Modern Orthodoxy, when done right, is obviously more demanding than standard orthodoxy. In addition to fulfilling the identical set of mitzvoth, Modern Orthodox Jews are bound by so many more sacred religious obligations, needing to engage – not simply to ignore – the broader social, intellectual and spiritual landscape of God’s world. I recently realized though, that the differences also include something I would not have imagined. Apparently, only Modern Orthodox men are required to engage, and to struggle with, themselves.
There is a struggle that has been abandoned by many men, who identify with Orthodoxy’s Ultra Brand. The most recent evidence of this is in the proliferation of mehadrin busses in Jerusalem and elsewhere. These are busses, which serve ultra-neighborhoods, and in which only men may sit in the forward portion of the bus, while women must take seats in the back. As is well known, ultra-violence has repeatedly been wielded against women who refuse to cooperate satisfactorily with the mehadrin rules.
What is the rationale for all this? I encourage you to read a recent article in the Jerusalem Report (6/8/09) for all the details, but the simple gist is that many of the women who ride busses are not dressed modestly by our traditional standards, (though even modestly dressed women must sit in the back and can be physically assaulted for refusing to do so), and this can lead the men to have sinful thoughts. But why can’t men simply be asked to not have sinful thoughts? In the words of a well-known figure in the ultra-community, “We men are weak. So why put us at risk?” Nebach.
Never mind for a moment the irony of “weakness” being used as the justification for asserting social and political (and even physical) power. When did it happen that we men raised the white-flag on self-control? What ever happened to “Who is powerful? The one who can conquer his inclination”? How is it that a profoundly pious community of men has thrown in the towel, and has simply declared itself too weak to not sin? Doesn’t it sound a little Christian?
And beyond these questions lies another. It’s difficult to conquer one’s inclination, yes. But when did one person’s struggle become someone else’s responsibility and burden? If a man hasn’t yet conquered his inclination to his satisfaction, let him take a cab! It is bad enough to have abdicated one’s own religious responsibilities. But then to tell others that as a result they have to go sit in the back? It’s ultra-something, but I’m not sure ultra-what exactly.
Modesty is an extremely important religious value. Modern Orthodox women and men alike are religiously obligated to honor the essence of what makes us human, and to not call attention to that which is merely superficial and fleeting. The way that we choose to dress is unmistakably an expression of our religious sensibilities. But we do not believe that the world is too dangerous a place for us to live in. We do not believe that God left us here defenseless against our own inclinations. . And we never allow our own problems to serve as justification for being unfair to others.