sit next to a woman. I remember being very perturbed by that. The Chasid in question was a very large individual - tall and overweight. The woman sitting next to me was petite. The woman didn’t mind and there I was suddenly squished next to a huge person who took up every inch of space he could in the seat next to me including the armrest – reeking of cigarette smoke!

This is symptomatic of the larger issue dominating the media these days. There are so many instances of women being pushed out of sight that it has long ago crossed the plane of normal behavior. The kind of thing that happened to me should not have happened. Not in a public place. Not when one’s personal obsession with Tznius impinges on the rights or comforts of others – as it did with me.

Nor should behavior in the name of Tznius be allowed if it becomes so bizarre that it creates a Chilul HaShem. This was the case recently on an El Al flight where Chasidic looking passengers took out cardboard boxes, each one of them surrounding himself so as to make a partition – keeping out of their view any possible sight of a female – modestly dressed or otherwise.

I do not recall anywhere in the Gemarah where Chazal suggested going to such extremes to avoid the sight of a woman who may not be dressed properly. While it does strongly warn us to avoid areas where that may be common – as in the famous case of women washing clothes standing in the Jordan River, it never suggest walking around wearing blindfolds with a seeing eye dog.

The Halacha of making a Bracha upon seeing a beautiful woman is based on a Gemarah in Avoda Zara (20 a and b). It tells the story of a great sage who had a chance visual encounter with a woman of great beauty. He did not recoil. He did not run away. He did not say Vidui – a confessional prayer of penance. He did not think he had to do Teshuva. He instead made a Bracha - a blessing thanking God for creating a woman of such beauty.

Had he been the extreme type of Charedi like those who put cardboard boxes around themselves on that El Al flight - unlike that sage he would be trying to figure out how to avoid that from ever happening again. The Gemarah never suggests that the sage did that. Nor that anyone else should. The Gemarah does not suggest we resort to abnormal behavior in service of extremes of Tznius.

There are some who would advocate that El Al accommodate these passengers and have a special section of the plane reserved for them. On the surface one may argue, what’s the harm? Let them sit where they want as long as the other passengers are not inconvenienced. The problem is that they are inconvenienced. As I was by that large Chasid who asked to exchange his seat with the petite woman sitting next to me

I can only guess at their next demand. Will they ask for first class? First class is closed off. What better way to accommodate them?!

How far do we have to go to accommodate abnormality? If these extremist Charedim feel threatened by female beauty, it is only because they have been indoctrinated to feel that way. The sexes in their world are so segregated that the sight of any woman in public, no matter how Tzanua can – I suppose - actually cause indecent thoughts in their men.

Does that mean that the rest of us have to be subjected to their strictures? Does it mean we have to accommodate them no matter how ridiculous it looks to the rest of the world? So ridiculous that it makes a laughing stock out of Judaism? Charedi extremists like these like to say that they represent the most religious among us. Is that how Judaism should be projected to the world as practiced in the ideal? Cardboard boxes?! Really?!

In my view public facilities like El Al should never accommodate abnormal behavior if there is no Halachic requirement to do so. It should not have to be the rest of the world that adjusts to their extremism. They should instead adjust to the real world – if they want to take advantage of things outside of their own. Like flying on commercial aircraft.