Thursday, December 13, 2007

Creeping Standards

I saw an interesting bit in the online Yated last week regarding the expansion of the Mehadrin (sex-segregated) bus lines in Israel.

Now, I personally find the idea of having women sit in the back of the bus repugnant. However, I also have to take into account that I am an American and "back of the bus" has an ugly connotation here that does not exist in Israel. Furthermore, I have to keep in mind that we're dealing with people who have a completely different mindset than I do. As such, as long as a substantial portion of the population wants sex-segregated buses and as long as a deal for it is negotiated fairly, I don't have a real problem with it.

However, there was a line in the article that I found quite interesting (bolding mine):

The rabbonim said they have been discussing various matters with Egged and Transportation Ministry representatives in order to make special arrangements that meet halachic requirements.

I know, from personal observation here in New York City, that there is no halachic requirements to have segregated seating in public transportation. Thousands of frum Jews take mixed-seating buses and trains everyday with nary a second thought. No one thinks that they are engaged in anything licentious by taking public transportation and I don't think that any of them ever asked mechila (forgiveness) from God on Yom Kippur for taking public transportation.

If you like, you can certainly argue that having separate seating buses and trains is a halachic extra that one should strive for. (I'll probably disagree with you, but the argument isn't totally out of the ballpark.) You could argue that perhaps a man won't see an immodestly clad woman if the seating is separate (although he does have to face the back of the bus as he walks to his seat, doesn't he?). But one thing that I think we can all agree on is that it is not a "halachic requirement." It never was and still isn't to this day. By calling it a "halachic requirement," all the rabbonim are doing is engaging in creeping standards.

Now, to be honest, creeping standards are not always a bad thing. After all, the standards for health care are far more stringent today than they were a hundred years ago. This didn't happen overnight either... the standards "crept" upwards as the century dragged on. Education standards grew as well -- many more people living today (expressed in terms of a percentage of the population as a whole) have college educations than those living a century ago. Our physical standard of living has increased as well.

Religious standards increase over time as well. A century ago, many Orthodox children in the United States sent their kids to public schools, and taught them Torah subjects after school. Today, most Orthodox children attend yeshivos where they receive at least (and in many cases much more than) a half-day of Torah education.

However, there is an important point to be made with regard to the last item: the increase in standards has been voluntary. Orthodox parents have *voluntarily* sent their children to yeshivos in the United States. No one (to my knowledge) has been forced to. People are still free to send their kids to public schools and educate them in Judaic studies in the afternoons or evenings. True, there are very few who do so, but the option is still there if they want it. No one is being forced to do so.

However, there are times when creeping standards are a bad thing, even if the standards are creeping higher. Sometimes the higher standard comes at too high a cost. There is even a term for this in halacha -- it's called a g'zaira sheain hatzibur yechola la'amod bah -- a decree which is simply too hard for the community to keep. Such a decree, even if it embodies higher standards that, in theory, one should strive for, is null and void, because the cost (and I don't just mean the economic cost) of keeping it is just too high for the community. An extreme example of this might be a decree that all men quit their jobs and learn full time. Such a decree would be impossible for the community to fulfill and therefore, would be null and void.

The needs of the community must be balanced against the desire to have increasing standards of observance. Sadly, however, it seems that the needs of the community are often not considered when decrees are issued; especially when those decrees are extra-halachic. A good example of this, IMHO, was the decree against women's education programs in Israel a few years ago. Not only were these programs shut down, but women who had already completed them found themselves shut out of the education jobs that they were trained for. It's one thing to say that these programs are bad (which is a position that I don't agree with), but it's quite another to then take people who already completed the program b'hetter (while it was permitted) and cause them to be blacklisted because of it. Many women who were probably the sole wage-earners in their families (because their husbands learn full time) were out of jobs. Why? Because of an extra-halachic decree. This is a case where the needs of the community were not considered before the decree was issued. Another example was the ban on certain colors or styles of clothing in Israel. The ruling was clearly extra-halachic - there is nothing wrong with wearing red clothing or certain styles - but there was absolutely no consideration made for merchants who carried such merchandise and bought it in good faith. They were simply told to get rid of it, or face a boycott.

And so it goes. If you want to make a decree on something that is not strictly halacha, then consider the needs of the community -- but also point out that the decree is extra-halachic. But don't try to pass off your own personal chumros (stringencies), such as separate-seating in mass transportation, as halacha. At least be honest about it.

The Wolf

14 comments:

PsychoToddler said...

You call it creeping standards, I call it the Talibanization of Judaism.

Either way, I don't think anything good will come of it.

Larry Lennhoff said...

Orthodox parents have *voluntarily* sent their children to yeshivos in the United States. No one (to my knowledge) has been forced to. People are still free to send their kids to public schools and educate them in Judaic studies in the afternoons or evenings. True, there are very few who do so, but the option is still there if they want it. No one is being forced to do so.

When my wife converted, a condition of the beit din was that she would send her [future] kids to a religious day school rather than public school.

Reb Yudel said...

> But don't try to pass off your own personal chumros (stringencies), such as separate-seating in mass transportation, as halacha.

> At least be honest about it.

I think it's become pretty clear that there is no halachic obligation for Orthodox rabbis to be honest in dealing with those outside the members of their (self-defined) faith.

There's a reason why "It's a against the Torah" has become an advertising slogan. And it's not going to change until those who think truth-telling and general morality are absolute halachic values start imposing halachic strictures on themselves and stop trusting the hechshers of "Orthodox" groups who spokesmen have no regard for the truth.

Anonymous said...

People may be free to send their children to public school, but those that choose to educate their children in a non-Orthodox setting are often ostracized. Does anyone remember the outcry when Batsheva Marcus wrote of her family's decision to educate two of her children in public school in the Jewish Week? Her ideas were denounced as dangerous by many, including some prominent Orthodox rabbis.

