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November 06, 2009

Moving Backward: A Look At "Mehadrin" Bus Lines

Shreimel What is really behind the sudden rise of Hareidi demands that public buses in Israel be gender-segregated?

Moving Backward: A Look at "Mehadrin" Bus Lines

By Naomi Ragen • JewishIdeas.org

There was no Rabbi more concerned with tseni'ut (modesty) than R. Moshe Feinstein. He was against men shaking a woman's hand even as a polite greeting (IM OH 1:113; EH 1:56). Even in circumstances when the law didn't strictly prohibit the mingling of men and women, he encouraged God-fearing people to avoid such situations.

There is, however, one place where R. Feinstein had no problem with men and women being together: the marketplace. In workplaces, on trains and buses-including the crowded New York subway system-R. Feinstein's stance is absolutely clear. There is no halakhic, or even spiritual problem, with men and women sitting next to each other in such situations: "Because, " wrote R. Feinstein, "unavoidable and unintentional physical contact is devoid of sexual connotations....And if a man knows that he will read into this contact sexual connotations...he should focus his mind on Torah. For it is idleness that causes a man to be prone to lascivious thoughts" (Even HaEzer 2:14). 

All this was asked and answered decades ago.

If, then, there is clearly no halakhic problem, what is really behind the sudden rise of Hareidi demands that public buses in Israel be sex-segregated, women banished to the back door and the back seats? Furthermore, what is the motivation of the women, almost all of them Orthodox like myself, who have taken the unprecedented step of filing a legal complaint in Israel's Supreme Court to stop Israel's Ministry of Transportation and the monopolistic public bus lines Egged and Dan from caving into Hareidi demands? Where are the battle lines being drawn, and what will be the meaning of victory or defeat in this newest arena of modern ultra-Orthodox re-fashioning of Jewish life to fit an image and a lifestyle that has no Jewish precedents? 

The desire for sex-segregated buses is not new. Over a decade ago, Hareidi elements in B'nai Brak pressured then Minister of Transportation Yitzchak Levi to allow two public buses serving Hareidi neighborhoods within B'nai Brak to require separate seating. From this seemingly small and very limited accommodation to the sensibilities of extremist elements in a tiny, isolated homogenous religious sector in a small section of a small town, was born the idea that a public bus, serving the general public, can make demands relating to gender, invading their passengers' private space to decide what seat they can or cannot choose to sit in on a public bus; how they can dress, and what the driver can listen to on the radio.

Before that time, Hareidi passengers managed to ride public buses without undo difficulties. Honestly, many were the times when I voluntarily chose to find another place to sit rather than impose my presence on a Hareidi man. I did this out of a sincere desire not to affront what might be a delicate religious sensibility, despite the clear lack of any halakhic basis. Used to the idea of Jews who require a hekhsher on salt or detergent-without any halakhic basis-I did not want to step on anybody's list of no's. Why make someone uncomfortable if you don't have to? Where I drew the line was standing if no other seat was available. My feeling was that if one decides to adopt a humra (stringency), others need not suffer. If he had a problem sitting next to me, he was welcome to stand. I am sure many Hareidi men welcomed the opportunity to give their seats to elderly women, or to a woman carrying a child and a baby carriage. I remember that a Hareidi man actually did get up and offer me his seat when I was eight months pregnant, and the bus was in sardine-class mode.

When did this status quo suddenly become unacceptable? And more importantly, why? Is this really a battle over religious observance? Or is it a battle over something far less holy, and far more prosaic? "Separated buses are a wonderful opportunity to make some easy money in the Hareidi society; and this is what makes this issue so harsh," says Yonatan (not his real name), a Hareidi resident of Sanhedria in a recent article published in the Jerusalem Post. "From outside, in the secular world, it seems as if it is all about these things you may call fundamentalism. This is indeed how it started. But today, inside the Hareidi society, it is mainly a matter of earning a living. People here ask, 'Why should we renounce such an opportunity for profit, especially in these days of economic turmoil, and leave the profit to Egged?'"

According to Israeli law, the Ministry of Transportation must approve all bus stops, routes, and fares. Getting approval involves paying expensive tariffs to the Ministry of Transportation. Unauthorized buses and taxis are known in local slang as chapperim. In 2001, Hareidim began to operate just such an unauthorized line between Jerusalem and B'nai Brak, claiming that communication between them and the bus companies had broken down, and that their demands--including not only separate seating but also what music could be played on the radio, and what the stores in the Central Bus station could advertise and sell-were not being met.

