The First Word: A day in Jerusalem

When we tried to hand out copies of a responsum by Rav Feinstein, the air suddenly filled with menace.

0805-first (photo credit: Wikipedia)
(photo credit: Wikipedia)
The sword without and terror within (Deuteronomy 32:25) Nobody who has lived in Jerusalem in recent years needs any educating about the sword from without. A week ago Thursday I discovered the terror within. It coils through Jerusalem's streets, and us. Usually I'm not one for rallies. I don't like to shout, and waving placards isn't me. But I went to the Shmuel Hanavi neighborhood on the outskirts of Mea She'arim for the counterdemonstration to a large haredi demonstration on behalf of the inauguration of several sexually segregated public bus lines. Tzniut (modesty) is a noble and crucial idea, an ethical relation in which I recede in another's presence and refrain from imposing myself and erasing his or her essential dignity. I have thought for some while that the relentless, in-your-face sexuality of Israeli society and the recent taking of the age-old ideal of tzniut to hitherto undreamed of extremes are two sides of the same coin. And one of those extremes - sending women to the back of the bus - will be, I fear, just the beginning. Segregated public transportation, segregated streets, segregated stores, and this is not "separate but equal." Regarding all women as sexual objects, in all places, at all times, degrades them but it degrades men even more, making them into nothing but sexual predators-in-waiting. The demonstration took place on the spot where a horrific bus bombing in August 2003 took 23 lives, mostly haredim, including seven children and one Filipino guest worker; in recent years, the bombings have come to be seen by some in the haredi community as, inter alia, divine retribution for the intolerable commingling of the sexes on Jerusalem's buses. I WAS WITH a counterdemonstration, organized on very short notice by a law student, Avital Feldman. We were about 20 people, some religious, others secular. The de facto leader was newly-elected councilwoman Rachel Azaria from the Wake Up Jerusalem movement. We stood on the side of the large street on which the demonstration was taking place, its numbers swelling swiftly into the hundreds early on. A few had brought signs, some religiously-inflected ("We are also created in God's image"), others straightforwardly political ("Don't turn Israel into Iran") and one self-parodyingly intellectual ("Stop the eroticization of public sphere" - come to think of it, the one sign the haredim there might have agreed with). Zehava Fischer from Har Nof had made copies of a responsum by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a towering 20th-century halachist, permitting mixed seating on public transportation on the grounds that this was not erotic contact, and that one who experienced it as such should engage in painful introspection (Responsa Igrot Moshe, Even Ha'ezer, 2:14). I would not presume to call myself a disciple of Rav Moshe. But his responsum was a reminder that there can be more than one opinion, which doesn't sound like much but at times is radical enough. We began to try handing them out. THE AIR FILLED with menace and fast. Our presence was provocative enough, but the responsum was a flash point, because we moved out of our circle to hand them out and because this seemed to turn us from merely depraved sex-maniacs into dangerous heretics. They were snatched from our hands and torn to pieces, amid shouts of "Heretics!" "Reformim!" "Hypocrites!" and a line from the Talmud: "A Sefer Torah written by a heretic must be burned." Pushing, shoving, screaming, all very quickly and before long it seemed it would get really ugly. A few hesder graduates, braver than I, ventured into the heart of the mass. The large crowds around us moved away only when the speaker on the podium up front announced - wisely enough - that "shmiras eynayim" was in full force and so it was forbidden to look at the women among us, and besides we were best left ignored. Still more and more people poured into the street and we were surrounded. The police wanted us to move to the far side of Route 1 and to get us to do it, took two of us into custody, releasing them only when we moved (and that, a couple of hours later). I understood the bind they were in, and their concern for our safety, even as I resented seeing once again that threatening violence gets you what you want, which in this case was us and our copies of Rav Feinstein's responsum out of sight. We should have planned better. And perhaps we, or I at least, were naive here. But what really shook me up was the speed with which things got ugly and would have gotten even more violent had things gone a little differently, how the violence was like gasoline in the air, just waiting for a spark. Looking back across the avenue at the crowd, Zehava said to me: "If this is how they were with us, what would they do to a woman who didn't want to sit in the back of the bus?" THAT EVENING I attended the wedding of a colleague at a kibbutz in the Sharon, and like so many Jerusalemites who venture out of our shell, the rich smell of the earth and succulent heaviness of the air just stunned me. Back in Jerusalem at midnight, I went to a dear friend's birthday party in Musrara, and the good conversation seemed to provide a welcome end to a long and exhausting day. At about 1:30 a.m. I headed to Jaffa Road to pick up a cab. Walking across Kikar Safra, seeing clumps of men sitting and drinking, I quickened my steps. As I came out of the plaza, right across the street from city hall, I saw four men jump, stomp and kick the daylights out of several others (Lord knows why) and run off. I called for the police and waited for them to arrive as people ran out of the surrounding pubs to help the crushed victims, whose blood ran down the sidewalk. First ambulances came - some of the EMTs were haredim, and some were women. Then came the police, and I reported to them what I'd seen. After the police left, some young haredim came up to me, hungry for details: Did you see fists? Did you see a knife? I told them how earlier in the day their comrades had nearly done the same to me. "There was action at the demo? We missed it?" We talked a few minutes more. One of them had never heard of Rav Moshe Feinstein. And when his friend assured him that this was a big rav indeed, and I said that he had ruled it permissible to ride on buses with women, he was incredulous and a little intrigued. When I finally got home, at about 2:30 in the morning, my wife was, luckily for me, awake. I told her something that I had been thinking and scared to say for a long while: that the Jerusalem of my dreams, the Jerusalem where heaven and earth kiss, the Jerusalem of my father's childhood, is finally dead. The writer lives in Jerusalem. He is currently writing a biography of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook.