While the state is considering its response to last week’s Jerusalem Labor Court ruling ordering the sexual integration of a men-only civil service training program, Israeli Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef has made it clear that the separation of men and women, in the workplace and in all other areas of life, is a biblical commandment. As such, it does not recognize the artificial boundaries of the duration of training, as the supporters of sex segregation promise. This separation must continue to spread, resulting in a fundamental change to the public space.
Last week the labor court, in response to a petition by the Israel Women’s Network, gave the state 30 days to bring at least 10 women into the program, which began around two months ago with about 20 ultra-Orthodox men, in order to redress the violation of the right to equality. The court said failure to comply would result in the cancellation of the training program.
In light of the sympathy that government ministries have demonstrated in recent years toward demands to open and to expand sex-segregated educational frameworks for Haredim and members of more-conservative religious-Zionist communities, Judge Rachel Barag-Hirshberg’s decision carried an important warning: No group in society should be advanced at the expense of another group.
Those who support separate courses for Haredim half-heartedly admit that women might be hurt, but argue that the damage is “proportionate” and that integrating Haredim into the civil service is more important. The chief rabbi’s letter in favor of total separation between men and women dispels the fog and the attempts at legal sophistry: Separation is “consistent with pure halakha,” Yosef wrote, referring to Jewish religious law, and it’s “a matter that concerns the observance of Torah for every believing person.” The “evil inclination,” with which Haredi men find it difficult to cope, isn’t expected to disappear at the end of the training period. In other words, there’s no such thing as “half-separation.”
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While Yosef’s letter was written in the context of the Haredi training course, it could influence all areas of training, education, service, work and leisure. Such a sweeping requirement for separation could provide justification for men to avoid taking orders from women or giving them service.
Alongside Yosef’s interpretation of things, there are religious figures who hold the opposite view. By complying with Yosef’s position, the government is collaborating with the forces of religious stringency. The state must make it clear that there is no place for a theological discussion of religious modesty rules in the public square. Any person who chooses to join the Civil Service is expected to accept its rules and behavioral codes. Conducting public service in accordance with halakhic dictates means a halakhic state. Any attempt to normalize separation between men and women in the name of “religious accommodation” should be rejected out of hand.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.