Jeffrey Woolf

Enough is Enough

It’s been almost a year since the headlines were filled with horrified protests against the vicious attacks on (then) eight year old Na’amah Margolis. These attacks were the most egregious example of a broader attempt by self-appointed religious zealots (so-called ‘modesty squads’) to separate the sexes on public streets, on buses, trains and at public events. The wave of public outcry, from both religious and secular quarters, led to a general push back against these hooligans. Indeed, the general impression is that this type of abusive behavior has declined.

What most Israelis do not know is that the extreme actions that these actions were rooted in deeper trends that are not restricted to the lunatic fringe of the Haredi World. Rather, they have become endemic to the broader Orthodox community, including the Religious Zionist. I refer to the ever increasing push to segregate the sexes, not only in the synagogue (where such segregation is mandated by Jewish Law), but to every conceivable social setting as well. It started in the latter sector, over thirty years ago, with the demand for gender separation in the Bnai Akiva youth group. Then, rabbis started demanding the presence of separate seating at weddings and other such gatherings. I thought that things had reached the extreme when, a few years ago, I was personally (and pointedly) asked  to demand that students sit separately in my medieval Jewish History class because, as the requester noted, ‘such mixing of the sexes is intolerable (sic!).’

I was wrong. Today, the Srugim website that caters to the National Religious community, carried a documented report that defies belief. It seems that the student organization of the Jerusalem College of Technology (aka Machon Lev) and its sister school Machon Tal, planned an event to mark the beginning of the academic year. The event, which is to be held off-campus, featured separate seating, an opening talk by the director of the Halacha Berura Institute, Rabbi Aryeh Stern (who is a candidate for Chief Rabbi of the Holy City), and a concert by Ehud Banai, whose spiritual journey back to tradition is well known. Incredibly, rabbis from both schools issued a harshly worded statement forbidding students from attending the event.

Now, there is absolutely no credible religious reason to ban an event that was organized in this manner. On the contrary, there are major halakhic authorities who allow mixed seating at weddings (and university classes). So, I was at totally a loss to understand what prompted this action, that is until I saw the full text of the prohibition: ‘At the time, R. Zvi Yehudah Kook זצ’ל prohibited any mixed activity of boys and girls.’

Now I understood.

The sainted son of the R. Abraham Isaac ha-Kohen Kook זצ”ל, had a unique position on questions of what is broadly called ‘modesty.’ Based upon religious ideology, he was adamantly against mixed gatherings of any kind. He was a vigorous advocate of a dress code for women that goes beyond that which obtains in broad sectors of the Haredi world. Indeed, he (respectfully, but firmly) rejected the opinions of world renowned halakhic authorities such as R. Israel Meir ha-Kohen (author of the authoritative code, Mishnah Berurah) as not being strict enough in matters of modesty. In other words, in his view, normative Jewish Law in an insufficient guide for appropriate conduct by observant Jewish men and women.

Now, R. Kook had every right to advocate extra degrees of piety for himself and his students. Anyone who wishes to adopt such supererogatory modes of behavior is welcome to do so. However, it is unfair (and alienating in the extreme) to foist policy upon others in the guise of Halakha, when actually disregarding that which Orthodox, Shulhan Arukh Halakha states.

My sainted teacher, Rav Joseph Soloveitchik זצ”ל emphasized that no one has the right to enforce such strictures, such modes of extraordinary piety on others. To put it in the jargon of the religious world, you can’t force your חומרות on others. In the present instance, when the National Religious community is wringing its collective hands over the declining marriage rate and delayed marriage, does it make any sense whatsoever to prohibit religious men and women from attending an event  under Orthodox auspices, commencing with a Dvar Torah and featuring a male singer who’s search for God has become legendary? What were these respected rabbis thinking?

Or, maybe they weren’t….

About the Author
Jeffrey Woolf is an Associate Professor in the Talmud Department at Bar Ilan University. He is both a Medieval and Renaissance Jewish Historian, and an Orthodox Rabbi who is a long time advocate of the creation of a uniquely Israeli form of Modern Orthodoxy.