Personal Responsibility vs. Communal Responsiblity

20 02 2007

I’m sure you’ve all read about the Miriam Shear incident already (Here’s a link for those of you who haven’t.)

I think peoples responses bring up some interesting issues that I havn’t seen discussed yet.  Everyone who is attempting (unsuccessfully) to defend what the man did has basically used the argument that since he had taken on extra stringencies, and avoided even sitting next to unrelated women, he is clearly on a much higher spiritual level than the rest of us and therefore we are obligated to respect him, and work to make sure that he can follow all those extra chumras he’s taken on himself.

Now, I personally find the implications of this particular chumra a bit off-putting.  It does seem to imply that the men have so little self control that the mere presence of a woman near them, no matter how modestly dressed, no matter what she is doing, that her presence is SO distracting, and so arousing that these men are incapable of thinking of anything but having sex with her.  What a shame that these men feel they are incapable of seeing women as anything more than a sex object.  I firmly believe that since HaShem created men and women together, we’re meant to be together.  Not that there aren’t limits to what is appropriate in a friendship between men and women, but to cut yourself off from half of the people in the world seems rather sad, but if that’s what you feel you need to do to keep yourself from thinking about sex constantly because of your particular weakness, then fine, remove yourself from the company of women.  Personally I feel that if someone doesn’t want to be around me because I happen to have twice the frequency of X chromosomes that he does, then he’s not really the sort of person I want to be around.  I don’t particularly want to talk to someone who is incapable of thinking of anything but having sex with me while around me. (And no, I don’t think that all guys are in that category, I think there are plenty of guys who are capable of seeing me as an equal person.)

Anyway, ignoring the implications of that particular chumra, I think there’s a larger issue of personal responsibility contrasted with community responsibility for an individuals observance.  Are other people around you obligated to rearrange their lives, and inconvenience themselves, so that you can hold to some standard above and beyond what halacha requires?  If normative practice in your community is to keep chalev stam, and you choose to hold to chalev yisroel, does your community have an obligation to have all community events kosher to your standard, or just to alert you to which dishes meet your standard so that you know what you can and can’t eat?  I personally feel that the latter is the case.  If you take something on yourself above and beyond what is required of you, then the responsibility for that falls on you, not on the community.  Now, if the community chooses to support you, that’s wonderful, and a perfectly good thing for them to do, but it is not at all required or them.  If you don’t want to sit next to women on a bus, you can either only ride mehadrin lines (which the bus in the incident in question was quite clearly not) or it is your responsibility.  If you are riding a normal bus, you can either find an empty seat that will work for you, or you can stand.  If someone else is sitting in the only seat that you feel you can sit in, sure, request that they move, but bear in mind that if they do move, they are doing you a favor, not fulfilling their minimum requirements.  They have ever right to remain in their seat, since they were there first, and you have no right to resort to any measure of force in an attempt to compel them to move.  You cannot call them names, you cannot spit on them, and you most definitely cannot assault them. 

If you have taken something extra upon yourself, you need to step up and take responsibility for the inconvenience that causes.  People do not have the obligation to create an environment that makes it easy for you to observe your stringancies.  In this case, it was possible for him to hold to the standard that he claimed to observe, but it would have involved him sitting in his second choice seat, or even (Horrors!) standing!  Instead, he chose to place that inconvenience on another person, who was acting completely within the bounds of both halacha and local law.  He was out of line.  Now, did she respond poorly?  Maybe spitting back at him was over the line.  I personally would have let loose with a rather long speech about the quality of his upbringing that he thought it was acceptable to spit on a woman for not following his orders, but I don’t think she was completely out of line to respond the way she did.  She had every right to stand up for herself and sit wherever she chose.  If she had been touching him in an attempt to prove something, or in an attempt to force him to break with his standards, that would have been wrong.  However, she did no such thing.  Nothing in her behavior forced him to lower his standards, he did that on his own, quite willingly a few minutes later. Why should others go out of their way to allow him to observe something that he is clearly willing to throw out the window the moment he doesn’t get what he wants? 

