In Ephraim Kishon’s classic film, “The Policeman,” Shaike Ophir portrayed the policeman, Azoulay, whose name tells us that he is a kohen from a Sephardic family. Although he is not perceived as the most sophisticated nor accomplished member of the police force he managed to quell a crisis in the making when he needs to confront a group of Ashkenazic Haredim protesting Shabbat desecrations. He does this by engaging them in a give-and-take discussion of Biblical verses. In other words, rather than try to explain which laws he must enforce he speaks to them in a language they understand.
The tensions and name-calling resulting from the efforts by Orthodox Jews to worship in accord with their beliefs including the separation of men and women at the Yom Kippur services at Dizengoff Square are incorrectly perceived as a conflict between right and left, religious and secular and (worst of all) Jews and antisemites. The truth is that the tensions are the product of an inability to communicate because the two sides are speaking in two different languages. One side clings to their religious practices and the other is invoking the rule of law. But they might better understand each other if both sides were not so ignorant of what options halakha (Jewish law) actually provides.
Both those who wanted gender segregation and those who opposed invoked lots of slogans – such as Tel Aviv believes in religious freedom – but neither side cited the halakhic sources, knowledge of which could have resulted in a mutually acceptable resolution of the issue.
Nearly 50 years ago a young Orthodox rabbi told me that when studying at the home of his rabbi from the Ner Israel yeshiva in Maryland and the time came for the Minha or Maariv services, the women in the family not only did not leave the room but even sat with the men. They were not asked to leave because there is no need for gender separation in a place that is not used regularly for tefillot (prayers). This halakhic principle would apply to Dizengoff Square as well.
This issue was similarly discussed by Rabbi Professor David Golinkin of the Schechter Institute in Responsa in a Moment, volume 2, pages 47-50. The sources he cited include: Babylonian Talmud Tractate Megillah 26a (see Rashi there); Maimonides’ Laws of Prayer (Mishneh Torah) 11:21; and the Tur and Shulhan Arukh 154:1.
The consensus in these and other sources is that there is no sanctity in public spaces used for prayer (as opposed to synagogues, for example) and therefore no mehitza (for gender segregation) is required.
This means that those (primarily Orthodox Jews) claiming that there must be a mehitza at the Dizengoff service are probably unaware of the pertinent halakhic sources and are therefore sticking to their guns instead of using halakha as a key to unlock solutions.
But the non-Orthodox are just as ignorant. Speaking about the freedom to worship as they please is a contemporary concept and one that is not part of the lexicon of those who insist on gender separation. If only both sides would base their conversation around halakhic sources we might avoid the labeling that aggravates an already difficult situation – such as the remarks made by Prime Minister Netanyahu and the readiness of Minister Ben Gvir to provoke additional demonstrations prior to canceling a Maariv protest service.
The same applies to military service. If the secular Israelis demanding that all Haredim carry their share of the burden to protect our country instead invoked halakhic sources regarding Israel’s security perhaps a more productive conversation would take place.
The Midrash teaches that when God gave the Torah at Sinai each Israelite heard revelation at his/her level of comprehension. We need to think and act similarly in all matters that revolve around the disagreements between our secular and observant communities. We need to speak in a language that all sides can understand. If the religious sectors take a particular stand on an issue because of their understanding of halakha then the secular community will only make headway when it masters the teachings and language of halakha in order to dialogue meaningfully. The secular community needs to invoke the example of Azulai the policeman.
The time has come to close the gap between all sides caused by their respective ignorance. The time has come to give meaning to the teaching that all Israel are responsible for each other. The time has come to resolve differences by using halakha as a key to unlocking solutions rather than as a club with which one side beats the other side over the head.