The issue of the “exclusion of
women” (hadarat nashim) in public spheres has greatly engaged Israeli society
over the last several months. Unfortunately, under this big headline, numerous
phenomena have been included. There is a big difference, from the perspectives
of both Halacha and democracy, between allowing religious soldiers to excuse
themselves from recreational concerts by women singers, to forcing non-religious
women to sit in the back of an Egged bus or beating them for entering a certain
neighborhood in immodest dress.
Clearly, however, many of the phenomena
are deplorable, and require redress on three levels: (1) rectifying the massive
desecration of God’s reputation (Hillul Hashem) created by extremists like the
Sikarikim group and their neighbors who fail to condemn their actions; (2)
creating greater understanding on the relationship between Halacha, democracy,
and tolerance; and (3) clarifying the halachic sources related to these matters,
the latter of which will be the focus of this essay.
Jewish law forbids
not only illicit sexual relations, but also actions which might lead to such
behavior or which are immodest or inappropriate in its own right. This includes
intimate physical contact between the sexes (Leviticus 18:6, 19), illicit
thoughts (Ketubot 46a), and glaring for sexual pleasure (Sifri Numbers 115).
Based on these prohibitions, scholars prohibit many contemporary recreational
activities, including mixed swimming (Shevet Halevi 3:185) and dancing (Kitzur
Shulhan Aruch 152:13). Many interpreters similarly understood that the
prohibition against cross-dressing seeks to prevent illicit affairs (Rashi
These prohibitions apply to men and women alike
(Hinuch 188, 387), with each person obligated to avoid illicit sexual
stimulation or causing such reactions in others (lifnei iver). The Sages,
however, understood that men are more subject to such sexual stimulation.
Therefore, men are warned not to intently glare at any part of a woman lest it
cause sexual titillation (Shabbat 64b).
Women, at the same time, were
expected to maintain modest dress standards in consonance with Jewish norms (dat
yehudit), even as the exact standards were subject to debate and locale (Ketubot
Be that as it may, the Sages understood that sometimes men would
find themselves around immodestly dressed women, and exhorted men to avert their
glance or distract their thoughts (Bava Batra 57b). On this basis, Rabbi Moshe
Feinstein contended that people can walk to work in the summer on a crowded
urban street, or even sit on the beach if required for health reasons, if they
feel they can focus their thoughts appropriately (Igrot Moshe EH
The Sages remained wary of a man walking behind a woman in the
streets, as this might lead him noting her bodily movements (Brachot 61a).
Instead, he should move to the side or in front of her. Yet the recent attempt
to dictate separate sides of the street for opposite genders remains
Moreover, several decisors have noted that
many people today do not generally follow this dictum, asserting that the
habituation of men and women walking the streets together has led this
phenomenon to become non-stimulating (Tzitz Eliezer 9:50).
regarding habituation were made regarding the talmudic prohibition of giving
salutations to another man’s wife (Kiddushin 70a). Rabbi Moshe Schick, for
example, asserted that such acts of politeness are no longer deemed
inappropriate (Shu”t Maharam Schick EH 53). To support his claim, he drew upon a
significant medieval declaration in which scholars, following Talmudic
precedent, asserted that men may be served by a woman (such as a waitress) since
their intentions are noble (Tosafot Kiddushin 82a).
The general notion of
separate seating is well-founded within Halacha. The Sages dictated that there
should be separate galleries for the Temple festivities that took place on the
holiday of Succot to prevent licentious behavior (Succa 51b). This historically
served as a source for the partition in the synagogue (Hatam Sofer CM 190).
Scholars disputed, however, whether separate seating is necessary on other
occasions, such as weddings. While the medieval German pietists required
separation (Sefer Hassidim 393), Rabbi Mordechai Jaffe (16th century, Poland)
asserted that it remains unnecessary in cultures where men and women habitually
Regarding buses, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein asserted that a person may
travel on the New York public transportation system, even though it regularly
entails incidental contact with people of the opposite gender sitting or
standing next to him, since this does not stimulate sexual thoughts (Igrot Moshe
EH 2:14). As such, it remains extremely difficult to assert that one should
require separate seating on a bus, or for that matter, to require people to
change seats on airplanes (to their inconvenience) to accommodate those who want
to sit next to someone of the same gender.
One may argue that people have
the liberty to privately arrange for such accommodations, but to say that this
is an absolute requirement of Jewish law is incorrect.
The writer, online
editor of Tradition and its blog Text & Texture, teaches at Yeshivat