Thursday, July 31, 2008


.אפליה מינית

So today was another field trip day, and we explored parts of Jerusalem that I've never seen before. I have several thoughts on the significance of biblical archeology, but I'll let them ripen for a little bit before writing about them (perhaps tomorrow). For now, though, I'm all riled up about something, so I wanted to share it here.

I just read this article in the Jewish Daily Forward about the segregation of bus lines in Israel. To summarize: Egged, the main bus company in Israel, has acceded to Haredi pressure to offer segregated buses in lines where a lot of ultra-orthodox Jews ride the buses. Men enter from the front door and women from the back. Now that Egged has only segregated two bus lines this year (gasp), some Haredi rabbis are circulating a flyer to "thousands of schoolgirls and seminary students" encouraging to sit in the back of the bus in order to show Egged that these communities mean business.

The idea behind the initiative is that men should never look at women because they could incite thoughts about sin: "In every public place there should be separation between men and women, and a bus is no different." And this view is not only held by men, though the theoretically real Haredi women who oppose this view aren't in a position to speak their peace. The women who support it say things like this: "I see Haredi women who sit at the back as being the Israeli Rosa Parks. We see it as a stand against the deterioration of standards in the public arena, and view the chance to sit at the back without men gazing at us as a form of empowerment."

Now, if a woman wants to sit at the back of the bus, I think that's fine - let her sit wherever she wants to. But I believe that this decision has to be an informed one. Take for example a girl who is raised with the message that women incite men to thoughts of sin and should therefore remove herself from their view. This message implies that (A) the burden of tempting/not tempting is on women, (B) men's spiritual health is more important than women's, and (C) whenever a man looks at a woman, he is inclined to think of her as a sexual object. Submitting to that mentality blindly is not an informed decision and continues a tradition of segregation and discrimination that is centuries old (and that is condemned vociferously when some people talk about Muslim-majority countries but not even mentioned when most people talk about Israel).

There is so much oppression encased in this philosophy that it makes me angry and ashamed that it's part of my tradition (and actual law in some parts of this country). The illogical part is the automatic assumption that if something can tempt us, we have to avoid it, and the issue extends beyond segregation. A woman quoted in for Forward piece notes that Haredi women "get on the buses and have to look at advertisements for condoms and listen to licentious music. We are activists, and this is one thing we can do to enact a change to the slipping standards in the public sphere."

But to me, this doesn't make any sense. Seeing a condom does not make someone have premarital sex! (I can go on and on about this particular topic...) Listening to "licentious music" does not make someone sleep with everyone they see. (And, incidentally, making blanket moral statements about these sexual topics is a classic sign of oversimplifying human relationship.)

I hate to sound crass, but if you don't like it, deal. And I mean that: If you see something that you disagree with, don't do it. I would never advocate for the elimination of meat advertisements on buses just because I'm a vegetarian. Similarly, I would never expect someone to advocate for the elimination of non-kosher restaurants in Israel. Some people make choices, and no one if forcing anyone to follow suit.

Except the Haredim. They're the ones who are saying that all women should be removed from the view of a man; they're the ones saying that women are natural flirts who tempt sin simply by existing; they're the ones who are transforming an immortal legacy of civil rights activism into a disgusting wave of discrimination.

So what do I do about it? Obviously, I don't have any headway in the Hardei community, and I'm not yet a CEO of Egged. But there's a serious question I have to ask myself while I'm here in Israel: Will I go to segregated services? On the one hand, I feel it's important to understand "the" orthodox approach to Judaism here as much as I can, especially if I want to work to bring about reform. On the other hand, willingly going to a service where men and women are separated is a form of acquiescing to the tradition and saying, "This, too, is mine." Is it? Hard to say...

