Friday, December 23, 2011

Segregation: Intention and Consequence

When I started this blog, one thing was clear in my mind.  I definitely did not want this blog to devolve into yet another forum for group-think; the point was not to "bash" or criticize those whose philosophies and practices disagree with modern orthodoxy, without expressing anything in a positive manner.  My goal was not to elicit comments where people merely agree based upon their intuition, values, and the lifestyle choices they are comfortable with.  On the one hand, the point was to foster a serious discussion about important issues.  On the other, it was to discuss the underlying values that influence our tradition, practices, and lifestyles, without beating around the bush or missing the point. 

It is with this introduction that I turn (briefly) to the all important issue of gender segregation in the Orthodox world.  Over the years, the trend has developed whereby gender segregation is increasingly common even where it is not strictly required by halacha (Jewish Law).  This has included separate seating during wedding ceremonies, wedding meals, the lack of mixed social dancing between husband and wife, separate seating during classes, kiddushes, etc.  Often, this segragation tends to slowly reach out and expand into new areas.  Most recently, the demand for segregated bus routes has caused controvery in Israel, whereby women have been asked to move to the ill-fated "back of the bus."

Tznius, best translated as modesty, is a fundamental value in Jewish tradition.  Modesty applies to behavior and dress, to men and to women, and is always a value that ought to be considered and weighed in a given situation.  The dictionary defines it variously as "freedom from vanity," "simplicity," and "regard for decency of behavior, speech, dress, etc" (  It means all of these things in Judaism as well, and further commented is merited regarding non-sexual areas of modesty.

What I wanted to comment about today, however, is modesty in the usual context.  Normally, when modesty is mentioned, the speaker intends it to reference women's dress, and the insistence that women do not dress in an inappropriately revealing or promiscuous manner.  The value is simple; women will be most properly valued as the individuals they are, for their complete personalities if they are not objectified.  Dressing in an overly provocative way detracts from this, and ultimately causes disrespect.  In many senses, modesty is a feminist value.  Of course, that doesn't mean that women must be forced to dress without a sense of style, nor does it mean their femininity must be completely denied.  Everything in balance and moderation.

Segregation of women on a public bus goes too far.  How far?  So far that it goes nowhere.  It seems obvious that the current obsession with gender separation actually fights against the ultimate value at play.  If we're seeking to treat women as the individuals they are, then the current moves are a step in the wrong direction for several reasons:  1) By limiting interaction to such a degree, men will not be accustomed to dealing with women, leading to an oversexualization of any mundane encounter.  Normal interactions become filled with sexual tension, defeating the ultimate point and purpose of modesty.  Instead of thinking about a business deal, conversation, etc., men will be trained to think about the illicitness of a given interaction, and will be focused on matters of sexuality instead.  2)  By limiting the participation of women in the public sphere to an extreme degree, we disrespect womankind in another way.  Eliminating their participation in public discourse and events is harmful, and removes an important perspective of approximately half of the population.

To summarize, modesty is an important and vital value in Judaism.  It seeks to protect women from the objectification and sexualization all too common in modern society.  By swinging to the opposite extreme, we seek to cause similar effects; namely, women are considered sex objects precisely because of the extreme limitation of interaction with them.  Balance and common sense is useful when considering specific applications of these values.  Women definitely shouldn't be relegated to the back of the bus.

Happy Chanukah!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

YU Beacon: Open Confrontation

It seems like there's always something controversial brewing.  While it's not my intent to comment on every controversy that occurs in the Jewish world, I think that the current one merits special attention.

What I'm writing about today (you might have guessed from the title) is the debate and controversy caused by an article that appeared recently in the YU Beacon, a student run literary publication.  The Article (which can be read here) features the literary description of a pre-marital sexual encounter.  In the article, it is unclear whether the first person speaker is intended to be a fictional or non-fictional character; what is clear is that she is a female undergrad at YU and her boyfriend is also a YU student.  In the very short piece, it seems that the author comes to regret her actions and the shame that follows. 

Following the publication of this article, a back and forth resulted, culminating in the Beacon's loss of funding from the University and an end to its status as an official YU publication.  The publication will continue to exist as the voice of YU students who choose to write for it.  

Undeniably, the subject with the largest taboo in the Orthodox Jewish world is sexuality.  Sure, we discuss things from a legal perspective.  Every bride and groom usually learns the laws of taharat hamishpacha, family purity, and discussions about modesty and its values are commonplace in the Orthodox world.  However, the reality of life in the modern orthodox world is almost entirely ignored by the rabbinate.  That reality is as follows:  For better or worse (I would argue better, but that's a separate discussion), dating in the modern orthodox world has moved away from the shidduch model; instead, courtships are longer and usually involve the development of deep bonds and a strong relationship between individuals who would choose to marry.  Even when two people are formally set up by a shadchan, they still expect to build a relationship of some kind or another before marriage is on the table.