Thoughts?  Reasoned criticism?  Glowing, unconditional support, love and admiration?  




6 responses

20 02 2007
PB and J

i am a gentile american and we dont hear much about these kinds of things. i was frankly appalled. it sounded like the racism of the south in the US with rosa parks.

however, what really shocks me is that this abuse came from a “religious” jewish man. even if she were wrong about remaining in her seat (which i dont believe. she was justified.), then his response (and the other men’s and women’s) was horrible. how does something like this happen? how can one who follows Torah break G-d’s commands so blatantly?


20 02 2007

Peter- I have no idea what would cause someone to act that way. All I can say is there are bigots in every group. It just breaks my heart that these people act that way, since their actions reflect on all observant Jews. Please don’t thing that most of us support this sort of action, since the vast vast majority find it as appalling as you do.
And yes, having women in the back of the bus does just smack of 1960’s Jim Crow laws, doesn’t it?

20 02 2007
PB and J

i am curious about one of the terms that miriam uses, Chareidim. what does this mean?

is this an extreme sect of judaism?

is there a sect of judaism that acts this way consistently?

i do think its horrible because very much against the Torah.


20 02 2007

Peter- Charedim are what’s commonly known as “Ultra-Orthodox” Jews. They tend to take on more stringancies (chumra, pl. chumrot?) than other segments of orthodox Judaism. They’re not at all a monolithic united group though, no segment in Judaism is. There are some Charedim who do things like the man who beat up Miriam Shear, and there are others who think it’s as appaling as you and I do. Some of them could be called extreme, I suppose, but I think the vast vast majority of them are just deeply devoted to HaShem and commited to their faith, and so they take a lot of care to make sure they don’t come even close to violating halacha.
I don’t think you can say there’s and one sect of Judaism that acts this way consistantly, since the Jews aren’t a united group. We’re a bunch of individuals like any other group.
Just like you can’t say that all Christians are the same as Ted Haggard, or the people who run (a horribly offensive website if ever I saw one), you can’t say that any one stream of Judaism does this “consistantly”. I truly belive that these things are the actions of fringe groups, not of mainstream, reasonable Torah Jews. Does that make sense?

21 02 2007
PB and J


thanks for the explanation. that was what i figured, but i wasnt familiar with the term. also, i also recognize that not all orthodox or ultra-orthodox jews have the same views. plus, just because someone believes it important to “love your neighbor as yourself” doesnt mean that they will do it all the time. so some ultra-orthodox jews probably are very loving and some not.

as far as christianity, i agree wholeheartedly about how horrific the thing is. and how diverse christians are. personally, i have been trying to reconcile my faith to judaism a lot. as the Scripture says, Messiah will bring all nations to Jerusalem. so we are to become more jewish and not less. unfortunately some really messed up gentile christians at the beginning of the middle ages intentionally left the jewishness of the church and started persecuting jews. even calling them “christkillers” which is wrong and stupid and horrible.

anyway, while i believe Yeshua is Messiah, i also want to be more jewish. for instance, my wife and i keep Sabbath on saturday. we intend to celebrate jewish and not “christian” holidays. etc.

anyway, one more question, why use HaShem over G-d? i understand HaShem means the Name, but doesnt G-d mean the same? or does it mean Elohim?

may HaShem’s face shine upon you

21 02 2007

Peter- If you’ve looked at you should really check out the stuff on They completly mock the whole thing, and AMAZINGLY find scriptural support for G-d’s dislike of figs. It’s wonderful satire.
The origins of the whole Jewish-Christian conflict is actutally really interesting historically. Tragic, but still intersting from a social perspective. Perhaps I’ll write about that at some point.
To answer your question, I (try to) use HaShem, since it’s the Orthodox tradition for how to refere to G-d. It means the same thing as the English G-d, roughly, it’s just a different tradition, the one used outside of the context of prayer. Elokim is one of the many names used to refer to HaShem in the siddur and in scripture. The different names there are used to bring attention to different aspects of HaShem’s personality.

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