This past Monday, my sister and I were traveling on the Egged 497 bus from Bet Shemesh to Ramat Gan. When we boarded the bus at the beginning of its route, it was relatively empty, so we sat together towards the front, thinking that the bus wouldn’t be too crowded at 15:00 in the afternoon and no one would mind. This proved incorrect, however, as the bus filled up during its route through the heavily Hareidi Ramat Bet Shemesh Bet, and a lot of disdainful looks were thrown at us. Eventually, as the bus became even more full, one man finally spoke up. Addressing me in Hebrew, he said “lama hi yoshevet po– why is she sitting here?” This statement, the first of many that we would hear during our 90 minute trip, was hurtful in two ways- it objectified my sister, and it wasn’t even addressed to her- it was as if she wasn’t even there. I responded that she is fulfilling her right as an Israeli passenger to sit wherever she would like on the bus. “Aval, zeh asur me’halacha– But it’s forbidden by Halacha,” the helpful fellow countered. From where, I asked. “Min Hatorah– from the Torah.” I then proceeded to explain that despite the fact that I was at the time wearing a colorful shirt and jeans, I do in fact learn Torah every day, studying in a school presided by Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg shlita. “Mi zeh? Lo makir oto– Who’s that? I’ve never heard of him,” scoffed my new friend at the Rosh Bet Din of the Rabanut High Court of Jerusalem. “Hachatan shel Harav Shlomo Zalman Aurbach– the son-in-law of Rav Shlomo Zalman Aurbach.” That stopped him for a minute. Having established that I might in fact have some idea of what I’m talking about, my new self-righteous friend proceeded to quote his rebbe (who by the way was not even close to the same level as Rav Goldberg), who gave a p’sak (Halachik ruling) that such a thing is not permitted because it “interferes with the ruach (religious spirit) of other passengers,” which led to me advising him to move to the back if it bothered him so much, and insisting on my rights under Halachik and Israeli Law to sit wherever I would like – my sister almost in tears the entire time from all of the glares she was receiving. In the end, this man was one of two passengers who openly confronted us for sitting there, but it seemed from the general feeling we were getting from our fellow travelers that our presence, or more specifically my sister’s, was not welcome in the front of the bus.
Why did this bother me? Because I was not approached and asked nicely to move further back so that another passenger would feel more comfortable- rather, I was informed that I was not keeping halacha properly, and told how I should correct it. If I had not stood up for our rights, my sister would’ve suffered the same belittlement that many women often suffer when traveling on routes between Hareidi cities, even on buses operated by public companies like Egged that are forbidden from allowing gender segregation. In short, I was taught a lesson on Monday, but the lesson wasn’t a new halacha on the laws of traveling with a woman- it was a lesson on the importance of standing up for what Torah truly stands for in the face of a new wave of chumrot (voluntary stringencies) that seem to have replaced Halacha, at the expense of women’s civil rights.
The Zohar (Mishpatim 123a) teaches the importance of keeping the laws of the Torah exactly as they were given. If one adds onto or takes away from the Torah, aside from violating the command of “לא תוסיף ולא תגרע ממנו” (Devarim 16), he is also doing something far worse; he is in effect denying G-d’s completeness, violating the first and second commandments and the first Noahide law, which prohibit avoda zara. It behooves anyone taking on a new chumra (stringency) or a Rav giving a more stringent opinion to consider the consequences of their actions, for if the thin line between chumra and halacha becomes blurred, one risks a lot more than they’re gaining by taking on a higher level of religious observance.
Rashi at the beginning of Parshat Mishpatim teaches that the juxtaposition of the Ten commandments and the Civil Law in Mishpatim shows us that for one to truly be Torah observant, they must follow both the bigger picture commandments (the aseret hadibrot) and the more detailed commandments (parshat mishpatim)- without both, one cannot glean the complete picture of the Jewish lifestyle. On a higher level, for one to become a pious one (chasid, in the words of Rashi), they must gain an equally deep understanding of both the big picture and the details. If one only focuses on the details at the expense of the bigger picture, they risk losing track of the goal of the mitzvot, and cannot truly call themselves an expert on Torah, nor a pious one.
