Thursday, December 30, 2004

The Jerusalem Central Bus Station Synagogue: A Halakhist Responds

Halakhic scholar Rabbi Yehonatan Chipman of Hitzei Yehonatan has responded to my posting about the lack of a women’s section in the synagogue at the Jerusalem Central Bus Station, or rather the refusal of the bus station’s rabbi, Menahem Mendel Wilhelm, to countenance one:

I just read your blog piece about the lack of place for women in the shul there. I had noticed the problem the last time I came back fron Beer Sheva and went into the bus station’s synagogue for Minhah: I noticed three or four women davening outside.
Actually, praying near the bathrooms is less of a problem, since the doors are generally closed and if, for example, you were to daven near the phones one would have to turn several corners to get to the restrooms. A much more serious problem is the suggestion that women can daven in the hallway, in an area used constantly for foot traffic. Besides the difficulties of concentrating even minimally in such an environment, the halakhah explicitly states that it is forbidden to stand or pass within four amot (close to two meters) in front of a person saying Shemoneh Esreh, because the Shekhinah [Divine Presence] is “opposite” that person—man or woman. Since that area is a public thoroughway, where people need to pass to catch their buses, or perhaps to make an urgent phone call or to use the toilets before embarking on a journey, any woman davening there (unless she’s lucky enough to find a place right next to the wall opposite the shul) causes them to either violate the halakhah or, if they’re strict with themselves, to lose valuable time.
The rav of the Hildesheimer shul talked about this subject recently in a halakhah class where he criticized latecomers, especially at Minhah on Erev Shabbat, who choose to daven right by the door, preventing others from coming in. He told a story about Rav Moshe Feinstein who once, just after giving a talk on the same subject, found someone davening in the middle of a passageway. He refused to leave, saying, “There is a wall there; how can I pass?!”
Thus, to my mind it’s clear that a solution must be found. The logistics may be difficult, but that’s what the man is being paid to do. [...]
As for the objection that people might use the women’s section for immoral purposes, I have two answers. First, in terms of actualia: the Tel Aviv bus station has a different culture than that of Jerusalem. It is known that in TA there are, or have been, prostitutes soliciting business within the bus station; it also happens to be located quite close to the red-light district. In Jerusalem, the atmosphere is quite different.
Second, a principled halakhic answer: “Bari va-shema, bari adif.” That is, if one must weigh a certainty against a possibility, the certainty is given greater weight. It is a known, definite fact that there are women who want to recite one of their prayers while passing through the Central Bus Station (certainly with the education girls are receiving these days in ulpanot and so on that Minhah is obligatory for women), with the attendant problems involved with tefillah [prayer] in the hallway under present conditions; the use of a women’s section for immoral purposes is a theoretical possibilty, but may not happen at all. Any serious halakhist can only reach one conclusion from these facts.

I should point out that when I spoke with Rabbi Wilhelm approximately three years ago, the synagogue entrance was directly off the general area. Since then, a wall has been built shielding the synagogue entrance from the hustle and bustle of the surrounding area. It seems to me that if the powers that be, religious or otherwise, could get that wall built, a women’s section in the bus station would be a small matter.

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