Tuesday, December 06, 2011

The Common Sense of Rabbi Shlomo Amar

When it comes to issues of gender separation I often think that in certain circles common sense has left the building.

On the extreme right of the religious spectrum there has been an attitude of late to eliminate women from all public consciousness. All kinds of religious arguments are put forward to justify it – Tznius chief among them. They say that they are not anti women. I think they actually believe that. In fact they will often quote Talmudic passages that indicate how high a woman is put on a pedestal as a counter to feminist claims that they are anti women. The problem is that feminists do not want women to be placed on a pedestal. They just want women to be treated as equals.

Women should be treated that way in all areas that do not have Halachic impediments.

Judaism does have specific roles for various segments of its people that separate them from other segments. As it pertains the sexes, men and women have different obligations and therefore different roles too. But that does not mean we aren’t equals. We are just different. Where there is no Halachic conflict we should be equal in every respect. In the modern world progress has been made in this area but we still have a long way to go. There is still a gap in pay for equal work between men and women. Men are paid more. That is simply wrong.

What about the Laws and customs of a sexual nature (Arayos)? How is gender equality impacted by this?

There are of course the specific laws that are detailed in the Torah. There are also rabbinic laws (Takonos Chazal) designed to protect us from transgressing the biblical laws. And there are laws that have been tacked on throughout the course of time since the era of Chazal designed to further distance us from transgressions of illicit sexual behavior. And in recent times there have been even more extremes taken on by some communities in an attempt to completely eliminate any possibility of such Halachic violations.

I believe that much of the current controversy is based on interpretations by Achronim on the exact nature of violating these laws. There is a dispute about whether physical contact between the sexes is absolutely forbidden under all circumstances or whether such contact is only forbidden when it is intended sexually (Derech Chiba).

According to the latter view innocent platonic type contact is permitted – even to the extent of social kissing. The former argues that any touching at all is forbidden no matter how innocent. Both of these perspectives and everything in between are alive and well within Orthodoxy.

Chasidim generally adopt the view that a mere touch of any kind between a man and a woman is completely forbidden. On the other hand I have been told that Orthodox Jews of German heritage actually do not hesitate to have platonic contact of any kind between the sexes. The Lithuanian Yeshiva world is a sort of compromise between the two. They try to avoid contact whenever possible, but never embarrass a member of the opposite sex who extends a hand in an attempt at a handshake. They will shake the hand in this case. Modern Orthodox Jews tend to vary between the German Jewish custom and the Yeshivishe custom.

These approaches are the source of much of the conflict in my view. Until recent times (post Holocaust) the various segments lived apart geographically - each with their own customs. The problem occurs when these two cultures collide as they do in our day. The Chasidic approach combined with their tendency toward complete insularity and their rapid growth has caused them to adopt various Chumros that are in conflict with the values of the rest of Orthodox Jewry.

The reactions are varied. Some non Chasidim actually appreciate some of the Chumros. Some merely tolerate them but don’t really like them. Some are outraged by them. Most people end up going along with them for the sake of peace.

But what should the public policy be? Is it good for the Jews? Is it a good idea to allow these Chumros to increase in the larger society that includes not only other religious Jews, but secular Jews and even no Jews?

The extremes of gender separation have caused many problems and can no longer be tolerated and ignored.

We all know about the zealots from those communities that have used violence against those who challenge these extremes. But even if that were not the case, is it worth tolerating them when it makes Judaism look primitive in the eyes of the world? It is one thing to stand by Halacha when it defies the world’s sensibilities. It is another to defy them when extreme Chumros are not Halacha and make us look bad - not to mention the fact that they inconvenience other even Orthodox Jews.

There are many areas where unreasonable Chumros are insisted upon by this one segment that makes us look bad. But the one issue that seems to have broken the camel’s back is the issue of separate seating on buses. Women in the back -men in the front. All ostensibly for reasons of Tznius. How bad? Here is what the Secretary of State said:

In a closed session at the Saban Forum attended both by Israeli and American decision-makers Clinton addressed the issue of discrimination against Israeli women. She expressed concern for Israel's social climate in the wake of limitations on female public singing and gender segregation on public transport.

The greater good is not served here. The price is too high. It is in effect causing a culture war that is harming the fabric of our people both internally and externally. It makes religious Jews look like throwbacks to the era where women were treated as second class citizens - relegated to the back of the bus - both literally and figuratively.

There is no requirement to placate a minority - even a large and growing one -who now feels they can flex their muscle and do whatever they want no matter what others think. And those who defend them are guilty of contributing to making us look like idiots in the eyes of the world – which is exactly the opposite of fulfilling our mandate to be a light unto the nations.

This is why I give Rabbi Shlomo Amar credit. He has responded to the Secretary of State:

Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar spoke after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was quoted by Israeli media as expressing shock over the segregated buses and other practices of radicalized religious activists.

In an interview with the ultra-Orthodox Kol Brama radio station, Amar was critical of these relatively new and controversial practices.

“People who do it do it for their own sakes,” he said of the segregated buses. “Certain people want to delineate a fence, perhaps because they saw a need for it. But it’s not Jewish law.”

Good for Rabbi Amar. On this issue he has something that many others do not - common sense.

We should of course always do what we can to protect ourselves from transgressing Averios. But when non Halachic Chumros cause problems for others and additionally make us look primitive in the eyes of the world, they ought to be fought and abandoned. It is not a ‘live and let live’ situation. Not when doing so makes a mockery our beliefs.