Someone (I forget who) once told me that they don't pray at orthodox services even if they attend. I wonder if I would be the same way. Would standing in an orthodox congregation (without a kipah??) as an observer be giving the same silent credence to an atmosphere of oppression? What about a congregation like Shirah Chadasha, which strives to have literally the most egalitarian service possible within the confines of orthodox tradition? Would attending/praying there be making an affirmative statement that "I like the way you're thinking ... now just tear down that wall, and we'll be fine?"

Questions that I'm still struggling with and will, of course, look forward to Jessica's input on. I was warned ahead of time that gender issues would confront me here in Israel, but I'm only now starting to get a handle on what that entails. I wonder how my future reflections will change if and once my experience becomes no longer hypothetical but actual...


agm said...

Are there any trans- or other 'complicated' gender individuals in the community? What's it like for them?

How much of the separation deal is doctrine and how much is interpretation? For instance, I am not necessarily sickened by the idea that men and women should be separated, as long as the practice doesn't interfere with the rights of those who don't subscribe to that philosophy (and provided that people are making informed decisions to follow it, as you say). But does the (written) doctrine also imply that women are at fault for the 'problem' and are not themselves reciprocally tempted by flirtatious men? Or is that just traditional belief and implementation?

(There is of course the issue that 'separate but equal' is probably unattainable. For example, one group has to go to the back of the bus all the time for consistency, and there's a strong negative connotation with that.)

Daniel said...

Yes, of course there are "gender-complicated" individuals in the orthodox community, though their voice is all but nonexistent. There is a documentary, though, that I have not seen called Trembling Before God that highlights some orthodox homosexuals - but aside from its existence, I can't really say anything about it.

As for gender separation as doctrine, that's a tricky question. For Reform Jews, for example, the doctrine is that women are entirely equal to men in every way. Traditionally speaking, men and women have different responsibilities. For example, men are "commanded" to pray while women are "commanded" to purify themselves after their period. There are certain biblical passages which are easy enough to translate in a male-centric fashion, but I'd say (not having studied the topic in-depth) that most of the gender inequality, though stemming from a biblical tradition, is codified in the later oral-to-written law (Talmud).

As for the rights of those who don't subscribe to the philosophy: Anyone who rides the segregated buses is expected to conform to the separation. The article I linked to quotes a woman who rode in the front and was told that she was flirting with the men (and she replied by saying that if she, a grandmother, was causing them to think about sin, then she was quite proud of herself). And anyway, the children can't be considered to "subscribe" to a philosophy that they're force-fed with no alternatives (keep in mind that these communities have their own schools that no longer even have to teach math).

As for women being at fault, I'd say that the most textual source of the interpretation is the Garden of Eden narrative. Although Christian tradition capitalizes on Eve's sin of temptation much more than Judaism, the roots are still there and picked up on in later texts. Certain purity laws indicate that women are less pure than men when menstruating, and this is reaffirmed by the oral-to-written tradition. I don't know of any tradition that cites men as being flirtatious and tempting women to sin. In fact, the following passage from Deuteronomy 22:23-24 is appropriate to bring up:

"If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbor's wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst."

Doesn't seem quite fair, does it?

Of course, there are ways to interpret even this passage in such a way that affirms the equality of men and women. (I make this as a statement of faith - I don't have an interpretation at the ready, and I admit that deriving one would take significant effort.) I believe that the heart of Judaism, though it has to overcome certain obstacles of perspective and tradition, is a source of equality and righteousness toward all people, both within and without the Jewish people, and the repeated abuse of women throughout our history is shameful and should be addressed seriously and soon.

Faye said...

Hi Daniel,
There was a Catholic priest in Roanoke who left the priesthood because of the Church's refusal to ordain women. His actions (more than 1/4 of a century ago) made a powerful statement. It made me question many of the same type of exclusions. For example, should the socially conscious participate in the legal union of marriage when gays are denied that same right? Much to think about! I enjoy your blog and will check in from time to time. Your mom and I were together earlier in the week. She beams when she speaks of you, but you already know that I'm sure.
All the best,
Faye Nova