In order to get home, I usually take a train and then a bus. By the time I got to the bus last night, it was already after 9:30 (I worked late last night). Being fairly tired after such a long day, I plopped down into an open seat.
Fairly soon, the bus began to fill up and empty seats became more scarce. However, the seat next to me remained unoccupied. An frum older woman (not frail and old -- but clearly past 60) got on and stood next to where I was sitting. She never said a word to me, but gave me a look. My interpretation of that look was that she wanted me to get up and give her the seat. Now, had there been no seats left, I probably would have offered her the seat willingly. But there was a seat next to me. No one was stopping her from sitting down in it. Why was she not sitting in the empty seat? Was it because she didn't want to sit next to a man? To be honest, I don't know. But, for whatever reason, she did not take the seat next to me - and gave me a look once or twice over the rest of the trip.
In the end, I didn't get up and offer her the seat. I figured that since there was another seat available, I wasn't under any moral obligation to give up my seat. But then, after I got home, I thought about it some more. Let's suppose that the reason that she didn't sit down was because she believed (whether correctly or not) that it is wrong for her to sit next to a man. That being the case, my sitting in my seat really did prevent her from sitting in the next one, just the same as if I'd gone and put my feet up on the next seat. Considering that the whole point of getting up and giving your seat to the elderly (or handicapped) is to make it easier for them to ride the bus (since standing can be physically taxing to them), it really doesn't matter whether the bar to their sitting down is a physical one (i.e. I piled a bunch of bags in the seat) or a religious one (she doesn't want to sit next to me on religious grounds) -- either way I was depriving her of the ability to sit down.
Or was I? How stringent is the prohibition to sit next to a person of the opposite gender on the bus (or train)? Is there really a problem with it? Or it merely a chumra (stringency)? After all, if it is a real prohibition, then my refusal to get up is a true bona fide bar to her sitting (much like a recalcitrant husband's refusal to give a get is a bar to a wife's re-marriage. Nothing is stopping her from legally going to a justice of the peace and getting married civilly, but we all agree that it is, nonetheless a bar, correct?). On the other hand, if it's merely a chumra (or perhaps not even that), then am I responsible for her decision to keep this chumra? Do I have to get up because she chose to keep this chumra? I suppose the situation might be analogous to a hungry beggar coming to my home and asking for food and then turning it away because it's not chalav yisroel or chassidshe shechita. Beggars shouldn't be choosers and all that.
And yet, she was an older woman. Would it have killed me to stand up and offer her the seat anyway? No - in all likelihood, I would have survived just as well had I stood up. Even if her request (had she outright asked) slightly bordered on the unreasonable, perhaps I should have offered her the seat anyway. Yeah, I was tired and it was late at night. But then again, it was just as late for her.
In the end, I did not get up for her. She stood until I got off the bus (which was about ten minutes). Oddly enough, had someone else taken the seat next to me, I probably would have then offered her my seat. That being the case, perhaps I should have offered it right away.
What do you think?