Think again: First, let’s calm down

How a rejection of any separation between the sexes has become a fetish.

Religious IDF soldier 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Religious IDF soldier 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
To judge from the media, both Israeli and international, the status of women in Israel is under an assault of crisis proportions. No less a figure than US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has chimed in that the status of women in Israel reminds her of Tehran. Much of the recent discussion, however, has been overwrought, even hysterical.
The first salvo in the current media campaign came in response to the dismissal from the IDF of four national-religious cadets near the completion of a rigorous officer training course after they absented themselves from a female singing performance and refused orders to return. The soldiers never asked that the singers in question stop. No conceivable “right” of any woman was infringed. All the soldiers requested was that the IDF not force them to violate their religious beliefs.
The performance fulfilled no conceivable military purpose; it certainly was not a morale booster for the soldiers who asked to be excused. The dismissal of the four soldiers, in whose training the IDF had invested heavily, did, however, come at the expense of the IDF’s fighting ability.
By refusing to accommodate the soldiers’ religious beliefs, even at the potential cost of losing some of its finest soldiers, the IDF ironically lent support to a haredi argument for draft deferrals. The haredim argue that Torah learning takes precedence over the IDF’s manpower needs. The IDF now agrees that other values trump its military needs – in this case, the value of showing nationalreligious soldiers who is boss and avoiding any offense to women soldiers. The IDF also buttressed one of the major haredi concerns about IDF service – that the IDF will be used as an instrument of socialization toward secular Israeli values.
LAST WEEK, the media was up in arms again, albeit only for one or two news cycles, over the news that a group of male students at Haifa’s Technion-Israel Institute of Technology had been permitted to use the gym on a male-only basis for one hour a week (at a late hour during which the gym had previously been closed). No women’s group had asked for similar privileges, which the Technion would certainly have granted them had they done so. So the entire issue was whether separate gyms should ever be tolerated.
Harvard University granted much more extensive separate swimming privileges to Muslim female students a few years ago without much fanfare. Only the presumed religious sensitivities of the male students at the Technion turned the case into a cause célèbre.
Most normal human beings, at least outside the precincts of Ivy League student dorms, still prefer separate toilet and shower facilities. There are certain functions we feel more comfortable performing without the presence of the opposite sex. Gym rats of both sexes generally exercise with minimal attire. But many would be inhibited from exercising in their preferred attire if they knew that they would have to expose their less-than-perfect bodies to members of the opposite sex. The proliferation of women-only gyms is not limited to haredi neighborhoods.
REJECTION OF any separation between the sexes has become a fetish. A considerable body of research demonstrates that both teenage boys and girls learn better in single-sex schools. Yet any attempt to create single-sex state schools will inevitably be treated as an insult to women.
Over a decade ago, New York City sought to create an all-girls high school in Harlem. Feminists cried foul. It did not occur to them that the teenage girls attending the school would have been able to walk down the halls for the first time in their lives without being harassed or worse. That case remains for me the classic illustration of rigid ideology trumping the human consequences.
Three years ago, the Jerusalem Film Festival withdrew its invitation to producer Robin Garbose to screen her film A Light for Greytowers, because of her request that it be shown only to women. The all-female and mostly religious cast did not want to sing and dance in front of men.
Rather than celebrate the expanded opportunities for religious girls and women to work with an acclaimed Hollywood director in a top-quality production, the festival stood on the principle of no sexual distinctions. (Ironically, the Tel Aviv film festival screened the movie, and the Jerusalem Cinematheque just this week held two showings of Garbose’s newest film, The Heart that Sings, again with an almost entirely female cast.)
The reaction to the separate sidewalks down the main street of Mea She’arim during Succot is another example of the distorting lens of ideology. I’m still receiving calls from foreign journalists convinced that efforts are afoot to create separate sidewalks in all haredi neighborhoods. IBA English news made the same assumption interviewing me this week.
Reporters are genuinely surprised to learn that the entire separation was for five nights during Succot, when Mea She’arim is mobbed with those attending Simhat Beit Hashoeva celebrations, and the extremely narrow main street is virtually impassable without having to jostle members of the opposite sex – something that both the men and women are eager to avoid.
There were no “better” or “worse” sides of the street. The desire of men and women not to rub against strangers does not constitute an insult – at least if one does not accept the premise of a prizewinning Hebrew University thesis: that the failure of Israeli soldiers to rape Palestinian women proves their racism.
THE ISSUE of separate seating on public buses is an unfortunate example of extreme elements, who answer to no rabbinic authority, once again kidnapping the public agenda of the haredi community. There is no place for attempts to impose haredi mores on others.
Yet even here the magnitude of the issue has been grossly exaggerated. With a little more foresight the bus issue could have been avoided entirely. The government should have allowed those who seek a strict separation to run their own private bus lines between haredi neighborhoods. The refusal to countenance private bus services led to the current mess.
Separate seating on buses is an extremely low priority for the overwhelming majority of haredim. Even on the Bnei Brak-Jerusalem route, only one line is mehadrin. What haredim do wish to avoid is being squished together with strangers of the opposite sex on crowded routes. (In both Mexico and South Korea, there are separate subway cars for men and women to avoid the problem, and not out of deference to haredim.) That problem could be solved by opening both doors at times of highvolume use, and equipping the buses with automated ticket-takers at the back, as is common on many European buses.
Once on the bus, few haredim want to be told that they cannot sit together with their spouses. And it would make much more sense, both practically and halachically, for women to sit in the front, where the ride is easier for pregnant women and women passengers would not have to walk past the men.
ONE FINAL example of the overwrought tenor of the debate: a column in these pages last week entitled “A modest proposal.” The “hook” for the piece was the allegedly recent condemnation by the Eda Haredit of a few burka-wearing women in Beit Shemesh as acting contrary to Halacha.
Nearly four years ago, I wrote very sharply against this group’s obsessive “modesty,” in Mishpacha, the highest-selling haredi magazine. Even then the burka cult had already been subjected to strong rabbinical criticism by rabbis affiliated with the Eda. Nothing new there.
Instead of simply praising the Eda for its good sense, however, the author speculated that they were just jealous that they had not thought of imposing the burka requirement first. Not content with one flight of fancy, she then indulged another: That the real haredi ideal would be for husband and wife never to be together unclothed, and to reproduce via artificial insemination.
She thus established her ignorance of halacha and her failure to comprehend the Jewish concept of modesty. The black-letter halacha, codified in the Shulhan Aruch and based on the Talmud, is that it is forbidden for husband or wife to remain clothed during relations. Those relations are referred to by the Torah as “da’at” (knowledge), signifying the deepest possible connection between two human beings.
Kol kvuda bat melech pnima” – “Every honored daughter of the King dwells within [in hiddenness],” (Psalms 48:14) is the classic formulation of female modesty – a subject the full treatment of which is beyond our current purview.
The great Lakewood Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Aharon Kotler used to explain that kavod (honor) is always a language of revelation. While the glory of the princess is hidden with respect to the outside world, it is revealed in the private realm shared only with her husband. Refraining from public expression of physical affection by husbands and wives is a means of intensifying that relationship by creating a space no one else can enter. Rather than external modesty being a contradiction to the greatest possible intimacy between husband and wife, it is a means of enhancing that closeness.
One who fails to understand that, fails to understand anything of Jewish marriage.
The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.