Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Tyranny of the Majority - Imposing Chumros on the Public

Finally some common sense. The Transportation Ministry in Israel has determined that the Mehadrim buses are illegal. Mehadrin buses - for those who don’t know - are buses where men sit in the front and women sit in the back.

Crirtics might ask, ‘How can you side with such an anti Frum ruling?’ The answer is simple. It is not an anti Frum ruling. It is in fact a common sense ruling. The traveling public should not be subject to the religious stringency of a particular sect of religious Jews -even if they are a majority of a neighborhood being served by it. The only proper course of action in these circumstances is for them to segregate voluntarily - as indicated by the Ministry of Transportation. If there is someone on any bus who refuses to do so, it should be their right especially when there is ample room on a bus for Tznius to be observed.

It shouldn’t matter in which neighborhoods these buses run. If a woman gets on a bus who is uncomfortable sitting in the back of a bus, she should be able to sit in a seat that is more comfortable. Poskim like Rav Moshe Feinstein have weighed in on this issue long ago. There is no Halachic requirement to have segregation of the sexes on a public bus.

That it might be a more Mehudar (religiously preferable) expression of modesty (Tznius) does not outweigh the inconvenience it causes to those who are uncomfortable with it.

I spoke to a very Charedi Mechaneches in Israel about this subject. She told me she never takes a Mehadrin bus. That’s because women tend to take public transportation more often than men and the women’s section at the back of the bus is often very crowded and uncomfortable while the men’s section is sparsely populated – with plenty of empty seats.

To me this illustrates the patently unfair nature of Mehadrin buses. It isn’t just secular or Modern Orthodox Jews that are opposed. There are Charedim that have issues with it too.

The idea of segregating the sexes is on a public bus is merely a Chumra insisted upon by Chasdic sects like those that live in Meah Shearim. Their standards are much more extreme than even mainstream Charedi standards – let alone Dati or Modern Orthodox satndards. Mainstream Charedim may appreciate it the more Tznius Mehadrin buses but they were not the ones who asked for it.

Until relatively recent times it was quite sufficient for them to take non Mehadrin public transportation and make do with it. Some may like it better even though it wasn’t their community that aksed for it? Well one’s personal comfort with a Chumra insisted upon and executed by a minority should not be at the expense of the discomfort of others.

That said, I have no opposition to Charedim running their own private bus lines. The fact is that Egged, the large Israeli bus line subsidized by the Israeli government chose to offer Mehadrin buses in Charedi neighborhoods precisely to pre-empt this kind of private competition. Charedi routes are lucrative ones because they use public transportation more than any other segment of the Israeli public. But Egged is nevertheless wrong. Segregation of the sexes not required by Halacha that causes an imposition on some of its users is unfair – even if it is only to a minority of them.

Bus routes should be open to the entire public in a fair and equitable way. And if this new determination by the transportation Ministry means that private bus line will now compete with Egged, well they should learn to live with that. And they should still provide their own – perhaps reduced -run of bus service to those neighborhoods that will have private Mehadrin buses in order to accommodate those who don’t like it.

A compromise with a private Mehadrin line about the number of buses each would run - perhaps alternating with each other - seems like a fair course of action that should make the maximum number of people happy.

When it comes to public transportation segregating the sexes ought to be a voluntary process. No one should be forced to sit at the back of the bus.