This past week, the New York Times wrote an article about Renee Rabinowitz, an elderly woman, who is suing El Al for discrimination. As the article describes, Ms. Rabinowitz was sitting in her aisle seat in the business class section of an El Al plane from Newark to Tel Aviv, when she was asked by a flight attendant to switch her seat. Apparently, Ms. Rabinowitz’s seatmate, a Charedi looking man, didn’t want to sit next to her for what he claimed were religious reasons. Ms. Rabinowitz agreed to move so that the flight could take off, and after a short exchange with the Charedi man, she gathered her bags and moved to her new seat. In her suit, Ms. Raninowitz claims that she felt pressured by the flight attendant to switch seats and is accusing El Al of illegal discrimination because this request was by its nature degrading.
Putting the legal question aside, this story raises an interesting question for us as Modern Orthodox Jews: How should we view the behavior of the orthodox Jewish man who doesn’t wish to sit next to a woman on an airplane?
Perhaps we can gain understanding from two different explanations of the Biblical phrase, “Kedoshim tihyu,” or “you shall be holy.” Rashi explains that we fulfill this mitzvah by separating from sinful sexual behavior, whereas Ramban explains that we fulfill this mitzvah by separating from and minimizing permissible sexual behavior. These two different explanations reflect two different approaches. Rashi believes that we can achieve holiness by fully engaging in the world, provided that we do not sin, whereas the Ramban believes that we can achieve holiness by withdrawing from the world.
It seems then, that there are two different legitimate traditions in orthodox Judaism, engagement and separation. Modern Orthodox communities today tend to lean toward engagement, embracing the world around us and allowing interaction between men and women to the extent allowed by halakha. We proudly cite Rabbinic decisors who saw no halakhic problem in men sitting next to women on airplanes, and we permit such engagement in everyday settings. But ours is not the only tradition, and we should not deny that those who seek maximum separation have Rabbinic tradition behind them as well. In fact, an honest appraisal of both approaches reveals that each poses the danger of blurring the lines between halakha and chumra (a stringency), albeit in different directions.
While tradition may support taking upon oneself the practice of separation, we must be mindful of the perception that this chumra creates, and the Chillul Hashem that ensues. The gemara in Yoma 86a states that Chillul Hashem is committed even if there is no technical violation, as long as something is done which results in someone saying, “Woe unto him who studied the Torah; woe unto his father who taught him Torah; woe unto his teacher who taught him Torah.” Of course, one may not violate an absolute halakha simply in order to avoid a Chillul Hashem. However, the equation shifts when we are dealing only with a chumra. In that case, avoiding a Chillul Hashem becomes paramount. If one wants to act b’chumra, he may not impose his stringency on others, creating a Chillul Hashem in the process. The El Al case is a prime example of the danger of idealizing separation. If a man perceives that sitting next to a woman on a plane is an absolute violation halakha and not simply a chumra, he may mistakenly not consider the Chillul Hashem that his actions will cause. Indeed, the El Al incident and others like it seem to be cases where the lines between chumra and halakha became blurred and Chillul Hashem did result.
Amongst the Modern Orthodox community, there is a different but not dissimilar danger that should be addressed. Those of us who follow the engagement approach must be wary of our own tendency to blur the lines between halakha and chumra, albeit in another direction. Do we sometimes look at our Charedi brethren and paint all their separatist practices with the same broad brush? Do we at times silently conclude that all separations between men and women are simply chumra, when in fact that is not the case? Yichud, negiah, tzniut, and kol isha are not simply chumrot; they are issues of halakha and should be addressed with a gravity that is befitting them. We, too, must not blur the lines between halakha and chumra. Our community’s tendency to blur these lines may not find its way to the New York Times as readily as the Charedi community’s does, but it poses formidable spiritual challenges, nonetheless. Jews of both engagement and separation have a responsibility to study the halakha, clarify the halakha, clarify what’s chumra and then responsibly consider when we can, when we must, but also when we may not apply considerations of Chillul Hashem in our daily decision-making.