Monday, December 19, 2011

"Cool it!"

Yom sheni, 23 Kislev 5772.

I am an Orthodox Jewess.

I use the word "Jewess" purposefully, because it is under-used and accurate.  As princess is to prince, it speaks of my unique role, which I find beautiful.  I don't want to be marginalized by being lumped in with Jews as a group.

I don't believe that I have the right, nor do I gain anything, by telling other Jews how to dress and where to sit.  (This excludes my own children, and certain young guests, who actually come to my table to hear me say "One more button, Shimon."  I kid you not.)

While I am not part of the Israeli Hareidi scene, I have respect for their culture.  I tend to dress just a little more modestly when I go into their neighborhoods, out of respect for their sensibilites.  I do not see a need to upset them.  While theirs is not my personal way of expressing my Orthodoxy, I do not find any value in offending them on their turf.

I find it offensive when I see a caption under a photo of shoppers willingly separated by a mechitza in a Hareidi store that intimates that they are extremists.  Men and women have chosen this way to express their interpretation of G-d's demand for modesty within their own community.  Having lived and visited in both the American and Israeli Hareidi communities, I know that most Hareidi women value this version of modesty as much as do the men.  And these are not oppressed women.  They are very strong proponents of their view of Orthodoxy.

That said, I am hurt and offended when non-adherents of these views are harassed, threatened, or even merely embarrassed.

Years ago, before I made aliyah, I experienced some of this maltreatment.

I boarded a bus for a neighborhood unfamiliar to me, on my way to request a blessing from a great Torah luminary.  A man in his thirties began to berate me loudly in Yiddish.  I had no clue what I had done wrong.  Eager to end this embarrassing situation, I explained to him that I could not understand what he was saying.  I tried in my meager Hebrew, and then resorted to English.  Finally, a woman a seat or two behind me explained that I was sitting too far toward the front of the bus.  As I looked around me, I acknowledged the separate nature of the bus.  I got up and sat behind the woman.  But before I left my seat, I explained to the man, in English, that his approach was terrible, and was surely more offensive to Torah than where I unintentionally sat.

I am not a woman who needs to make a point of sitting in the front of the bus to prove a point.  I have lived among normal, healthy Hareidim long enough to know that most Hareidi men don't think of woman as second-class citizens.  (You have only to be inside their homes to know this first-hand.)  So there is no reason to go all Rosa Parks.  She did have something to prove, as blacks in those days in America were indeed relegated to using separate facilities due to discrimination.

But I am highly offended when someone teaches through intimidation, rather than through patiently explaining.  Whether the young man was correct or not -- and since the bus was a public rather than private bus, and therefore he was not correct -- is beside the point.  The Torah forbids embarrassing a fellow Jew.  Had he given me the benefit of the doubt and assumed that I did not know this cultural convention, he could have said his words gently.  Or, better yet, he could have rolled his eyes to his male seatmate and endured my presence.

There is an old Japanese kōan about a couple of monks walking through the village, talking of philosophical concepts.  They approach a giant puddle in the road, before which is standing a geisha, who cannot cross without soiling her beautiful garments.  Without pausing in his dialogue, one of the monks breaks tradition, and picks up the geisha, carrying her across the puddle.  He sets her down, and continues speaking with his fellow monk.  After some time, he realizes that his companion has been silent since the puddle.  "What is going on in your mind, my friend?" he asks.

"I cannot believe that my friend and colleague broke our tradition by touching the woman," the second monk responded.

His friend looked at him, astonished.  "Oh -- are you still carrying her?"

For all of the avowed modesty of these loud, rude and sometimes violent Hareidi individuals, methinks they protest too much to be truly following the laws of modesty.

If Orthodox Jews feel a mission to bring our fellow Jews closer to our interpretation of a Torah life, we certainly do not bring them closer by berating them, by putting up offensive signs, by threatening those who do not keep whatever level of religiosity we deem appropriate.  (And, in fact, my friends in the Hareidi community also disagree with the intimidation approach.)

We are enjoined by most normal, healthy rabbis to set an example by how we live our lives.  And we still have a lot to do in the realm of exhibiting acceptable Torah behavior with our own bodies, minds and actions.  We should display the highest standards of ahavat Yisrael, honesty in business, politeness and purity of speech, among other character traits demanded by the Torah, rather than wasting our time and G-d's time by demanding that others live as we see fit.

Professor Alan Dershowitz and I have virtually nothing in common politically.  But I have to agree with a statement he made in a recent interview.  "The debates in Israel have become so extreme, with Israelis calling each other facists, and predicting that Israel will become a facist country, and will eliminate all democracy... My suggestion to Israelis is: cool it.  Calm down.  Stop calling each other names."

We will most successfully bring the harmony we seek by respecting rather than condemning each other.


Rahel said...

Ruti, the segregation and intimidation have nothing to do with modesty, and everything to do with power and control. Truly modest people do not "teach" others by using intimidation. And the Sikrikim are, to put it bluntly, the mob (as in Mafia).

