Thursday, October 20, 2016

A Reasonable Request in Meah Shearim

Poster asking for separation of the sexes in Meah Shearim (Ynet)
I am not a fan of segregation. Whether by race, religion, or gender. And yet gender separation has taken hold in Orthodoxy more than ever. Particularly at banquets and weddings, Neither of which are Halachicly required to do so.

Gender separation is the result of the constant ‘move to the right’. A pattern many of us in Orthodoxy has fallen into.

As it applies to America - there was a time when even the most right wing organizations had mixed seating (except in Chasidic circles). Great European Roshei Yeshiva that had immigrated to America (like Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky) and world class Poskim (like Rav Moshe Feinstein) could be found sitting at tables with their wives and other couples - proudly introducing their wives to friends and acquaintances as they passed by. That was the culturally accepted custom of Orthodox Jews in America.

Things were not that different in pre-war non Chasidic Europe. I recall back in the late 60s when a student of European Gadol, Rav Mordechai Rogov asked him if he should insist on separate seating at his own wedding as this custom was beginning to take hold among the right. Rav Rogov answered in Yiddish: In der Lita, zenen mir nit geven makpid. Separate seating was not an issue even in Lithuania - the heart of the Torah world back then.

Today a even a non Chasidic Rosh Yeshiva will never be found sitting with his wife at mixed table at wedding. It has become anathema to them and pro forma for their students to only have separate seating at their weddings.

The Talmudic source for separating the sexes is based on the Gemarah in Sukkah (5b). It describes the situation on Simchas Beis HaShoeva. Men and women used to be in the same area, women were on the inside and men on the outside. Because of the great celebration men and women came to  light-headeness and frivolity. That generated a rabbinic decree that separated them – requiring them to be in a balcony and enjoy the celebration from there.

That kind of segregation expanded to other times and other places. Like weddings. It was the norm among observant Jewry – centuries ago. And based on the culture of the times. Women were generally not found walking around in public. So being seated with them was considered immodest.

Today that is no longer the case. As explained by 16th century Posek, the Maharam Yaffa (more popularly known as the Levush), women are as commonly found in public as men.

I am not going to go into detail as to why this push backward is so troubling. Been there and done that many times.

But I am going to discuss one very disturbing trend among the extreme right that is an offshoot of the mentality that wants to completely segregate the sexes.  Even though the stated intent of gender segregation is to keep us holy by avoiding any contact between the sexes at all, there is such a thing as going too far. Going too far is when the desired effect is overshadowed by the harm it causes.  Unfortunately there are ample examples of that. Just to cite one example: How many times have we heard about a woman being beaten up or bullied for sitting in the wrong seat on a bus?! Although no one - even in the extreme right - condones it. Their tepid responses do little to change the harm requiring separate seating on buses causes. Certainly not enough to eliminate the separate  seating requirement. This leaves room for it to happen again!

But sometimes there is a legitimate reason to separate the sexes in public areas.  Not that I feel it has to be done in those cases. But I do think that requests for doing so are reasonable and understandable.

An article in Ynet is a case in point. Apparently signs were put up in the Meah Shearim neighborhood that included the following statement: 
"And a special request to the women – residents of the area as well as passersby – try to minimize as much as possible crossings of the main street of Mea Shearim in Chol Hamoed night times, and only go through side streets, and in general minimize visits in the (Mea Shearim) neighborhood in those hours," one of the posters said. 
I personally believe that such signs are unnecessary. But I completely understand why this community feels that they are. Anyone that has been to Meah Shearim will note just how narrow the streets and sidewalks are. The slightest number of people congregating in the street will create a crowded situation. And as the number increases, the crowds become very tight. Physical contact among people in that crowd may very well be unavoidable. To request (not demand) that women avoid the certain crowding that takes place on Chol Hamoed Sukkos when Shuls are celebrating Simchas Beis HaShoeva with loud music and exuberant dancing is a reasonable request.

That I personally don’t think it’s necessary is irrelevant. I don’t see a problem with incidental contact. But many Orthodox Jews do see that as a problem and want to avoid it as much as possible. So at least in this one instance, I would give this community a pass. Let them put up those signs in their own Meah Shearim neighborhoods during Chol HaMoed Sukkos. And let us try to honor them if we happen to be in there then.

There are plenty of things to be critical of in this community. And I have been. But this is not one of them.

Are they ‘breaking the law’ by putting up signs that call for gender separation? Maybe. But if there is ever a time for law enforcement to look the other way, this is it.