Lion of Zion said...

"A century ago, many Orthodox children in the United States sent their kids to public schools, and taught them Torah subjects after school."

an understatement. the vast majority went to public school. i don't know the breakdown by denomination (and the demarcations were much less rigid then anyway and not really meaningful by today's conventions), but in 1917-1920 more than 75% of all jewish kids in nyc received no jewish education. of the remainder who did receive a jewish education, the vast majority did so in supplementary programs (sundays or afternoons/evenings). i assume the situation outside of nyc was even worse.

"the increase in standards has been voluntary"

voluntary in the legal sense. social pressures are still very strong, particular in certain neighborhoods. take flatbush for example . . .

Pesky Settler said...

By calling Chumra Halacha it becomes Masorah.

In 10 years, Mehardin buses will be de rigueur and the fact it's a Chumra forgotten because it would have graduated to Masorah.

The Hedyot said...

> By calling it a "halachic requirement," all the rabbonim are doing is engaging in creeping standards.

I really don't like how you're reframing it as "improving standards." That just hides the travesty that this trend really is.

First of all, all the other examples of increasing standards are where society as a whole collectively raised their level, on their own. It was never imposed on them through authoritative fiat. Health, education, even religiosity, all reached the point where they are today because people adopted those behaviors on their own, until at a certain point when everyone is doing it, it is then recognized as a standard. That’s not what’s happening here. Standards are not “creeping” here; they are being demanded.

Secondly, the chareidim are the ones who are always claiming that halacha is a constant and doesn’t change at all; that they are just maintaining the standards that have always been in place, so they can’t now use the concept of halacha changing to cover for their adopting new practices. That’s just inconsistent.

Thirdly, the fact that hardly anyone acknowledges in this issue is that these standards are being applied to people who are tzanua. We aren’t talking about keeping the tank top wearing women in the back. It’s the modestly dressed woman who is usually taking these busses. Even according to halacha, there is nothing wrong whatsoever with seeing such a woman! So, if they’re saying that even seeing such a woman like that is wrong, they’re basically advocating the Taliban concept that no one should ever see any woman ever! That’s what this is really about – not about not seeing immodest women, but rather not seeing even modest ones! If you consider this an "improvement", to hide all women, then you should move to Saudi Arabia.

There is so much more wrong with all this, that to even slightly portray it forgivingly is just so wrong to me. It has nothing to do with “g'zaira sheain hatzibur yechola la'amod bah.” By putting it in that context, you’re accepting it as a valid position, but arguing that it’s not quite apt for today’s era. That is just wrong. It is not at all valid. It is wrong, wrong, wrong. It is a distortion of normalcy, of halacha, of Judaism, of basic decency.

Also, see http://tinyurl.com/2fmmnp which is an article that reports how chareidim are now claiming that taking regular busses is like eating pork!

Pesky Settler said...

So, if they’re saying that even seeing such a woman like that is wrong, they’re basically advocating the Taliban concept that no one should ever see any woman ever!

And yet when a group of Charedi women started wearing Burqas, one frazzled husband was told by the Beit Din to divorce his wife!

Lion of Zion said...

HEDYOT:

"Even according to halacha, there is nothing wrong whatsoever with seeing such a woman!"

i think the big issue is bumping into them on crowded buses, not necessarily just seeing them

WOLF:

this whole thing is not really a new idea. there have been mehitzhah buses here for years

Lion of Zion said...

i always see people leaving comments about funny/ironic ads on blogs. this is my first time. you have one for "sexy christimas lingerie"

shavu'ah tov

cipher said...

I agree with Heydot - as with so many of their chumras, this is a travesty, but I don't know whether it should be encouraged or discouraged. On the one hand, they're willing to arrange for alternate accommodations for themselves, instead of pressuring the public facilities into providing them (which is their customary MO). On the other - typically, they expect others to pay for it, because they are upholding "halachic standards" and "Torah-True Judaism".

And, my two cents on this:

that no one should ever see any woman ever

The genders are segregated from a young age. They're never properly socialized, and as a result, they end up obsessing over sexual and gender-related issues for the rest of their lives. But, of course, I'm an ignorant apikoros who just doesn't get it.

Wolf, weren't you the one who posted that story about the Chareidi who insisted that frum homes should have two phone lines - one for men, one for women - so that no observant man would ever need to run the risk of calling and hearing a strange woman's voice?

Miriam said...

Talibanization of Judaism.

I would like to understand why the lay people that I talk to, and the bloggers, etc all seem to understand this but somewhere between me and rabbonim there exsist a few who pass these laws and don't see it the same way as bloggers, laypersons, etc.

why is this discrepency there? And why can't people protest?

Just Me said...

It's all part of "defining Judaism downwards". On the one level you have the entire Jewish community.

Then, you have the Orthodox, who say of everyone else, "The Conservative and Reform aren't 'really' following Judaism because they're not Torah observient...ie. they don't understand the Torah in a literal sense the way that they think you have to in order to be a good Jew.

Then you have the Haredim/frum, who say "The modern Orthodox have compromised too much with the outside world/they're too secular, so they're not good Jews"

Then, as a subset of the Haredim, you have people like this who say, "All those other Haredim who are riding on mixed busses don't understand halakah and aren't good Jews"

By the time this is over, there will only be one "good Jew" left in the world, who'll dismiss everyone else for not living up to his personal standards of what he thinks Judaism should be.

Anonymous said...

Once took a bus from Brooklyn to Monsey that was run by a farfrumt company. The irony is, due to the curtain that ran down the entire length of the bus, one was much more likely to bump into a woman!

Only problem was that there was no way to know if she was an 80-year-old granny or not.