People who use intimidation tactics in a free society should be prosecuted as criminals. Period.

Ye'he Sh'mey Raba Mevorach said...

As always, a beautiful expression of a touchy and painful issue.

"So there is no reason to go all Rosa Parks." ROTFL but this is EXACTLY how I feel about the women who go batty over the 'back of the bus' thing. No one is trying to say that women are less. They are trying to say that there is value in separating men and women. Ask anyone who was groped on a public bus (and I know women who were). (My favorite story is the one where the girl picked up the man's hand into the air and said quite loudly, "Is this yours?")

More avahat yisrael, people. Yeah. cool it!

Susan said...

I'm so glad you had the courage to speak out and say the things you did. My neighborhood has a "separate" bus, and contrary to what the liberals or secular Jews would have you believe (and Hilary Clinton), we ladies love our bus. We love sitting all together in the back, chatting away together or davening. We're not back there because we're second-class citizens, but because our amazong power is respected!
The sad thing is that it is little things like this that are driving the Jewish people apart--right when we really need to be working on peace between us.
BTW, in all the years I have been going on the "mehadrin" bus, I have never seen a woman mistreated or told to go to the back. I have had times, such as when I was holding a young baby and would never be able to make it to the back on a moving bus, when I sat in the very front seat, and it was always respected. Maybe because people knew I am a Savta, and not a troublemaker!

Sarah said...

Well said! Thank you!

Daneil Center said...

When said Chareide folk asked Grand Rabbi Moshe Feinstein about this issue he ruled there was no need for separation beyond not sitting in the same bench. I believe his reasoning was that to force this strictness on others is not only going to not bring not yet religious Jews closer lehevdel it will make a chilul HaShem and push them away further. Furthermore I think he wanted to push personal responsibility by saying its your issue not to think about ladies around you. If any ladies have been groped on public buses I will offer them a free lesson in self defense!

Avisonenthal said...

If anyone thinks the back of the bus thing is not about putting women down, try making MEN sit at the back of the bus. You think that would fly? Anyway, having separate seating on public buses is extremely inappropriate. If they want separate seating they can run their own bus line privately.

Julie Waldman said...

I think the anger and agression in this country and even sadly in our wonderful Yishuv sometimes is the problem and not so much where women sit. Generally buses where women are asked to sit in the back are overwhelmingly going places where Charedim live and that is their culture - let's respect it. The same way we don't like when they yell at us to move back, I'm fairly sure that they are offended by our language against them.

Shammai Siskind said...

Hello Mrs. Eastman. You asked me to comment on your blog because as you put it "artist needs positve reinforcement" so I'm commenting. The intimidation tactics cause more damage than hurting and embaressing the victims. The deligitimize Torah observance in the eyes of the broader Israeli public. Theres alot of talk now in the press about forming a new "anti religious" party in the style of Tomy Lapid. All of this in the wake of these new incidents of intimidation. It should concole us to know that these hardliners are not even close to a representative precentage of the haredi community. With the craziness in ramat biet shemesh for instance theestimates are that maybe 80 to 100 people are involved in the violence and initimidation there. Unfortunately I think the only way to deal with the extremists is to get tough with them. For now though we have to be מתחזק in our "chilled out״ approuch to torah inorder to be מקדש שם שמים as often as possible.

Adina said...


Your comments are very insightful. I wish that people could make the distinction that having women sit at the back of the bus is NOT the same as what happened with Rosa Park's, for so many reasons.

However, on a publicly funded bus line, it is simply inappropriate to tell someone else where to sit. It is inappropriate to be rude to someone or spit at someone because they look different from you and are not wearing clothes that you deem 'appropriate.' (Sometimes clothes are inappropriate according to different humra'ot and different halachot, nonetheless, if you don't want to see it, avert your eyes!) Why? Well, because it creates sinat chinam, and I think that we can all agree that getting back the Beit haMikdash is worth letting go of someone wearing a tank.
I also take these instances personally--I consider myself to be a modern woman, but I also live with a great deal of yirat haShamayim. Am I haredi, or modern? I'm not sure, a little bit of both. When "haredim" create scandals like this (that are frankly stupid-because it IS against the law to try to move someone, so just suck it up) they give everyone who is religious a bad name. I am sick and tired of being slandered because my co-religionists somehow believe that sitting behind a woman on a bus will lead to the downfall of society...

When I lived in Tel-Aviv (which is a wonderful city, hate to hear religious people bashing it-so please don't!) I would occassionally see Haredim and Hasidim in the streets there, wearing full garb. Not once were they ever harassed for looking 'different' from the norms of the city. Why is it that we (as religious people) expect the non-Torani world to accept us into their neighborhoods, wearing our special garb, eating our special foods, when we do not welcome them into our neighborhoods, and in fact, try to kick them out?

Hashke said...

Wow. Amazing article, everything in here expresses exactly what I feel! Thank you for the beautiful reminder about unity and its weight in relation to other issues. Dead on.
Love, Your son Josh

Rafua said...

Amen, Sista' !

sue said...

why can't women sit in front of the bu?