Monday, December 19, 2011

The State Does Not Belong to Charedim

Segregation of the sexes in Israel has become a more contentious issue than ever. The increased size of a religious minority has enabled them to flex their muscles and seek religious accommodation from public enterprises unlike any other time in Israel’s history.

The current fight has come to a head in the Mehadrin bus lines. Several of Israel’s public bus routes have been granted gender segregation. This means that women must enter and sit at the back of any bus designated as Mehadrin.

The phenomenon of gender segregation is not limited to buses. With their new found numerical and political strength, there have been numerous other areas where gender segregation has been attempted. Like alternate side of the street segregation in highly traveled areas... with men on one side and women on the other.

The motivation behind this relatively new phenomenon is the Halacha which prohibits actual physical contact between the sexes. Except for their wives men are Halachicly forbidden from touching women. There are Halachic differences of opinion about whether the nature of the touch is a factor… or about certain exceptional circumstances. But in Chasidic and many other Charedi cirlces there is no such debate. Touching women is completely forbidden by men under any circumstances.

They therefore go to great lengths to avoid even incidental contact of the type one might encounter on a crowded bus. As their population increased buses in places like Meah Shearim got to be overcrowded. Contact under these conditions is nearly impossible to avoid. To alleviate this problem, Mehadrin buses were created. Other Charedim outside of the Chasidic community who say that such unavoidable incidental contact is not really a problem will tell you that it is still preferable to take a Mehadrin bus if possible.

They further argue that since it is but a minor inconvenience to those who are not religious, and to them it is of such vital importance, the public ought to let them have their buses. After all it is only in their own neighborhoods where they have asked for it.

But how minor is it? One man’s Chumra can easily be a another man’s burden. We are essentially speaking here about the tyranny of the minority. In particular this minority a self centered one that refuses to see the other side of the issue.

Although I have heard that many women who are not Chasidic actually prefer this arrangement, based on the current outcry my gut feeling is that they are in the minority too. Why? Let us examine the downside - and there are many.

First there is the inconvenience of being separated from one’s spouse and children. It is not uncommon to decide to change one’s mind about which stop to get off. How does one communicate this to a spouse separated by throngs of people on a crowded bus?

Then there are the tourists. Often one spouse relies on the other to know when and where to get off, it is very possible that a miscommunication will cause them to get off at different stops… and not knowing their way around - be lost.

And what about an elderly couple where one spouse depends on the other for help getting on and off buses?

And then there are those women who rightfully refuse to sit at the back of the bus.

These are just some of the problems that come to mind. But what makes this situation completely intolerable is the occasional reaction by zealots. Far too often there are zealots on board who take matters into their own hands. Intimidation and even violence can - and has resulted. As recently as last week, a woman got on a bus, sat down in an empty seat in the front of the bus and was immediately intimidated by some of the passengers. The bus was halted and the driver prevented from proceeding until she moved. She stood her ground. Police were called. It was ugly!

Need I remind anyone of similar incidents or even worse ones in the not too distant past?

I understand why they may want to have separate seating on a crowded bus. I even understand why they feel that women must sit in the back. They believe it is forbidden to look at a woman who sits in front of them because it may lead to lustful thoughts. By women sitting in back this is avoided. (How convenient!)

But common sense should tell them that when a bus is empty (or even when it’s not) and a woman ‘violates’ the norm, they should avoid conflict and leave her her alone. Most people - like it or not - will abide by the rules they have set. But these constant episodes of harassment and violence are cause to terminate the entire enterprise of Mehadrin buses once and for all.

One has to weigh the cost versus benefits of such Chumros. Actions like this projected to the world bring ridicule and contempt upon the Jewish people. Judaism is not a primitive religion. But the more episodes we have like this, the more we are seen that way. It is one thing to stand up for Halacha and withstand the test of scorn and ridicule that may follow. That would be a Kiddush HaShem. It is another to implement a Chumra observed by a minority that leads to inconveniencing other religious Jews who do not abide by such Chumros; is the source of violent behavior by zealots; and the source of ridicule of observant Judaism by world leaders.

We are not required as a people to abide by the stringency of the most extreme elements among us. Certainly not under these conditions. When that happens the Chumra turns into a Chilul HaShem.

The latest incident has brought this to a climax with condemnations coming from all circles. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rightly condemned it. As has opposition leader Tzipi Livni… as has an onlooking American Secretary of State. But they are not the only ones.

Israel’s Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger has expressed his opposition to Mehadrin buses too. The State does not belong to Charedim, he said - even as he considers himself Charedi. As a protégé of Rav Elyashiv, I think that’s a good call.

I don’t know what is going to happen with the Mehadrin buses. But I think the entire enterprise has to end. The zealots have assured that they will continue to intimidate unwilling or reluctant female passengers who defy them. Common sense does not exist for them. Rav Metzger is right. Let the public transportation system be restored to a policy of free access of either gender to any seat available.

I would go one step further. There ought to be hidden surveillance cameras placed on every bus to assure that anyone harassing anyone else on a bus will be prosecuted. And the penalty ought to be stiff – including jail time for violence.

Those who want Mehadrin buses are entitled to have it. But I agree with Rav Metzger. Not at the expense of the public. If they want Mehadrin buses let them set up their own private system.