In an article published on the Hareidi website Dei'ah Ve'Debur in 2001, author Betzalel Kahn wrote: 

The Vaad Mehadrin, which acts in accordance with the dictates of gedolei Yisroel, faced two challenges-the failure to come to a settlement with the various parties; and the bureaucratic obstacles placed before the route's implementation. As a result of the obstacles, the Vaad Mehadrin decided to utilize an independent, shomer Shabbos bus company to operate a new Jerusalem-B'nai Brak route, mainly as a means to pressure the bus cooperatives and the Ministry of Transportation to run the 402 line. The mehadrin line carried about 14,000 passengers during hol haMoed Succoth. This seems to have jarred the other factors into taking action. The one-way price was only NIS 10 (about $2.32) as opposed to Egged and Dan's inter-city fare of NIS 18.50 (about $4.29). The independent line's fare is 46 percent cheaper, without government subsidies and it still made a profit (emphasis added). 

One cannot help wondering if this would have been true if tariffs had been paid.

The article continues: 

Rabbi Micha Rothschild, one of the Vaad Mehadrin heads, said in an earlier interview, "Instead of the heads of the Transport Ministry meeting the minimal request of gedolei Yisroel, who demanded throughout the years to operate mehadrin lines for the Hareidi public, the Ministry of Transportation continued with its scheming against the new mehadrin line. Transport Ministry inspectors-with police assistance-followed the buses, stopped the drivers, fined them thousands of shekels, and even wanted to suspend the company's operating license. Such a situation is intolerable. The Hareidi public, which (almost) entirely utilizes public transportation, deserves a route run according to its values. 

In recent weeks, Hareidim in Jerusalem began running their own mehadrin bus routes to the Kotel-again, illegally, without applying for a license or paying tariffs. This, they said, was in response to the Supreme Court's interim decision on our petition to prevent the bus companies from designating any more routes as mehadrin until our case was decided. Before we filed, new mehadrin lines were sprouting at the rate of ten a month all over the country, and not between Hareidi communities, but cities. This line, which did not apply for a license, and did not pay fees to the Ministry of Transportation, and had thus made no attempt to become legal, was shut down. The result was a carefully orchestrated "riot" by the Hareidi "public" who stoned Egged buses, causing the bus company to finally stop cooperating, taking umbrage, and refusing to provide any buses at all to Meah Shearim that day.

I must say I was delighted to see Egged finally show a little backbone. Unfortunately, Egged seemed far more outraged to see its profit margins attacked than its female passengers. I say this from personal experience.

My own involvement with this issue began several years ago when I inadvertently got on a completely empty bus that followed the most direct route to my then neighborhood Ramot, in Northern Jerusalem. Let me emphasize that my neighborhood was mixed: Orthodox, non-Orthodox, and Hareidi. At that time I had no idea such buses existed. I got on one not because I wanted to start a feminist protest, but simply to get home as quickly as possible from the center of town. 

Choosing a single seat near the front of the bus, which was clearly visible to the silent driver who issued no demands and no warnings about what I had just unwittingly stepped into, I sat down and opened up a newly purchased magazine. Soon a young Hareidi man sat down in front of me. He turned around and delicately informed me that I wasn't allowed to sit where I had chosen to sit. I closed my magazine and looked at him. He was about my son's age.

"Listen," I said. "I'm not sitting next to anyone. No one has to look at me if they choose not to. This is a public bus, and I'll sit wherever I choose." He didn't argue. Actually, he seemed uncomfortable, and simply turned around. Little did I know that this young man was actually trying to help me.

Returning to my article, I didn't notice that the bus was filling up in a peculiar, gender-segregated manner until a huge, sweating bear of a man in a black suit and hat leaned over me threateningly and shouted: "Move to the back of the bus! Who do you think you are? There are laws in this country!"

I stared at him, then looked around the bus. I was the only woman sitting in the front. My sisters were all in the back. Not a single one of them lifted her head or her voice. It was a moment of truth for me. I guess I could have gotten up and moved to the back. If only the gentleman in black wasn't hanging over me barking orders, perhaps I would have. But to be addressed in public in such a humiliating and aggressive manner by a stranger who felt that he had the right to order about with such barbaric lack of manners someone old enough to be his mother ('s younger sister) made me realize that I could not, without ruinous consequences for my dignity and self-respect, accommodate him. It really did make me feel like Rosa Parks. And so I said, quietly, but in hearing distance of all: "When you bring me a Shulhan Arukh and show me where it is written that I can't sit here, I'll move. Until then," I suggested a few places where he might go in the interim.

