Monday, February 18, 2013

In Defense of Liberty

Sign in a Williamsburg store - source VIN
I find myself in the odd position of defending behavior I don’t really approve of. According to an article in VIN, a group of store-owners in Williamsburg is being sued by the New York City Commission on Human Rights for discrimination.

What did they do that deserves a lawsuit? They posted signs requiring modest dress by patrons in order for them to be admitted to their stores. By modest they include prohibiting (among other things) sleeveless dresses and low cut necklines. I have little patience for such restrictions. Not because they do not have Halachic significance. They do. But because they project an image to the world of extremism that subjects Judaism to ridicule.

Even though these restrictions are based in Halacha, they should not in my view become standard for patrons who shop there. As long as the dress is modest by communal standards of decency (not Hollywood standards - but what I would call ‘silent majority’ standards) a store-owner should just learn to avert his eyes. If he feels that a woman wearing a sleeveless dress is too enticing for him to bear let him not look directly at the arms of these women – or wear ‘blurry eyed’ glasses.

Nonetheless I defend their right to impose any restrictions they wish as long as they are not harmful to others or discriminating based on personal prejudice – like skin color or religion.

All they are trying to do is maintain their own standards for Tznius. In my view that is their right, whether I or anyone else likes it or not. These are private businesses and I don’t see any reason why a merchant can’t establish any shopping rules he wants.

If he posted a sign requiring people to wear underwear on their heads, before entry that would be their right too. I don’t have to shop there – if I don’t like the conditions for entry. Or if I choose - I can try and reason with the owner to change the rules if I don’t like them. But at the end of the day, it should be his right.

This has nothing to do with whether I agree with what they are doing or not. Nor does it have anything to do with my views on whether such restrictions are mandated by Halacha. The point is that these people do believe that do be the case and they have a right to run their businesses any way they choose as long as they do not harm anyone or unfairly discriminate against a particular group of people.

So as much as these kinds of business practices bother me, I defend the right of anyone to do business the way they choose.

The best way to oppose such restrictions is  to ‘vote with your feet’. If you don’t like the way they do business, don’t shop there. Unless it can be shown that there was discriminatory intent clothed in religion - no business owner should be forced to violate their religious principles just because a random shopper doesn’t like the rules based on them.