Gender Segregated Buses Are Not Jewish Law

According to Jewish law, must there be separate public transportation and streets for men and women, or is it a ‘hiddur mitzvah’ (enhancement or meticulous observance beyond the formal demands of the law)?

Clearly, there is no obligation, and not one eminent Rabbi who dealt with halachic questions rising from traveling on buses, claimed that it was an obligation (see ‘Igrot Moshe’, Yoreh Deah 2:14; Darchei Tahara 5:50). Therefore, the entire question is whether or not it is considered a ‘hiddur mitzvah’.

The Difference between Requirement and ‘Hiddur’

The difference between a mitzvah which one is required to fulfill and a ‘hiddur mitzvah’, is that a required mitzvah must be fulfilled even under difficult circumstances, and even when, seemingly, the results of its fulfillment will be problematic. The famous example of this is what our Sages said concerning King Hizkiyahu, who refrained from fulfilling the mitzvah of ‘puru u’rvu’ (being fruitful and multiplying) because he saw in ‘ruach ha’kodesh’ (Divine inspiration) that he would beget evil children. The prophet Isaiah came to inform him that as a result of this sin, Hizkiyahu would die in this world, and not live in the World to Come. Hizkiyahu repented, and was awarded an additional fifteen years of life, in which he had a son, Menashe, who indeed was the most evil of all Israel’s kings (Tractate Berachot 10a). Seemingly, Hizkiyahu’s first thought was correct; however, from the seed of the evil King Menashe, the ancestry of King David was continued, including many eminent leaders of Israel, until our righteous Mashiach, may he come speedily in our days.

On the other hand, when it comes to a ‘hiddur mitzvah’, the reward incurred by its observance must be weighed against the loss likely to be suffered by its performance. At first glance, the ‘hiddur’ might seem beneficial, but in the future, damaging things can stem from it. This is what is known as the ‘weighing of saintliness’.

The ‘Weighing of Saintliness’

In his book “Misilat Yisharim” (chapter 20), Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (also known as the Ramchal) wrote that weighing of saintliness is “an extremely fundamental process”. The episode of Gedaliah ben Achikam (Jeremiah 40:13) provides a clear illustration of this fact. Because of his abundant saintliness, which would not permit him to judge Yishmael adversely, or which would not permit him to receive slander, he said to Yochanan ben Kareach, “You are speaking falsely of Yishmael.” In the end, Yishmael murdered Gedaliah, and all the people with him, and Israel’s last hope was extinguished. The Talmud (Tractate Nidah 61a) attributes the death of those men who were killed to the sin of Gedaliah’s abundant saintliness. It was also such incorrectly weighed saintliness in the incident of Bar Kamtza that was responsible for the destruction of the Temple. The Talmud (Tractate Gittin 56a) relates the story of Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulos, who, even in a situation of national ‘pikuach nefesh’, refused to sacrifice an imperfect animal of the Caesar, and thus began the war which lead to the destruction of the Second Temple. It was to this that Rabbi Yochanan was referring when he said, “The humility of Rabbi Zechariah destroyed our Temple, consumed our Sanctuary and exiled us among the nations.” Rabbi Luzzato adds that if a certain custom of saintliness provokes laughter or ridicule, it should not be performed.

Segregated Buses and Streets is not Saintliness

Seemingly, from the aspect of modesty, segregated buses and streets are advantageous. However, for a number of reasons, its damages are far greater:

First, all issues of ‘hiddur mitzvah’ should be individual acts, for in halacha there are clear definitions concerning what is required, and what is optional, and when customs of ‘hiddur’ are turned into obligatory public decrees, such policies destroy the foundations of the Torah and halacha.

Secondly, when some people are negatively affected by the ‘hiddur’, the damage caused is immeasurably greater than any reward received. However, if a certain group of people want to organize private buses, operated according to novel laws they have invented, this does not negatively affect anyone who is not a member of the group, for no one is forced to travel specifically on their buses.

Thirdly, this type of policy harms the proper family order. According to these rules, a man cannot sit next to his wife, a father cannot sit next to his daughter, and a mother cannot sit next to her son. True, at public events, it is the custom of religious Jews to have separate seating for men and women. However, traveling on a bus is not considered a public act, but rather an individual act that each person does for himself.

Fourthly, when dealing with the laws of modesty, specific care must be taken, for occasionally additional laws are liable to arouse additional forbidden thoughts. This being the case, one could claim that all the customs of modesty which the Sages decreed are liable to cause forbidden thoughts. However, there is a significant difference between the regulations of the Sages and what various personalities from Haredi circles invent. With their regulations, the Sages were able to create a modest society with respectable distances between men and women, but they did not attempt to prevent informal encounters and glancing — whereas the new inventions try to prevent them. Seeing as it is impossible to prevent this, any informal encounter or glimpse may only give rise to unwanted urges.

How Should Soldiers React

How should a soldier react at an official event in which women sing, and his officers threaten that if he leaves, he will be punished with imprisonment and discharged from his unit?

