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The Modern Orthodox Case for Gender Segregation on Public Buses

The practice of gender segregation on public buses in Israel has received new and unexpected support from American Modern Orthodoxy. The Rabbinical Council of America journal Tradition recently published an article by Rabbi Dr. Yehuda “Ronnie” Warburg entitled “The Practice of Gender Separation on Buses in the Ultra-Orthodox Community in Israel: A View from the Liberal Cathedral” that justifies gender segregation in the name of multiculturalism.

The essay is characteristically Modern Orthodox in that it uses academic sources to bolster a halachic argument. Warburg, described as “a dayyan in Chassidic, modern Orthodox and Yeshiva communities in New York and New Jersey,” quotes feminists such as Susan Moller Okin in his analysis of Rav Moshe Feinstein’s ruling regarding whether men are aroused by sitting next to women. The essay is perhaps surprising, or perhaps not; to bring academic arguments about gender only to reject them as merely one subjective perspective, while Feinstein’s words are taken as incontrovertible, seems to me a bit disingenuous.

This fact that supreme authority in knowledge in Torah is an exclusively male realm is illustrative enough of the patriarchy that characterizes Orthodoxy, a patriarchy that Warburg dismisses merely as a feminist claim. The ease with which Warburg rejects women’s experiences in favor of rhetorical acrobatics to justify gender segregation is profoundly disturbing.

Warburg’s main argument is that objections to gender segregation are rooted in a liberalism that is disrespectful of ultra-Orthodoxy as a culture. He basically says that the liberal outlook should be replaced with a stance of multiculturalism that appreciates that ultra-Orthodoxy has justifiable reasons for maintaining this segregation. (He also notes that “we use the word ‘separation’ rather than ‘segregation’ because the latter term has certain connotations which we wish to avoid,” futilely attempting to distance the protests of Jewish woman from those of Rosa Parks.) I have written often about the dubiousness of the multiculturalism claim in this context, but Warburg obviously disagrees.

Warburg writes:

[S]ome would contend that the continued practice of gender segregation on buses contributes to obscuring the power relations between men and women as well as entrenching them. In effect, certain members of the minority culture are infringing upon the rights of other members of the group who should be free to choose whether or not to comply with such discriminatory practices of gender segregation in public transportation.

This is not a contention; this is fact. Women have been beaten and harassed for sitting in the wrong spot, and even for dressing in a certain way. There are even increasing reports of women and girls being harassed on non-segregated buses as well. My 13-year-old daughter, for example, riding a regular Egged bus in Jerusalem wearing jeans and a t-shirt, was cursed and yelled at by a young man wearing Haredi garb who did not like the way she was dressed.

Warburg continues:

Should an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman feel alienated and/or maltreated in certain social arenas such as traveling on the mehadrin lines, she has the crucial escape hatch of the right to exit by choosing either to refrain from using this form of public transportation or by freely leaving her group.

Whether or not it is actually possible for an ultra-Orthodox woman to leave her group without severe social and emotional consequences, instilling a public practice that puts women in this harrowing position is absolutely appalling. I cannot imagine, for example, Warburg offering a similar argument if the American government created a law forcing people to work on Shabbat. Would he say that Orthodox man could refrain from working or simply leave his group? I highly doubt it.

Moreover, we are not talking about just ultra-Orthodox women. These buses go through entire cities and sometimes between cities, and therefore we are talking about imposing this “culture” on the entire population of women in Israel. What “group” should women leave in order to maintain the freedom to sit on a public bus?

Perhaps most aggravating is Warburg’s contention that “these women voluntarily endorse their lifestyle, including the principle of gender separation, in all spheres of life, and feel that their personal dignity and privacy is being enhanced rather than compromised.” Significantly, there are no ultra-Orthodox women interviewed in this article, and thus the generalization about what “these women” like or don’t like is patronizing, paternalistic and highly suspect. To build an argument based on the inner workings of women who do not even have the authority or freedom to speak out on these issues is patently outrageous.

The core of Warburg’s argument is that gender segregation has religious rationales that are divorced from patriarchy:

The implementation of separate pews in the synagogue has nothing to do with equality or inequality,” he writes. “The erection of separate pews serves as one of the vehicles for fostering sexual restraint rather than the experience of frivolity resulting from the commingling of the sexes in a mixed group. This concern for creating an atmosphere marked by sexual and moral restraint…is embraced in the full gamut of the life experiences of the members of the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities.

According to this line of thinking, when women are around men — whether in synagogue or on the bus — there is “frivolity.” Men alone are serious and devout, while women are not. Thus women’s presence threatens men’s connection to God.

This entire rationale is about protecting men’s rights to have a female-free religious living experience. Warburg quotes Feinstein, that “it is permissible to ride the subway even if he cannot avoid touching and being touched by women… But if he knows that he will feel attraction, preferably he should avoid riding the subway, and if he has to go he has to uphold himself and think about the Torah.” The text is speaking to and for the “he” in society. It is the men’s experience that counts.

But it is delusional to think that this is not about inequality. It is entirely about inequality. It is about a vision of the world in which men’s needs and rights are everything, and the role of women is to be silent, submissive, and invisible in order to protect the man’s right to have some esoteric purity of thought and sensation. Men have the right to be without women, and women have the obligation to comply. That is the prime definition of inequality: men exist as independent humans while women exist as accessories.

So now we see Modern Orthodoxy coming to protect ultra-Orthodoxy, at the expense of women. Troubling times for Jewish women, indeed.


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