One of the presumptions made about our Charedi coreligionists is that their penchant for separating the sexes as much as possible is based on a quest for greater Kedusha - holiness. On the surface it would seem to make sense. We are - as God’s chosen people - a Goy Kadosh. We are a holy nation unto God.
The argument is that the more we separate ourselves from our base instincts the greater level of Kedusha we achieve. Not that there is anything wrong with sex. God has given us ways to make sex holy via the mechanism of marriage. But it can’t be denied that other illicit sexual activity or thoughts are unholy and to be avoided.
Using that argument one can understand why the Charedi world is so insistent on separating the sexes as much as possible. In their quest to be holy this is what they do.
For the most part, the Charedi world has a decent balance between social engagement of the sexes and separating themselves. But in some of the more extreme segments of the Charedi world there is an imbalance favoring extremism in avoiding the opposite sex.
The question arises, is there such a thing as going too far? Can someone become “too holy”? The answer of course is no. There is no such thing as too holy. The real question is whether in one’s quest for holiness can one go so far that their precautions become unholy. In my view the answer to this question is definitely – yes! I absolutely believe that extreme segregation of the sexes in order to preclude indecent thoughts in men about women can and often does go too far. Harm results. And that is unholy.
Mrs. Shoshana L. Boublil, a woman of great integrity and dedication to Yiddishkeit described the situation she experiences in Israel. Here is what she said about over-doing the separation of the sexes in another forum currently discussing this issue (quoted with permission):
Actually, I wonder if it doesn't make matters worse, as people who in the past were raised to actually "exercise" those "muscles" in their brain intended to chain the Yetzer, aren't getting any practice at all!
Not only that but the men are taught not to see women, so while in mixed societies, men and women notice their surroundings, and take care not to push/shove/touch each other without permission(!) [social hugging is a very limited and totally controllable societal norm], many men in totally separated societies lose the ability and I've spoken to many, many women in supermarkets who complain that the men "don't see them" and push/shove them aside without a thought.
This is certainly not appropriate Jewish behavior, which means that the chumra is causing people to transgress Bein Adam LeChaveiro.In other contexts, Hirhurim (indecent thoughts by men about women), men who are raised in mixed societies exercise this "mental muscle" and practice, so that they can differentiate between permitted (his wife) and not permitted (all other women in the world). I could continue, but this is long enough.
I would like to point out that if we are supposed to observe the world and learn from it [ie. Learn cleanliness from the cat] then it appears that when someone has a damaged limb, the doctor's orders are to exercise that limb in order to rehabilitate it - not to let it lie down unused. I would argue that separating the genders completely was never Jewishly intended. It was always a singular occurrence under specific sets of circumstances. While a certain amount of separation did occur in various historical Jewish societies, for local cultural reasons, the push to segregation happening nowadays (separate sidewalks; store hours etc.) is completely new.
There is nothing really for me to add to that. Except to say that normal interaction seems to be the right way to go even in matters of Tznius. By isolating oneself completely from the opposite sex, a man in his zeal to avoid looking at a woman can easily end up treating them like inanimate objects to be literally pushed aside if in his path.
There has to be a certain amount of socialization between the sexes just to meet the minimum standards of civilized behavior. Extreme avoidance of the sexes does exactly the opposite. In the end it violates basic notions of decency in treating one’s fellow human being with the respect that they deserve.
Updated: 5:12 PM CDT