It’s my belief that when the well-meaning Haredi man confronted me on the bus, he honestly believed that the chumra which he had personally taken on himself was the letter of the law- and this was the problem. While he may have had a psak from his Rabbi on the correct bus seating arrangements, his focus on this issue and zealousness in putting us in our place revealed an ignorance of the bigger picture- the times in Parshat Mishpatim where we are taught of the importance of respecting our fellow humans, such as the money paid to one who is humiliated, or the rights of a slave. If one focuses too much on a mere chumra at the expense of an actual mitzva, then they have truly forgone the first commandment by changing G-d’s perfection.
By some funny and ironic coincidence that I would not appreciate until later, the day that I stood up for my sister’s civil rights was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the American federal holiday celebrating the birthday of Reverend King. On August 28, 1963, Reverend King stood up in front of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, speaking out for minorities and women. “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed; ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.” While Martin Luther King Jr. Day has mainly been used to advance Affirmative Action and other reverse discrimination for the African American population in the US, the Reverend’s dream of equality also extended to women, and thanks to him and other Civil Rights activists, buses became desegregated and women continued to receive the right to vote, a right which had begun with the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.
While Judaism does not share the same values of equality outlined in the US Declaration of Independence, it is clear from Parshat Mishpatim that women are not considered second class in our faith. Rav Leon Ashkenazi zt”l, a leader of French Jewish community and a well-known philosopher, taught that it is evident from our parsha that women are very equal to men, at least in terms of civil rights. Young women, like their male counterparts, receive full rights as an adult once reaching gil mitzvot. They are protected from mistreatment in slavery, from injury and murder, and are given the same rights to a fair trial as men. We can see from the parsha that they are entitled to the same infallible right of kavod habri’ot (human dignity) that is due to any person. Kavod Habri’ot is such a serious matter that the Kohen Gadol is permitted to approach a dead body in order to greet a king, and one is allowed to carry stones on Shabbat for restroom use, when both would otherwise be strictly prohibited with a punishment of karet (spiritual excommunication). Why is such a strict punishment waived in these cases? To teach us of the importance of showing kavod habri’ot to other people, that in certain situations, human dignity surpasses religious observance, especially stringencies.
Gilui Arayot (forbidden relationships) is one of the most serious offenses in the Torah, and while it is admirable that many in Haredi world are working very actively to distance themselves from this sin, they must be careful not to violate kavod habri’ot in the process, especially if they are already quite distant from the actual sin. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke against hypocrisy in 1963, challenging how people who claim to give rights equally to all could exclude so many. Over fifty years later, we must ask the same question of these Haredim; how can you risk violating women’s’ kavod habri’ot over a self-imposed chumra? Keeping in mind that their additions to the already extensive laws of issur bi’ah could very well violate bal tosif, is it really worth violating two of the Aseret Hadibrot and one of the Noahide Laws to uphold a controversial stringency?
Parshat Mishpatim concludes with a promise from G-d to securely bring the Jewish People into the Land of Israel and assist them in conquering it successfully. “I will send an angel before you to guard you… there will not be a miscarriage in your midst…” we are promised. There is a well-known idea that the juxtaposition of the aseret hadibrot, the mishpatim, and yishuv ha’aretz, teaches us that in order to merit the final kibutz galiyot, we must first strengthen our observance of the commandments and civil law- only then will we merit to inherit the land as promised in Shemot 23. I would like to take this a step further and suggest that the specific order of aseret hadibrot before mishpatim can show us how we should prioritize; first learning the basics of Judaism (such as G-d’s perfection, gilui arayot, kavod bri’ot) and then focusing on the deeper details (like when it would be permitted to sit next to a woman on the bus). If we “jump the gun” and go straight for the details, we risk losing track of the bigger picture, of why we were given these commandments, and, as Rashi said, we cannot in true honesty call ourselves “chasidim.” While I truly respect the steps that many in the Haredi world have taken to avoid gilui arayot, as long as there are those self-designated “chasidim” who put their personal chumrot before actual mitzva observance and force their opinions on those around them, especially at the risk of individuals’ civil and kavod habri’ot rights, we can never hope to bring the final geulah.