A story is told of an incident on a bus in Jerusalem. A pretty young lady got on the bus and sat down in a vacant seat next to a Haredi rabbi. The rabbi arose in a huff and walked quickly away from the woman. At the next stop, a Sephardic rabbi got on the bus. Seeing the empty seat next to the young lady, he sat down. The young lady was perplexed. She asked the rabbi sitting next to her: “When I sat down next to a Haredi rabbi, he got up and stomped away from me. But you’re also a religious man, and yet you sat down next to me. How do you explain this?” The Sephardic rabbi replied: “That Haredi is a rabbi. I am a Hakham!”
This story came to mind when I read the news story of an 81-year-old woman who is suing El Al Airlines. She was seated on an airplane next to a Haredi man who objected to being seated next to a woman. Since there were no other seats available next to a man, he had the stewardess ask the woman to move to another seat. The female passenger was indignant at having been treated in this manner and she is suing the airline for causing her humiliation and violating her rights.
The Haredi man claimed that the Torah forbids him from sitting next to a woman. What Torah is he reading? A great many pious and Torah-true men have no problem sitting next to a woman on a plane or on a bus. They read the same Torah but come to very different conclusions from this Haredi man and others who share his views.
It is deeply offensive to non-Haredim (and I assume also to at least some Haredim) that this man felt so self-righteous that he was entitled to ask that the woman passenger next to him be moved. If he was so sexually aroused by this 81-year-old woman as to be unable to maintain his composure during the flight, he could simply have asked the stewardess to find him another seat. Why did he think he had the right to impose his will on the innocent woman passenger?
But the issue goes back to the story of the rabbi and the Hakham. The “rabbi” is part of a community that has brainwashed its members into thinking that the Torah demands as total a separation as possible between men and women. The underlying thesis is that any intermingling of the sexes will inevitably lead to sinful thoughts and maybe to sinful actions. Because of the ubiquitous and uncontrollable libido, the genders must be kept separate. Even if a particular man may feel no attraction to the woman sitting next to him, he is obliged to follow the communal standard of strict separation of genders. In his mind, this is not just a communal hang-up; it is Torah law dictated by God. And since it is women, not men, who are seen as the “enticers,” it is up to women to get out of the way and to dress and act “modestly.” In this mind-set, the burden is placed on women to avoid being arousers of men’s passions.
But the “Hakham” sees things differently. The “Hakham” is not less devoted to Torah, and not less religious in any way. Yet, the Hakham is part of a tradition that promotes a natural, courteous and congenial way of life. He would consider it a terrible sin to embarrass a woman by asking her to move away, as though she were an impure or contaminated being. He would feel comfortable sitting next to any decent person, male or female. If he felt that sitting next to an 81-year-old woman (or a woman of any other age) caused him sexual anxiety, he would find a gracious and courteous way of asking to be moved to another seat, in a way that did not cause shame or embarrassment to the female passenger. If he thought he couldn’t handle sitting next to a woman on a bus, he would inconspicuously find another seat.
The insistence on gender separation on public transportation or public gatherings reflects a worldview that is fixated on sex and that assumes the very worst about men and women. While modesty is surely an essential virtue, prudishness and rudeness are not.
The Haredi passenger who caused the female passenger to be moved thought he was within his Torah-true rights. He must have assumed that all the other men in the plane who were sitting next to women (other than their wives) were sinners. It did not occur to him that many of those men were not rabbis but were Hakhamim. They were not less scrupulous in their religious observance, but more scrupulous. Whereas this Haredi has brought great shame on Torah through his sexually-fixated worldview, the pious men and women who sat next to each other naturally and comfortably and respectfully brought honor to Torah.
We need always to keep in mind the fundamental religious teaching about the nature of Torah: “Its ways are the ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.” Any behavior that veers from this teaching is a violation of Torah, not a fulfillment of Torah.
Marc D. Angel is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shearith Israel, the historic Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York City. This oped originally appeared on jewishideas.org, the website of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals.