A friend is writing an article for a prestigious publication about the recent flare-up over the segregation of women in the public space in a few Haredi neighborhoods in Israel. His main point is that while Judaism has strict guidelines on separation of men and women, these injunctions are internal - meant to guide individual action, not shape policy in the public sphere. His focus on individual action is key, because the Jewish faith places considerable emphasis on freedom of choice. Any government-enforced limitations on women in public which go beyond common sense (e.g. the restroom) or an individual's private choice, he goes on to say, to paraphrase, have no grounding in Jewish law (halacha) and constitute unbearable coercion tilting towards oppression. He asked me for my comments before publishing. It just so happens that I've been thinking about this very issue. My response to him is posted in full, as I feel it may be of some use to myself and others in how we think and write about such topics. Please excuse the more informal context of an email. Discussion is welcome, as always.
When you write such articles, keep in mind that you are an observant Jew, writing for an audience of mostly non-Jews, or non-observant Jews, about what they already perceive to be "ultra-radical-extremist-orthodox" Jews. Make sure you understand the intent of your written work, and how it will be perceived by the audience. I am confident you are not writing this with an antagonistic frame of mind. You're trying to explain to your audience that gender segregation in the secular, public space is not supported in Jewish law. What you're also doing, though, however unintentially, is feeding ammunition into your audience's existing animosity towards those they already fear and consider alien.
Think of it like this: Certainly the haredim in Israel who subscribe to gender segregation on the sidewalks and buses believe they are acting in accordance with Jewish law. Maybe they're wrong, but they believe themselves to be acting consistent with Jewish law. They won't read your article, and no one is actually engaging and challenging them on why they believe that public gender segregation is Torah-authentic.
Now you come along, and tell the secular Jews and non-Jews that actually the haredim are NOT acting consistent with Jewish law. By the way, it's a classic anti-semitic trope that Jews are not acting consisted with Jewish law (they're not being "good Jews", they way "G-d wants them to be"), and therefore deserve punishment. The issue is very similar: in the mind of the seculars, you're creating a license to punish the haredim, because "they're not even observing their own laws properly!"
We now have two communities who are sure that the other is breaking Jewish law, who already fear each other, and are inclined to physically force that change on the other, while resisting it themselves. Do you see what I'm saying? You didn't intend this, but you're actually contributing to the conflict and division.
None of what you said is wrong, so far as my limited knowledge goes. But as a chassid of the Rebbe, more is expected of you. You have to find a way to heal division between Jews, not to strengthen it. It's fine to highlight that the haredim are not acting within the normative frame of Jewish law. But you can't just stop here, leaving it to the imagination of scared, fearful seculars how to "solve this problem", because their solution will be to oppress and punish the haredim, to dehumanize and ridicule them.
It's not a simple issue. You have to think about it. How can you promote connection and healing between Jews?
If you were to ask my opinion, I would say that there are meta-halachic issues involved here. Removing women from the public square is not consistent with observant Judaism as I have experienced it through Chabad, or for that matter the other orthodox and chassidic streams in America. We have to ask, why is there no gender segregation in Brooklyn, but there is in Bet Shemesh (or wherever)?
If it's not a matter of law and custom, then it must be a sociological issue. Why are some of the haredim acting like this? Why are they creating these new restrictions? What are they trying to protect themselves and their communities from?
When you consider the fear and anxiety that must exist to have moved the haredim to impose this change in the public sphere... in other words, their segregation of women is an attempt to exert control where they feel they have lost control. For them, the world is spinning out of control, and they're trying to stop it, to force it to stand still. So then "enlightened" Jews like you and me pair up with the seculars and start attacking them for it. They're not going to intellectually engage with us. They're frightened people desperately holding on with clenched fists. For them, the survival of Judaism is at stake because the barbarians (that's us) are at the gate.
Just think about this for a bit. How do you educate secular Jews about these issues without feeding them ammunition for a culture war? How do you contribute to easing the fears of the haredim, to helping them unclench their fists and showing them they can lead full Jewish lives without trying to impose control over their environment. Because this segregation of women in public is not the end. For people who feel they've lost control... segregated sidewalks are just the beginning. It doesn't solve anything; it don't really give them back control. So they are already thinking of the next restriction, the next way to exert control over their lives, which are spinning out of control faster and faster.
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