Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Paying a Price

We have yet another story in the secular press relating to the controversy over Mehadrin busses, (those which segregate women to the back of a bus). Nothing really new is reported there. But the story will just not go away. And all those who defended the Charedim who beat up Miriam Shear and who are staunch advocates of Mehadrin buses are witnessing a strong challenge to its very existence. This challenge can be directly attributed to the events I wrote about last December. If there is any justice in the world, Naomi Regan’s lawsuit against the Mehadrin buses will succeed. And Mehadrin busses will be severely restricted by law in the State of Israel. Certainly there should be no more “unofficial” Mehadrin lines.

It’s not that I am against a Mehadrin bus line for the community that chooses to have it. Let them have it Gezunte Heit (in complete health). But it is about time that actions like the one that took place against Mrs. Shear have serious consequences. And the severe restriction of Mehadrin buses would be a just consequence of such actions, the price to be paid for the priviledge.

Claims that religious rights of Charedim would be violated are nonsense. It is not Halachicly forbidden to ride a bus with mixed seating as Rav Moshe Feinstein Paskin’d. And I doubt that Mehadrin buses are anything more than the name implies: a Hidur. I understand the need in parts of the Charedi world to act Lifnim Meshuras HaDin, to go beyond the minimum requirements of Halacha. But not limiting an individual's right to act Lifnim Meshuras Hadin does not violate his or her religious rightsm. And it should in no way ever again be a reason for a Frum Tznius woman be forced out of her seat on a bus when there are plenty of other empty seats available.

And this brings me to Mrs. Shira Leibowitz-Schmidt. Mrs. Schmidt is a very talented writer and frequent contributer to cross-currents. It seems to be her habit to almost always defends the most Charedi of perspectives and she did it again here. It is as though she feels a need to constantly establish her “Frum” credentials and at the same time show how decadent secular society is… as if she is saying… “I’m from an assimilated background. (See her bio at the bottom of an article here.) I’ve been there and I can tell you from experience how bad it is.” And that perhaps explains the following qoutes from the article:

"Shira Leibowitz-Schmidt, a teacher at the Haredi College for Women who has fought back against Ragen, says sex-segregated bus lines uphold Haredi traditions and values."

"The vocal demands for modesty and heightened restrictions on women, she says, are a natural reaction to the midriffs and spaghetti-strapped tank tops worn by many secular Israeli women."

"It goes back to the spiralling permissiveness and creeping eroticism, this lasciviousness in the public square," says Leibowitz-Schmidt. "Women want to encourage their husbands, sons and brothers to be focused on family and on Torah and not on the barely dressed women entering the bus."

OK. I understand this perspective. But why is she fighting back? Isn’t it just possible that those who oppose Mehadrin busses have these same values? Does she think Ms. Ragen does not agree with her perceptions on the lack of modesty standards in secular Israel? Must she frame the Mehadrin buses as a reaction to "spiralling permissiveness and creeping eroticism"? Isn't it possible to live a totally Tznius life and not have a Mehadrin Bus line? or at least not have unofficial spontaneously generated ones?

I think it is overkill to say the least. Israeli buses do not contain eroticism and lasciviousness, last time I checked. If Charedim want to avoid the “barely dressed women” Mrs. Schmidt speaks of they would have to stay locked in their homes 24/7. If they leave their homes, they are going to be encountering it in the street. Forcing women to the back of the buss will not eliminate that Michshol (stumbling block).

Segregating busses in Israel has little to do with avoiding immodestly dressed women. It has more to do with the extremism so prevalent in Charedi society there. And Charedim should have no right to impose their extreme standards on others for no other reason that to show them “who’s boss”.