Does Halacha order separate seating on buses?

Ask the rabbi: Jewish law forbids not only illicit sexual relations, but also actions which might lead to such behavior.

Egged bus 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Egged bus 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
 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 Deuteronomy 22:5).
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 72a).
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 1:56).
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 historically unprecedented.
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).
Similar claims 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 mingle.
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 Hakotel.
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