Saturday, May 13, 2006

Modesty or Territoriality?

So the Gerrer rebbe asked for, and received, a woman-free flight on El Al. This was supposedly done for reasons of modesty. But I find myself wondering: Since when has the word “modesty” come to mean “woman-free”?

According to the American Heritage Dictionary definition (via, modesty is defined as 1) the state or quality of being modest; 2) Reserve or propriety in speech, dress or behavior; 3) lack of pretentiousness; simplicity.

No mention of “woman-free” there.

A few weeks ago, I was returning from Bet Shemesh to Jerusalem on a sherut—a taxi van that seats ten passengers. I was the only passenger in the van at that point, and I was sitting in a front-row aisle seat when a young man wearing clothing that identified him as belonging to a particularly strict Jewish group got on. He stopped on the steps leading to the aisle and said, without looking directly at me: “Aht yekhola la’alot le-mala?” (Hebrew: Can you go farther up?)

Since I was following my custom of falling asleep within minutes of boarding a sherut, I didn't realize that he was speaking to me. (The fact that he did not look at me while he spoke didn’t help either.) When I finally realized that he was speaking to me, I looked at him, confused. What on earth did he mean by “farther up”? Where was I supposed to go?

Seeing my confused expression, the young man gestured toward the back of the van.

I looked straight at him and said: “Seliha—ani nisheret po” (Excuse me, I'm staying here).

He got onto the van and sat down in a row of seats behind me. Apparently my refusal to move to the back of the van wasn’t such a serious issue for him after all, since if it had been, he would have found himself another means of transportation. Which leads me to wonder: if the issue wasn’t so important for him that he would not have gotten into the van unless I moved, then why did he ask me to move in the first place?

If he had asked me to move so that he could sit next to a member of his family or so that he would not have to sit between two women (which, actually, is not so much a traditional safeguard against immodesty as it is against sorcery, but that’s another story), I would have understood. But I was the only other passenger in the van. So what was the problem?

Among groups of very strict Jews in Israel, there is a small but persistent movement to shift women to the back of the bus. I have seen stickers made to look as though they were printed by the Egged bus company telling women to sit in the rear portion of articulated buses, and I have seen signs printed up with the seal of a respected rabbinical court stating that certain Egged bus lines are sex-segregated. Of course, the stickers never came from Egged, nor did the signs come from the rabbinical court. So what’s going on here?

Certainly not modesty. Modest people do not demand that others inconvenience themselves for their sake. Nor do modest people demand that an entire sex demean itself so that the other may enjoy what it perceives as an elevated level of holiness. That is not modesty; that is arrogance. True holiness is never achieved at the expense of others.

No, this isn’t about modesty or holiness at all. It’s about territoriality, power and control.

And I don’t like where this is heading. Not at all.

(See my previous posts on this issue here and here.)

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