Monday, January 02, 2012

Mehadrin Buses – Halacha, Common Sense, and Chilul HaShem

This whole gender segregation thing on buses has really taken off as an issue of late. Most recently there was a counter protest by secular Jews who formed groups of men and women at various points on gender segregated Mehadrin bus routes, boarded them as a group, and sat in the men’s section. Fortunately there was no violence and it was a relatively quiet event.

It wasn’t always this way. To the best of my knowledge buses were never segregated by gender until relatively recent times. But as buses in ultra Charedi neighborhoods like Meah Shearim in Israel became crowded the residents requested and were granted permission by Egged, the government subsidized bus system in Israel, to be allowed to sit separately. Men in the front. Women in the back.

The reason for this particular arrangement was so that men would not be in a position to be looking at the women in front of them. Women in this community did not seem to have a problem with this. Nor do I recall there being any outside protests about this when the service was initiated. (This phenomenon has taken root in America too in ultra Charedi enclaves like Williamsburg and Monsey.)

Halachicly there is no problem with men and women sitting together on a bus even if it is crowded – as per the Psak of Rav Moshe Feinstein. But most Poskim would probably agree that it would be better (a Hidur) if they didn’t. On the other hand I am pretty sure that in those neighborhoods that have Mehadrin buses, it is considered to be more than a Hidur. For them it is a requirement in crowded situations. Most non Charedi Jews seemed to be OK with these Mehadrin buses since they were limited only to the ultra Charedi neighborhoods and understood the reasons for it.

But things seemed to start changing when Charedi neighborhoods started expanding and residents on their own started gender segregating non Mehadrin buses. That worked for them. But it did not always work for others.

The first incident that I am aware of happened to an Orthodox Jewish women, Mrs. Miriam Sheer, several years ago. She boarded a bus like that and sat in the empty men’s section up front. She did this every morning on her way to the Kotel. One morning she was confronted by some Charedi bullies and asked to move. Long story short - when she refused they beat her to a pulp.

That incident caused an uproar among not only secular and Dati Jews, but even among some Charedi Jews. Many similar incidents like this then followed with violence by Charedi thugs against women who refused to move to the back of the bus. In one case I recall it was against an elderly Charedi women in Ramat Bet Shemesh (surprise!) holding her grandchild.

This was followed by similar stories about women treated badly on Mehadrin or quasi Mehadrin buses. It got to be so bad that even some Charedi Poskim said the Hiddur created by these Mehadrin buses was not worth the Chilul HaShem created by it. Does the whole civilized world have to see Israel as some sort of second rate Iran? Are Mehadrin buses worth that? For their part - the Israeli government has now made it illegal for anyone to in any way force a woman sitting in the men’s section of even an official Mehadrin bus to move to the back.

Case closed? Hardly.

What bothers me are the accusations still coming from the right about the protest being anti Charedi. I suppose there is some of that. But overall I think this is a skewed understanding the anti Mehadrin protesters. No one is protesting Tznius. They are protesting what they see as a bias against women.

Mehadrin defenders make the claim that this is not the case at all and that the entire reason for gender segregation is based on Torah principles. While I agree that this is partially true, it is not the whole story. There are misogynistic motives in at least some of them as illustrated by the violence that keeps on popping up.

Charedi writer Eitan Kobre wrote an op-ed in Mishpacha Magazine last week that questioned the motives of those who challenge Mehadrin bus lines. Why, he asked, do protesters never send a man to the back of the bus - the women’s section? Why is it always a woman sitting in the men’s section? If there is discrimination it ought to be going both ways?

His answer is that protesters refuse to understand the religious and voluntary – even preferred segregation by Charedi women for reasons of modesty. They see only Rosa Parks. And see women as being forced to the back against their will. Which is not true in most cases of Mehadrin bus linses. Most Charedi women prefer sitting in the back for Tznius reasons. Secular journalists can’t seem to get past the ‘Rosa Parks’ racism of the American pre civil rights South. So they assume the same kind of bias here. Only instead of racism they see sexism.

OK. Point taken. But does Mr. Kobre not appreciate that there are many women – even observant ones – who do not see it his way? Not all Orthodox women appreciate sitting in the back of a bus. Certainly not secular ones. They in fact do feel discriminated against.

To answer Mr. Kobre’s question, the men’s section and the women’s section are not equal. The back of the bus is not the nicest part of the bus. The noxious diesel fumes are much stronger in the back. Those rare times when I have been on a bus, I loathe the possibility that I may have to sit in the back. And for that very reason I’d rather stand in the front than sit in the back!

There is also the convenience of being able to sit in the first empty seat you find after getting on and paying the fee. It is also a fact that when protesting sex segregated seating - sitting in the back will not be as noticed as much as sitting in the front.

And finally, isn’t it possible that a man would feel awkward making his protest by sitting in an all women’s section? Maybe it is sexist for me to say so, but I just think it is less awkward for a woman to sit down on an empty seat in the front of a bus than it is for a man to pass by empty seats and go sit with the women in back.

The protests are not about rejecting Tznius but about human rights. In this case the right of people to simply sit where ever they want on a bus without fear of violent or even verbal attack.

My view is as follows. I believe in freedom of choice. People should be able to sit anywhere they wish on any bus. In situations where everyone on a bus, both men and women prefer the Mehadrin arrangement, they ought to be allowed to do that. However in situations where a woman is not comfortable moving to the back, she should be allowed to sit in the front of even a Mehadrin bus. As I understand it, this is now the law of the land in Israel.

What about the rights of those whose religious sensitivities require them to sit separate?

When there are two rights in conflict and violence can result - common sense along with basic Halacha (as stated by one of the biggest Poskim of the 20th century) should prevail. If a woman does not want to sit in the back of the bus she should sit wherever she wants - even on an official Mehadrin bus. If that standard does not prevail, then all Mehadrin buses should be abolished.

Lest anyone think I am being unfair to the Charedi point of view, I am being mild compared to what an actual Charedi Posek in Israel said about it. Rav Avarahm Yosef (pictured above) - son of Sephardi Gadol Rav Ovadia Yosef actually called Mehadrin buses idiotic.