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!

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