The traditional Jewish approach to women

There is absolutely no basis in Jewish law for the separation of men and women on buses or public streets.

Crowded New York subway car_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Crowded New York subway car_311
(photo credit: Reuters)
An extremely distressing development has emerged in the State of Israel in recent years, and especially during the past few months. It is not simply distressing to me as a human being in general, but also, specifically, as a haredi rabbi who tries to observe halacha, traditional Jewish law, to the maximum.
Let me begin by making a clear and loud declaration for all to hear: There is absolutely no basis in Jewish law for the separation of men and women on buses or public streets.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the greatest Orthodox halachic authority of the 20th century, made this very clear in his responsa, where he ruled that there was no problem with riding the New York subway, where men and women are often pressed together in very tight quarters. This applies all the more so when simply sitting in close proximity on a bus.
Aside from the fact that Jewish law certainly allows men and women to sit together on the bus or walk on the same side of the street, there is actually a specific halachic transgression that occurs when such extreme actions are taken.
The Torah clearly prohibits a person from embarrassing another, which is exactly what happens when men harass and intimidate women for sitting in the front of the bus on a “mehadrin” bus line. In certain circumstances, Jewish law actually allows one to transgress a prohibition if doing so will preserve and protect the dignity of a fellow human being.
Therefore, even according to the warped understanding that Jewish law does mandate the separation of men and women in these circumstances, there would certainly be no justification for demeaning a woman by forcing her to move to the back of the bus.
Granted, Jewish law does mandate the separation of men and women during prayer and specific other times, but nothing beyond that. The Torah opens society to women and cautions that it is the man’s responsibility not to “stray after your eyes.”
But this isn’t just about buses. This is about growing extremism in the haredi world, part of which includes the demonization of women.That is the reason in certain neighborhoods the Clalit healthcare fund has stopped giving children stickers with pictures of little girls on them, and the reason some haredi newspapers will not print pictures of women. Some go as far as doctoring photos in order to remove women in adherence of this policy.
IF WE don’t stop this trend to extremism as a political force right now, I fear to think where things will be in 15 years. Will “religious police” dictate where we can walk, what we can eat, and how everyone must dress? We must ensure that our country is really an “Am Shalem” – a “Complete Nation” – where every group and individual, including women, contribute to the greater whole.
So let us take a few moments to clarify what the classic Torah sources say about women in order to understand why I, a haredi rabbi, take a strong stance on this issue.
Right at the beginning of Creation, the Torah says God created one being in the following way: “Male and female He created them.”
If there was only one being, why does the Torah say “them” and describe it as both “male and female”?
The Talmud explains that God fashioned an original being which embodied both male and female characteristics and then separated that one being into two. Why? Why didn’t He make them into separate male and female beings from the start?
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, one of the most prominent Orthodox rabbis of the 19th century, explained as follows: “So that what was previously one creature was not two, and thereby the complete equality of women forever attested [to].”
Complete equality! Not a secondary being who can be told to go to the back of the bus or who can be removed from all pictures. (It is not within the scope of this column to explain what traditional Judaism does see as differing primary roles for men and women, but Rabbi Hirsch calls this a “division of labor,” with neither primary role superior to the other.)
But our tradition goes even beyond demanding equality.The Talmud teaches that the Jews were redeemed from slavery in Egypt due to the merit of Jewish women, and that the women did not worship the golden calf or believe the negative report of the spies about Israel. Our salvation in the Hanukka and Purim stories came because our women rose to the occasion. According to our tradition, women have binah yeteira – an increased ability to understand and comprehend. That quality has saved the Jewish people throughout history.
Finally, in medieval times, when most men treated women as little more than property, Maimonides ruled that “a husband must honor his wife more than his own self.”
The time has come for the non-extremist community, which includes moderate haredim, to demand that the surge to the extreme cease immediately. There can be no more demanding that women move to the back of the bus, no more removing women from all publications, and no more demonization of the half of our nation responsible for our very survival.
It is time for us to place women back on their pedestal and recognize the equality which God intended at Creation thereby enabling and empowering women to flourish, shine and proudly contribute to the future of our state and nation
The author is a Knesset member, an ordained rabbi and chairman of the Am Shalem movement.