The reaction was explosive. He leaned in close and started to call me names that I shall not repeat. There is no question in my mind, that only the prohibitions of negiah (non-permitted contact with someone of the opposite gender) prevented him from picking me up bodily and heaving me out of my seat. 

This is not paranoia.

Miriam Shear, a Canadian grandmother who took the number 2 bus to the kotel to pray every day (a bus not designated mehadrin by the way) who took a front seat and refused to move, was spat upon, had her head covering torn off, and was thrown to the ground and beaten by men in ultra-Orthodox clothing who apparently had fewer scruples about negiah.

Horror stories abound: A pregnant woman got on the 318 midnight bus from B'nai Brak to Rehovot. She sat in the front because of motion sickness, explaining this to the other passengers. One Hareidi man stopped the bus by standing with one foot outside and one on the step up so the driver couldn't close the door. The woman finally fled into the street in the middle of the night. The other passengers went looking for her and found her under a tree, humiliated, hurt, and refusing to re-board. She called her husband to come and get her. A young woman on the midnight bus from Safed to Afula boarded wearing pants, and had to fight with the driver and other passengers who insisted that she be thrown off the bus in the middle of the road. A grandmother helping her son and grandchildren to board a bus in Beit Shemesh through the front door was attacked and cursed. I could go on.

Faced with these horror stories, rabbinical response has been slow and mixed. There are of course, the people who got all this moving. Shlomo Rozenstein, a Vizhnitz Hassid and a city council member, has been at this for over eight years. "This is really about positive discrimination, in women's favor," he said recently to Katya Allen of BBC News. "Our religion says there should be no public contact between men and women, and this modesty barrier must not be broken." I'm sure R. Moshe Feinstein would have been surprised to hear this.

Modern Orthodox rabbis have not been in the forefront of this battle, but neither have they been silent. Rabbi Ratzon Arussi, chairman of the chief rabbinate's council on marital affairs and rabbi of Kiryat Ono, said that: "Halakhically speaking, it is preferable for a man to sit next to his wife than to have other women pushing past him to get to the back of the bus. Being with his wife keeps the husband's attention focused. Seating men up front causes additional problems. For instance, pregnant women or women with heavy bags are forced to walk all the way to the back of the bus. It is obvious that the men who initiated the mehadrin line did not think about women or about the halakhic problems created."

Indeed. A woman recently wrote to Rav Yuval Cherlow for a halakhic ruling, saying that she is forced to use the mehadrin lines to get to work, but that she finds it degrading to be told where to sit, and she is also prone to motion sickness at the back of the bus. Should she respect the religious extremism of others and go to the back to her own discomfort? Can she sit in a vacant front seat if there are not seats in the back? And what about elderly and pregnant women? His reply:

"there is great importance in keeping the public forum a place that is tsanua, not having immodest advertising signs up, for example." But, Rav Cherlow also writes, "I am against the mehadrin buses. These buses are mehadrin in shaming other people, in dealing with tseni'ut in an immodest fashion." Rav Cherlow goes on to advise the questioner that if she is not doing it to stir up trouble, but for a purpose, such as health, or when there are no seats available elsewhere, "then you can sit wherever you want. And those who change things, they have the lower hand."

Can we not, all of us who care about real tseni'ut, agree that any benefits from a policy of sex segregation on public buses are far outweighed by the hardships and sins that such a policy causes? And can we not agree that the real result of this battle so far has been the transformation of neutral public spaces into sexually charged battlegrounds characterized by the verbal and even physical abuse of women who fail to fall into line with the new rules? 

If we complain that the Reform Movement plays fast and loose with Jewish law, what is one to say about those in the Hareidi world who insist on twisting the halakha into the particular shape needed to accommodate their desire for both profit and a very particular and minority view of what constitutes purity in the public sector? 

As for me, and the women who filed the petitions against these buses, I will repeat what I told the Jewish Chronicle in February 2007: "The insidious degradation of the faith I was born into, love, and have practiced faithfully all my life by fanatics who pervert its meaning in order to bully women in the name of God is something I cannot, and will not, abide. First and foremost because it is a desecration of God's name; and second, because it is limitless."