Given this reality, it is only inevitable that sexual tensions will rise to the forefront.  This tension is added to by the taboo surrounding the subject, and the embarrassment and shame that comes with discussing sexual experiences, feelings, tensions, etc.  Additionally, many traditional sources have primarily negative things to say about sexuality.  It should be avoided, it's sinful, etc.  One need look no further than takanas Ezra, no longer officially in effect, which would require men's immersion in the mikveh after any sexual experience in order to limit intercourse and prevent men from acting "like chickens."  Even when sex is permissible, it should be discouraged.

What I'm writing about today, however, is not sexuality in the Jewish religion per se.  Rather, the fact that an institution such as YU would censor student discussion on such an important topic is very disturbing.  Whether the leadership is aware or not, this is perhaps one of the most stressful and dominant issues dealt with by youth in the orthodox world.  Banning discussions about it will only serve to further the taboo, and continue the increasing irrelevance of Orthodox leadership in the lives of so many individuals.  I don't need to belabor the point, but this kind of approach doesn't need to turn people off to religion; it literally removes religion from the everyday lives of the Jewish people by silencing it on the important issues.  Rather than being concerned with image and appearance, leadership should be solely concerned with improving the lives of Judaism's adherents, and with helping to foster a dialogue about the today's important issues based on the divine teachings and truths we're so blessed to possess.  What a sad day when people can no longer express themselves and talk about the day's most important issues.  What a terrible day when a person can't freely convey the lessons they learned on such a difficult and timely topic.    

Thursday, December 1, 2011

"War on Christmas"

I hope that everyone had a nice Thanksgiving! I know it's been a while, and I apologize for the delay in posting.  Hopefully, there will be posts on a slightly more regular basis (2-3 times per week) in general.  I decided that we'd take a break from the morality stuff, at least for a little bit, and examine a local issue of great national interest.  After all, this blog is about religious relevance, and the discussion of important societal issues that intersect with religion is certainly appropriate.

This week, the Governor of Rhode Island (a great place to live!), Lincoln Chafee, caused a firestorm of debate by referring to the Christmas tree in the Statehouse as a "holiday tree."  Obviously, it's a Christmas tree, and isn't a "holiday tree" anymore than a menorah could aptly be described as a "holiday lamp."  Further, what other holiday is celebrated by the acquisition and display of a large evergreen.  Radio pundits and journalists were quick to proclaim that the governor was the next aggressor in the proverbial "War on Christmas" and the attempt to eliminate religion from the public sphere.

Briefly, some comments on the historical development of the law in this area.  Although many are familiar with the sacrosanct notion of "separation between church and state," the phrase appears exactly zero times in U.S. Constitution.  Rather, it is the natural byproduct of two important first amendment clauses. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . ."  Establishment has come to be defined by the so-called Lemon Test, promulgated in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971).  The test has three components, and is meant to define establishment: 

1) A law or state action must have a secular purpose 
2) A law or state action must not have the primary purpose of advancing or inhibiting religion
3) A law or state action must not result in excessive government entanglement with religion

On the face of it, a Christmas tree, or holiday bush, or whatever you call it, would seem to violate the Lemon Test.  After all, it's primary purpose seems to be to advance a particular religion, and it could be said to represent an excessive entanglement with religion.  If a law fails any prong of the Lemon test, it is to be considered unconstitutional.  

That being said, the Supreme Court has upheld certain types of governmental holiday displays, so long as they can adequately be said to be secular in nature.  For example, in Lynch v. Donnelly (1984), the Court upheld a Christmas scene in nearby Pawtucket.  In that case, the rationale was that the scene included snowmen, candy canes, and other winter objects, demonstrating that it was merely a winter display, and not a Christmas display.  

Personally, I'd take a different approach.  It seems to me entirely dishonest to say that a "winter scene" is secular because it includes a snowman next to the "holiday tree."  It's a Christmas display and everyone knows it.  If someone wants to argue that Christmas has somehow become a national secular holiday, that might be a different story.  However, there's a more honest argument to be made on other grounds.  Just because the Christmas tree is clearly related to Christmas doesn't necessarily make the government action an establishment of religion.  If the governor, a Christian, wants to display a Christmas tree, it need not follow that Rhode Island is establishing Christianity as the state religion.  In fact, we all know that Rhode Island would never do such a thing, and does not actively discriminate based on religion in any which way.  Makes no difference here.  Therefore, these types of things should be allowed even if they violate the Lemon Test.  It's good in some cases, but in general, the test goes a little too far in determining what actually constitutes the establishment of religion.