|Men in front; women in back - bus ride between Wlliamsburg and Boro Park|
I have long lamented the fact that Orthodox Judaism has moved – and continues to move - to the right. I know I am not alone on this. Nor is it all bad. As a Centrist, I am glad to see those to my left move towards the center. Nor does it bother me that those to my right are moving even further to my right. The problem I have is the pressure that this has on the mainstream to move to the right too. And some of the collateral damage that has resulted. And some of that pretty extreme.
Let me be clear. Every Jew has the right to be as religious as they choose – and adopt any stringency they choose. But the phenomenon of the mainstream moving to the right is not necessarily a good thing. The best example of this is the disappearance of mixed seating at banquets and weddings.
I have written about this before. Without getting into too much detail my opposition to this is based on the fact that there is nothing Halachicly wrong with men and women sitting together in public at a dinner table. The society in which we live today considers this normal. Although this was at one time considered immodest behavior, that has long ago ceased to be the case.
I am not going to go into the Halachic sources for this. I will however say that it is easily demonstrated by the fact that the non Chasidic Gedolei HaDor in America of the 20th century were not only happy to sit together with their wives at mixed tables in public – including wedding banquets – they were happy to introduce their wives to passersby they knew.
In the Chasidic world however - separation of the sexes is far more extensive and common. In some cases extreme (compared to the mainstream even by today’s standards). Separate seating has always been the case.
What changed? I believe that some mainstream rabbinic leaders (starting in about the mid 1960s) saw Chasidim who had arrived in great numbers after the Holocaust doing it and decided they would not allow themselves to be ‘outfrummed’ by them . So they started doing it too. The mainstream laity soon followed suit. It is now rare to find a mainstream wedding that has mixed seating. Except for modern Orthodox Jews and a few of us die-hards in the Center that still insist on it when we can.
The Frumkeit chase didn’t end there. It seems that the mainstream keeps looking to their right and finding other things to emulate. Such as the new phenomenon of not publishing pictures of women. Except for Lubavitch - the Chasidic world has never published pictures of women considering it immodest. This was not true in the rest of the mainstream Charedi world. That is evidenced by the two largest mainstream Charedi publishers, ArtScroll and Feldheim, publish pictures of women. And by the fact that the Gedolei HaDor that were on Agudah Moetzes clearly approved of that - which was evidenced by Agudah’s now defunct Magazine, the Jewish Observer which occasionally had women featured on their cover.
But then came the Charedi magazines. They decided to follow the Chasidic standard. No pictures of women.
Meanwhile certain communities have taken modesty to such extremes that they are causing a Chilul HaShem. As was the case recently on an El Al flight when Chasdim refused to be seated in their assigned seats because they would be sitting next to women. This and other such instances (of even worse behavior such as using physical force to remove women from the front section of a bus where men are seated) have become far more common.
It therefore seems to me that the move to the right is common in the area of modesty between the sexes. Of course not all instances of modesty considerations are the same. But the motives are the same: the exaltation of modesty well beyond Halacha as a means toward ‘Frumkeit’.
About 20 years ago Chasidic friend of mine asked me why one of my children’s weddings had mixed seating. I told him I saw nothing wrong with and that most of the people I knew - including those that were Charedi preferred sitting together with their wives. I also pointed out that many Gedolei HaDor of the past sat with their wives. His response was telling. He said that was then. Now our modesty standards have improved and sitting mixed is considered immodest. Adding that no Gadol today would sit mixed.
I had to admit that this was true. But I also thought how sad it was that we have gone backwards in time to a practice that had no longer had any Halachic significance – only because of the ongoing Frumkeit chase.
What, one may ask, is wrong with returning to a ‘higher standard of modesty’? Nothing except that it isn’t really a higher standard anymore. Most people prefer siting with their wives. and the custom of the society in which we now does not consider mixed seating the slightest bit immoral. Mixed seating is the norm. It’s only because the Frumkeit chase makes it seem less that moral. And that begets the slippery slope into extremism - beginning with not publishing pictures of women.
It doesn’t help matters when the concept of modesty has become over-emphasized in girls high schools and seminaries. I believe that modesty issues are the primary focus in these schools. Is it any wonder that modesty is what the Frumkeit chase is all about?
True, here has been some push-back. And there has been some positive results of that. In fact I noticed Mishpacha Magazine had a cartoon on the inside back cover featuring caricatures of women. But that is not anywhere near enough. I am afraid there is little we can do about it. The train has left the station. Frumkeit is here to stay. I do not expect any significant change in the mainstream any time soon.