Modesty patrol hooligans already roam our Jerusalem streets. Paint and bleach have already been thrown at women by Hareidi "fashion critics"; immodest clothing has been snatched from Meah Shearim homes in house to house searches, and posters screaming "Dress modestly-or else" adorn many public streets. Now there are women being sent to the back of the bus, one more way for Judaism to go backward, turning our future into a past that never was. 

I believe the time has come for rabbinical voices to be raised in protest against the treatment of women on these buses. As a Hareidi woman told me recently: "We hate these buses, but we can't say so openly because we don't want to be accused of being immodest. Someone has to speak for us."

Naomi Ragen is an Orthodox novelist and playwright who has written extensively about women's issues in the Orthodox world. She is a graduate of the Hebrew Institute of Long Island and attended the Sara Schenirer Hebrew Teachers Seminary in Boro Park. She has an M.A. in English Literature from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. This article originally appeared in issue 5 of Conversations, the journal of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals.

[Hat Tip: Michelle.]

Comments

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As if there wasn't enough on our plate already.

It's not about modesty. It's about control. Charedism, a totalitarian offshoot of Judaism, is simply following the classic pattern. This includes absolute control over anything connected to sexuality and increasingly crazy restrictions on all aspects of women's lives.

What would happen if a similar protest occured with Monsey Trails?

In this country, discrimination on account of sex is strictly illegal with regard to public accomodations. Yet Monsey Trails, with its segregation of male and female passengers, and its curtain separating them, continues.

Non-violent civil disobedience demonstrations against Monsey Trails, in which men and women sit together, and refuse to leave if asked by the bus driver or by other passengers, are long overdue.

I have an idea why not tell the rebbies we agree but the men should go to the back and lets see how they respond

They are turning into Moslems. They may even outdo the Moslems if this is not stopped.

If charedim want to make their women sit in the back of the bus I have no problem with it.
However, since they are treating their women like cattle, they should be careful just to make to help them get them back up if they topple over from their load, and allow them to work without a muzzle, so they can eat as they work if they get hungry.

Reader, they're turning into Wahabis and Talibanis. There are millions upon millions of Muslims all over the world who aren't like that. By the same token most Jews don't do this kind of crap. But the fundamentalist/totalitarian strain is present and growing in both religions as it is in Christianity.

Critical Minyan, I've got plenty of problems with "them" forcing "their" women to do anything. Nobody should forced to act like a second class citizen or be expected to obey orders from random strangers on fear of humiliation or assault.

And decent people should not tolerate, let alone financially support, a culture which permits people to treat half the human race like something less than human.

Yes, I get the joke. Yes, it's funny. But as much as my aberrant lifestyle offends them, theirs puts me in mind of Sir Charles Napier when he addressed the custom of suttee.
He said

"You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.

If they cannot be induced to stop treating people like things they should expect to be so treated in return.

A Nuran, brilliant comment. We need to organize freedom riders, Israeli men and woman to go on buses and ride together. Video tape is possible, humiliate them. Make Israeli society see the cancer in their midst.

One simple question: Why are the Haredi so afraid of women????????

And now, some Beatle Torah:

Roll up.
Roll up for the Mehadrin Tzuris.
Roll up.
Roll up for the Mehadrin Tzuris.

Roll up.
And that's an invitation.
Roll up for the Mehadrin Tzuris.
Roll up.
Women's humiliation.
Roll up for the Mehadrin Tzuris.

The Tragical Mehadrin Tzuris
Is waiting to take you oy vey.
Waiting to take you oy vey.

Roll up.
Roll up for the Mehadrin Tzuris.
Roll up.
Roll up for the Mehadrin Tzuris.

Roll up.
We got the mechitza you need.
Roll up for the Mehadrin Tzuris.
Roll up.
Mega chumrot guaranteed.
Roll up for the Mehadrin Tzuris.

The Tragical Mehadrin Tzuris
Is hoping to take Judaism away.
Hoping to take it away.

(Mehadrin Tzuris..)
Ah.. The Tragical Mehadrin Tzuris.
Roll up.
Roll up for the Mehadrin Tzuris.

Roll up.
And that's an invocation.
Roll up for the Mehadrin Tzuris.
Roll up.
Of powers above the nation.
Roll up for the Mehadrin Tzuris.