Since the vast majority of ‘poskim’ (Jewish law arbiters) agree that it is forbidden for a man to hear a woman sing at a live concert or event — this being an absolute halacha, and not just a custom of saintliness — it is proper for him to leave the event, no matter what punishment he is given. As Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (Ramchal) wrote in his book “Misilat Yisharim” (chap. 20): “A man must observe all of the mitzvoth with all of their fine points without fear or shame, no matter in whose presence he finds himself, as it is stated (Psalms 119:46), “And I will speak of Your testimonies before kings and I will not be ashamed” and (Avoth 5.23), “Be strong as a leopard….. In general, what is essential in respect to mitzvoth must be performed in the face of all mockery.” (This is a complex issue which requires further investigation. God willing, I will relate to it in a future column).

Permission in Times of Distress

True, in individual circumstances, where a man finds himself at an event or memorial ceremony, and suddenly a woman get’s up to sing, in the past it was customary to instruct that in order not to cause humiliation, if he so chose, a man could rely on the rabbinical opinions who hold that as long as he does not have intention to gain pleasure from the singing, does not look at the singer, and thinks about other things – it is not prohibited. This is how certain rabbi’s behaved, not leaving Memorial Day ceremonies when a female singer performed; for since the majority of people were not familiar with this halacha, if the rabbi’s would have left in the middle of the ceremony, the bereaved families would have been insulted.

Times Have Changed

However, since it appears that after the recent media assault the halacha forbidding a man to hear a woman sing at a live performance has become widely known, leaving a ceremony in which a female sings is not considered insulting, because now, everyone realizes that it is a matter of halacha, and, of course, it is appropriate for any decent person to respect another’s lifestyle – all the more so, should a Jewish person respect others who follow the Jewish tradition. And, if nevertheless, somebody participating in the event chooses to be offended – even a bereaved family member – he is to blame for his own anger. He is not offended by us, but by the heritage of his forefathers.

Other Exemptions

Professional soldiers, however, whose commanding officers act tyrannically, not agreeing to free them from hearing women singers, and fear that if they refuse orders they will loose their jobs, are permitted to rely on the lenient opinions, as long as they don’t intend to gain pleasure from her singing and don’t look at her. Also, officers who must to be present with their soldiers at a military display and have no one to replace them are permitted to rely on the lenient opinions, under the specified conditions.

The Responsibility of Rabbi’s and Politicians

Unfortunately, after the religious cadets who refused to hear women singing were discharged from the Officers Course, the I.D.F. Rabbinate was silent, and to this day, remains speechless. Consequently, having removed all responsibility from itself, the Chief Rabbinate should have gotten involved, convening the Rabbinical Council in order to determine an unequivocal position, stating that the soldiers acted properly, they should continue behaving in the same way at all times, and demanding the removal of the Colonel and the Brigade Commander who discharged the cadets. True, today’s Rabbinical Council is not an independent halachic body as it used to be. Nevertheless, its duty remains to voice the position of halacha to the general public. As long as they refrain from doing so, the prohibition of hearing women singing is perceived by the secular society as an excessive stringency, whose only purpose is to annoy them and insult women. The truth is that the majority of secular society respects religious people, and if they were to hear a clear position from the Chief Rabbinate, they would understand that it is wrong to force soldiers to hear women singers. All the same, even if the Chief Rabbinate believed that it was possible to settle the issue quietly and in a pleasant way, as was publicized in their name, seeing as the issue made the headlines, and the Chief of Staff repeatedly states that all soldiers are obligated to participate in ceremonies in which female singers appear – this being a holy secular principle – it is the Chief Rabbinate’s duty to officially publicize the position of halacha.

In any case, reality will no longer allow rabbi’s to be lenient. At every public event they participate in where a woman singer performs, all of the cameras will be focused on them; for if they wish to be lenient, they will have to erase what is written in the Shulchan Aruch (the authoritative Code of Jewish law) (Even HaEzer 21:1).

Regarding the Chief Rabbinate

Something strange was printed in the supplement of the Haredi newspaper ‘Ba’Kehilla’ on the 27th of Kislev, on page 31. This is what was written: “It is no secret that today, more than any other time in the history of the Rabbinate, the present Chief Rabbi’s represent the opinion of the ‘Shulchan Aruch’, and impose, with whatever means they possess, the rule of halacha. The Rishon l’Tzion, the Gaon Rabbi Shlomo Amar, shlita, whose is at home amongst the greatest religious authorities, would never modify, under government pressure, a section from the ‘Beit Shmuel’ or ‘Pitchei Teshuva’. The Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi, the Gaon Rabbi Yona Metzger, shlita, who was raised in the house, and was the senior student of my teacher, the Gaon, Rabbi Chaim Goldvicht, ztz”l, casts all of his prestige and influence on every halachic accuracy.”

It should be pointed out that in the history of the Rabbinate, illustrious Torah sages served as Chief Rabbi, first and foremost, our teacher Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, ztz”l.

Shouldn’t the paper on which this was written, be spared the shame of having to bear such nonsense?!

In any case, these testimonials truly obligate the Chief Rabbi’s, for if they don’t live up to them, such extravagant praises will turn into a terrible accusation. May the Chief Rabbi’s merit standing by the side of the halacha-observant soldiers, and precisely by doing so, increase unity amongst Israel.

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