Haredi prurience off the tracks

Should the onus be on women to banish themselves?

Light rail in Jerusalem 311 (photo credit: Sybil Erlich)
Light rail in Jerusalem 311
(photo credit: Sybil Erlich)
Jerusalem’s residents might soon find road relief. The endless roadwork, the tedious traffic jams, the unremitting cacophony, dust and inconveniences that have plagued the capital in recent years appear to be drawing to a close. The city’s perennially postponed light rail system successfully made its first full trial run Monday.
By April of next year, God willing, it will be up and running.
However, the excitement of this historic event, the fruition of two decades of planning and eight years of building, was dampened somewhat by comments made by Yair Naveh, CEO of CityPass, the transportation consortium that built and will operate the light rail. Responding to a reporter’s question, Naveh acknowledged that his company was considering the option of gender-segregated mehadrin cars, in which women – through a combination of social pressure, explicit prodding and even occasional physical violence – are compelled to sit at the back.
“The train was built to serve everyone... to create alternatives for everyone,” noted Naveh. “It would not be a problem to declare every third or fourth car a mehadrin car.”
Sources in the joint state-municipal body overseeing the project suggested in response that CityPass concentrate on relieving Jerusalem residents’ suffering by finishing the light rail once and for all, rather than busying itself with what they termed irrelevancies.
In fact, CityPass’s position on mehadrin cars is immensely relevant – from a financial perspective. Naveh, a businessman, is acutely aware that the economic success of the light rail depends on the support of the capital’s growing haredi community.
Jerusalem is Israel’s most populous city, with 774,000 residents, according to data released in June by the Central Bureau of Statistics. Almost 150,000 people, or 30 percent of the Jewish population, are haredim aged 20 or older. In the city’s Jewish elementary schools, 64% of those enrolled are haredi. And since they tend to use public transportation more than any other segment of the Jewish population, a haredi boycott of the light rail would be a devastating, perhaps lethal, blow to the economic feasibility of the light rail.
The question is whether haredi prurience, disguised as meticulous adherence to the dictates of Judaism, should be allowed to dominate Jerusalem’s public spaces even when this prurience has the backing of market forces.
MUCH HAS changed since Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895- 1986), the most important halachic authority of America, permitted men to commute to work on subways and buses because “unavoidable and unintentional physical contact is devoid of sexual connotations.” Feinstein memorably noted that “it is idleness that makes a man prone to lascivious thoughts” (Even Ha’ezer 2:14).
In recent years, the haredi community has adopted increasingly zealous and extremist positions, especially with regard to questions of female modesty – tzniut.
Women’s physical proximity, no matter how perfunctory, has been transformed by the sex-fixated, and apparently idle, minds of some haredi men into an insurmountable spiritual stumbling block.
The inner dynamics of the haredi community allow these men to leverage their influence. One cannot be too righteous, while moderation is viewed with disdain as a weakness. The result has been an unrivaled push for the radical revamping of the public domain.
Meanwhile, haredi women, duped into a false consciousness, are convinced that the “right” forced upon them by men to sit at the back of the bus is a type of empowerment. In this post-modern feminist narrative, the haredi woman becomes a “partner and beneficiary” to “family integrity” by creating “temptation-free” comfort zones, as though a man’s fidelity can in some way be compromised by riding on a bus. Should the onus be on women to banish themselves from man’s sight, and not on men to look away? HUNDREDS OF thousands of Jerusalem’s residents who are not party to this collective madness should not have to suffer when they board the light rail.
Feinstein’s ruling was presumably based on his high regard for the integration of men and women into the workforce as productive members of society, which, he understood, entailed normative social contact, such as boarding a light rail car that contains members of both sexes. Feinstein also knew that religious extremism, instead of fostering modesty and chasteness, could lead to an obsessive preoccupation with sex and that this preoccupation is a function of too much free time.
The cure, according to Feinstein, was not to force women out of sight, but to go out and get an honest, productive job. How right he was.