Wednesday, April 22, 2015

When Worlds Collide

There is  much in the news these days about how some of the more extreme segments of the Charedi world deal with the relationship between men and women. Relationships between men and women is a subject upon which many tomes have been written. Both Halachic and hashkafic.  And for good reason. All human beings have in common something  called the sex drive (…or the libido, as Freud labeled it.)

As such Halacha realizes that men often see women as sex objects. Not that Halacha God forbid endorses that view. But that it realizes that it is often the case that men are visual and see women in sexual ways much more so then women see men.  I think Hollywood substantiates this view. No where are women more sexualized than in the vast majority of stuff coming out of Hollywood.

Civilized society has tended to regulate how to deal with the sex drive. Either by law, by custom or by both. So that we do not act immediately upon impulse.   For Jews, these laws are contained in the Torah, the Talmud and its commentaries. All of which have been redacted into Halacha in the Shulchan Aruch and its commentaries.

Although there are areas of sexual conduct upon which there is universal Halachic agreement, there are disputes about it in other areas.  Such as whether platonic physical contact between a man and a woman is permitted or not.  The commentaries in the Shulchan Aruch disagree about it. One commentator says that as long as the contact is platonic, it is permitted and the other that any contact at all is forbidden and to be avoided at all cost.

This is where a schism has developed between various Orthodox segments. The more right wing segments among us take on the stringent view. The more left wing among us take on the lenient view.

The Yeshiva world for the most part has the view that even platonic contact is to be avoided, but not at all cost. If it will embarrass others or cause undue problems, then it is permissible to have platonic contact.

In my view, the Yeshiva world approach is an appropriate compromise. It is one that 20th century Gedolim like Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky advocates. Which allows us all to avoid uncomfortable situations that inevitably inconvenience others and make us look a bit foolish in the modern world.

That the more right wing among us take the stringent view and avoid all contact between the sexes is to be avoided at all cost is because they see it at the core as always being sexual. No matter how platonic it is at the surface. And from this follows other stringencies – all in service to the idea of avoiding any possibility of being sexually aroused.

This is exacerbated by the fact that in many cases the  stringent among us tend to live in isolation from the rest of even Orthodox Jewry. Seeing themselves as exemplars of God’s will, they have developed a sense of entitlement about their stringent views. No matter how much it inconveniences others or how it makes them look. And that’s what has led to conflict. Which seems to be getting worse by the day.

Here is how J.E. Reich put it in the Forward
In recent years, both mainstream and Jewish media have reported on other misogyny-fueled instances of male dominance in fringe communities, from the terrorizing and policing of women’s clothing (and bodies, and sexuality) in ultra-Orthodox Beit Shemesh to Yiddish signs posted in the Satmar area of Williamsburg ordering women to cross the street in the presence of an approaching Jewish male
Since this demographic is the fastest growing one, their influences are quickly spreading outside of their own community: 
The issue of airplane seating arrangements reaches a whole new level: While most publicized instances injury of fringe Orthodox misogyny are insular in nature, only affecting Jewish women in these occupied areas, the latest wave affects secular women, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. 
This phenomenon is happening in Ramat Bet Shemesh as described by Shoshanna Jaskoll  in Life in Israel:
Female speakers are prohibited from publicizing their pictures, newspapers alter photographs and history by erasing women, phonebooks list only the husband’s name, families are honored but only the men accept the awards, etc. This causes the women to feel increasingly marginalized.
Those that are pushing their stringencies on others (or those that sympathize with them) have retorted with the following:
*If it bothers you, just don’t buy them, its really that simple.
*Women are so sexualized in the world that we must do the opposite:
*A woman’s worth, her beauty is internal.
*Achdus! Why must you start up?
*Its always been this way.
*We are telling our daughters that their externals are not important.
*Preserving women’s privacy does not prevent them from having a major influence in our lives.
*It’s our right.
*If it bothers you, just don’t buy them, its really that simple.
Mrs. Jaskoll has an excellent response to all of these points which can be read in Life in Israel. But for me it is as plain as day that even if one is to respect the stringent sensitivities of these people and not attribute them to misogyny, they nevertheless have no right to place the burden on others so that they can live their lives so easily.

The Gemarah relates a story about how 2 sages who were stringent about these matters reacted to a situation where women were not appropriately dressed because of the nature of what they were doing - washing clothes in a river. The sages did not tell them to leave. They did not yell at them or worse  beat them up. They did not put up posters the next day telling these women to stay home. They took a detour so that they would not encounter the women in a state of dress that was not Tzanua.

That is what this group should be doing. They want to be stringent? Fine. But not at the expense of those of us that rely on Gedolim like Rav Yaakov who is lenient in these matters.

The problem of course what can be done about it? Telling  them that they must compromise is whistling in the wind. I don’t know. But I’m happy to see that residents of Ramat Bet Shemesh - among them members of the Charedi community - are fighting back. May God give them the strength to prevail.