Think Tank Blog
This post was submitted by a member of the DCA Think Tank, and does not necessarily represent the opinions of the Cardozo Academy.
This article was written in response to Yael Valier’s post, “When religious arguments descend into Hareidi bashing”
In the article cited by Yael Valier, Rabbi Angel assumes certain facts—that the Haredi man officiously demanded that the woman move etc. What exactly transpired is certainly material to how one thinks about the incident (did the man ask to be moved and only later ask if his neighbor would move; was he polite or officious? etc.). Being unfamiliar with the precise facts, I simply have to take them as given for the sake of the argument. There are two quite distinct issues here: (1) The issue of R. Angel, as representative of one religious community (Sefardi), critiquing the values of another religious community (Hareidi); (2) The question of rights and respect for different moral/religious outlooks within a liberal society. I suspect these two issues are being conflated here.
Rabbi Angel is perfectly entitled to criticize the values and practices of the Haredi world although, as Yael Valier noted, he presents his critique rather less effectively than he could (for more on this, see below). As for the rights question, I believe Yael Valier and R. Angel are not actually in disagreement. They both believe, I think, that the Hareidi man has no right to demand that the woman move but he is entitled, for example, to ask the flight attendant to try to find an alternative seat for him and, failing that, for the woman, provided she agrees to move.
Will the real straw-man please stand up
Yael Valier accuses R. Angel of using a straw-man argument but, with all due respect, I believe that her “orange liquid” argument is itself something of a straw man. Presumably, she would absolutely not object to someone asking her not to drink orange liquid next to him in part because she would not consider his request to express a value which was insulting and demeaning to her.)
I accept that the request that the woman change seats would not be personally insulting to her. (How could it be? Her hypothetical neighbour doesn’t even know her.) On the other hand, it could be insulting and demeaning in a general sense: Here is a value system in which the primary and overriding consideration which determines how women are permitted to function, and how men and women are to interact, within the public realm is the status of women as potential causes of male sexual arousal. This is coupled with the presumption that men take precedence in the public realm and therefore, in view of this potential threat, it is the women who must defer.
A normative system doesn’t simply respond to reality; it actively shapes and influences people’s perceptions of reality. The rules followed by the Hareidi world in this regard actively encourage a perception of women as little more than dangerously arousing sexual objects. They do not encourage a perception of women as responsible members of society fully the equal of men in all matters of intelligence, competence etc. This can reasonably be said to be insulting and demeaning.
I accept that the idea I outlined above—not sitting next to women as a form of erasing women from the public arena—is probably at best only a partial account of the Hareidi value system regarding women and that Yael Valier’s suggestion— the practice is a form of preserving the beauty of own couple relationships—is also part of the picture. I also accept that we have no right criticizing one aspect of the system if we are not at the same time willing to appreciate the value of other aspects of it.
Normative values in the public space
Regarding the question of what sort of beliefs/practices should be respected/tolerated in a liberal society, my off-the-top-of-my-head thought is this:
- In general, a liberal society should tolerate/respect religious belief/practices unless they are repugnant— or express values which are repugnant—to the liberal society. For example, if the Hareidi (or any other) traveler had said to the flight attendant, “It is against my religion for women to be seated alongside or in front of me. Please can you have my neighbor re-seated somewhere behind me.”, I believe it would be correct for the flight attendant to reply, “No, I’m afraid we cannot comply with your wish. Even if it’s just a matter of asking the woman if she would be willing voluntarily to comply with this request, El Al cannot be party to such a request.” (If the Hareidi and his neighbor privately agree to such an arrangement, that’s another matter. That’s no one else’s business.) I don’t think a request by a Hareidi man not to be seated next to a woman is repugnant to the values of a liberal society in this way.
- I have no idea what El Al’s guidelines are in these cases, but I think they ought to go roughly along the following lines: (a) A flight attendant who receives such a request from a Hareidi man should in the first instance look for a suitable alternative seat for the man. (b) Only if no such seat is available should the attendant speak to the female passenger. (c) The attendant should only speak to the woman if there is an alternative seat available which is at least as good as her present seat (whatever that may mean). (d) The attendant should be under an obligation to inform the woman that the request is being made on an entirely voluntary basis and that if she says no, that is the end of the discussion.
- From the news reports of the incident, it appears that one of the things that irked the woman was that she was not told the reason for the flight attendant’s request. The attendant simply told her that a better seat was available and asked her if she wanted to move there. The woman—not having been born yesterday—immediately understood the reason for the request and was irritated by the underhanded nature of the attendant’s suggestion. That raises an interesting question: is the attendant obliged to inform the female passenger of the reason for the request? In our modern age we believe in transparency and are therefore inclined to say, yes, the attendant is obliged to tell the passenger the reason for the request. But I’m not sure that’s so self-evident.
Summing up, I agree that we do have a tendency to enjoy bashing Hareidim (though it has to be said, the Hareidim do seem to go out of their way to make it easy for us to do so), and that if one is going to criticize a Hareidi practice one has a duty to try to understand the practice as sympathetically as possible from their point of view.