The Magical Mehadrin Tzuris
Is coming to take you oy vey.
Coming to take you oy vey.

The Tragical Mehadrin Tzuris
Is dying to take you avek.
Dying to take you avek.
Take you to heck.

What a paradise we have made for the Jews in Israel!! How good it must be there. Remind me to stay far away from the place. How Israeli must pity me, a poor American Jew who must defer to and be considerate of women every day, even as the stick their seductive and wanton bodies all over the place.
Yeah, remind me to stay far the hell away from Israel. It sounds like everything any sane Jew would try to avoid. With outside danger, to boot, with a dispossessed majority wanting their stolen lands and homes back. Whose bright idea was this anyway?

Freedom rides for women in Israel? Go ahead, make yourself a laughingstock in front of the world. Please, be my guest.
Look, Israeli society cannot be other than it is. In order for Israel to survive, an high degree of aggressive defensiveness is incumbent on everybody there. Which, it only natural, makes them all crazy. It's one thing to be driven crazy by persecution, but it's entirely another to drive yourself crazy (and try to make your children crazy) because you've put yourself into an untenable situation.
Any Israel, good luck de-segregating the buses.
And the rest of the world won't have any trouble figuring out why haredi men are so afraid of women. I'm sure they will draw the right conclusions.

Ah yes, by all means bring video cameras to film the women on the buses, it'll go very well with the films on how you treat the Palistinians.

Sounds good, but I have an idea for a Mehadrin MinHamehadrin line: Men in the front, underaged boys in the back. Those are the real souls we need to protect.

This term modesty is a misnomer.
A subset of charedis are gay and thus are sickened by any thought of touching women or seeing female skin.

That explanation accounts for all of their funny laws.

I didn't say they were becoming radical. What they are practicing more and more is not "fundamentalist Judaism" but an "islamized Judaism". They are Jewish heretics. They are changing Judaism into a branch of Islam. I've also seen in print that some of them openly admire Muslims for their "values" and family life.

@MR. Apikores,

I sat with my wife almost every day that I would commute on Monsey Trails in the Ladies Section. When a shpitzle would mistakenly believe that she could not sit on the same side as a man, I politely explained it to her.

Hotspur, I would support any such efforts, but I have neither the time nor the money to go to Israel. And since my wife is not Jewish I have only a theoretical horse in that race. I wouldn't ask her to risk going to jail on behalf of someone else's tribe.

Notice that I say "go to jail" not "get hurt or killed". I rather suspect it would be the Tallitbanis who would end up bleeding.

Mooser, your amateur attempts at psychoanalyzing The Perfidious Zioninst Jew are as pathetic as they are transpartent. Suffice it to say that no Arab state, let alone the repulsive brand of death-worshipping thug which currently serves as Hamas and Fatah's leaders treats its own people half as well.

The R' Moshe T'shuva had to do with buses in America, not in Israel. It is dubious to use it as a source to say that mixing is acceptable on Haredi - not non-Jewish NYC - bus services. The two situations are far from analogous and arguably R' Moshe would not have said the same thing where separate seating could be made available because of the demand of Haredi clientele.

A Rider:

Good for you, and your wife.

To your knowledge, has any driver (or passenger) attempted to throw someone off (or under) the bus for defying the separation of sexes rules?

Mooser the idiot writes: "Ah yes, by all means bring video cameras to film the women on the buses, it'll go very well with the films on how you treat the Palistinians."

First of all Mooser this article has nothing to do with Palestinians. Second please shut your putrid mouth.

While I am sure what Naomi Ragen says is true and I agree with her bringing suit the actual situation in Jerusalem is not as bad as people posting seem to think.

I am not haredi but live in a predominantly haredi neighborhood and take buses almost every day. No neighborhood in Jerusalem is so isolated that a bus line only runs in it; that is, probably almost every bus line runs through different kinds of neighborhoods. While it is true that the drivers are no help, and some are a hindrance, being confident and if needed aggressive shuts most of the jerks up. For the most part I had more trouble when I was trying to be polite, American style.

That being said, the haredim pushing this separation are totally out of line. They do not have a leg to stand on either legally or halachically or based on just plain manners and human consideration. No one should have to sit in segregated sections on public conveyances. This modesty thing is very bizarre and totally out of hand.

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