Forward: Elana Maryles Sztokman Rebuts Rabbi Dr. Yehuda “Ronnie” Warburg's Defense of Gender Segregation on Public Buses

We say bravo to the Forward's blogger/columnist Elana Maryles Sztokman. She rebuts Rabbi Dr. Yehuda “Ronnie” Warburg's unfortunate defense of gender segregation on public buses in Israel in, "The Modern Orthodox Case for Gender Segregation on Public Buses."

By the same token we do not applaud Rabbi Warburg, whose article "THE PRACTICE OF GENDER SEPARATION ON BUSES IN THE ULTRA-ORTHODOX COMMUNITY IN ISRAEL: A VIEW FROM THE LIBERAL CATHEDRAL" was published in Tradition magazine by the Rabbinic Council of America. You can download the article here from the Center for the Jewish Future of Yeshiva University as a PDF file.

Rabbi Warburg describes himself as an Orthodox religious judge, i.e., "a dayyan in Chassidic, Modern Orthodox and Yeshiva communities in New York and New Jersey."

We find the article to be a major embarrassment to Judaism, to Orthodox Judaism, to the RCA and to Yeshiva University. The article lacks rigor, logic and sound judgment. It justifies on specious grounds actions by Orthodox Jews that are at the least biased and misogynist and in our estimation that are perversions hiding behind the veil of our religion. We implore the Yeshiva University Torah Online web site to remove the article from the Internet.

Sztokman does a good job of pointing out many of the shortcomings of the essay. We commend her presentation. We have a few observations to add about the piece.

There is no valid religious justification for segregating/separating men and women on buses, even if one grants that there is validity to removing women to behind a mechitzah in a synagogue during prayers. Taking a bus ride is not a prayer service.The notion that gender segregation on public buses is part of a sacred-minority-Jewish-lifestyle is false.

Yet Warburg does try to invoke synagogue practice in his article. In doing so he says, "The implementation of separate pews in the synagogue has nothing to do with equality or inequality." In that he is wrong. He does not say what he should have, namely, "The implementation of separate pews in the synagogue is itself wrong and further it has nothing to do with public buses." (p. 26)

Warburg cites Rabbi Norman Lamm on prayer who said incorrectly, "For kavvanah, i.e. concentration, to be present in prayer, it is necessary to eliminate every source of distraction…" Nowhere do rabbis say that we must make the synagogue into a sensory deprivation chamber before we can have prayer. We don't understand any of the citation from Rabbi Lamm. But this part really confounds us: "It may be true…that Judaism see nothing inherently wrong or sinful about sex. But that does not mean that it is to be regarded as a harmless exercise not subject to any control or discipline...Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik has pointed out, this reliance upon a husband or wife is precisely the opposite of the Jewish concept of prayer." We can't prove that our teacher Rabbi Soloveitchik never said this, even though we are hopeful that he did not. It makes no sense at all to say there is something that is the precise "opposite of the Jewish concept of prayer." That is pure nonsense talk.

We Orthodox Jews read the erotic biblical book the Song of Songs in our synagogues at least once a year. Some Jews read it every Friday night. Even reading it as a pure metaphor does not remove the sexual content from the book. But somehow, that reading is fine. Yet, what a totally incomprehensible story Rabbi Lamm tells when he adds that, "mixed company…is conducive to a kind of frivolity - not disrespectful, but levity nonetheless."

No, we don't buy the stories that rabbis tell us to justify banishing the girls from the main floor of the synagogue. We think, whatever story you tell, you cannot deny that the good-old-Jewish-boys want to have their men-only spaces, their club-houses without the women-folk too close.They want to expand this ban on women, Warburg's article reminds us, to the, "full gamut of the life experiences of the members of the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities." (pp. 26-7) Since they can segregate the synagogue, they now want to segregate the schools, the buses, the streets. Nothing holy going on in those locations, but segregate them anyhow.

And there is nothing wrong with that since the Orthodox women agree to it, argues the expert cited by Warburg.

But then, wait, there is something wrong with that "deeply rooted religious practice." The silly platitude Warburg ends with that, "the same social practices can have varied social meanings, and therefore differing moral significance, in the context of different cultures of a particular society" does not justify patently wrong and abnormal behavior toward women on the part of Orthodox men.

To use the concluding rhetorical language in Warburg's article, the "prism of halakha" in this case apparently distorts. And here, "the practice of members of a group of the Jewish covenant-faith community" is somewhat deviant, if not perverse, and merits no defense.


Elana said...

thanks and keep up the good fight :-)

Nechama said...

Thank you for speaking out!

b said...

I am an Orthodox Jew. I am not ultra-orthodox; I attended Johns Hopkins and DePaul Law, and I don't regret it. I do not particularly approve of gender separation on buses. I do, though, respect those who require such segregation. Just as there have always been sincere Jews who champ at the bit and demand and embrace change, there have always been those who strive to walk not only in the direction, but also in the footprints of their forebears and who will never change one iota. Why does that bother you? Can we not bend a little to accommodate them? Are there no buses in Jerusalem that are mixed? (Yes, there are.)

tzvee said...

It's disrespectful and inconvenient and costly. So, no.