In 10 years, the ultra-Orthodox will start missing the mixed-gender buses. You would be able to hear an old Orthodox man telling his wife: “you remember, Rivkah, that 10 years ago we could still ride the bus together?” And Rivkah would confirm: “Sure I remember. And we came out just as good as our children. But you know how it is. Everyone likes to invent new regulations.”
It will happen because a bunch of fanatics decided that what goes on in buses today is truly reckless. They did not make do with seeing Orthodox men refrain from sitting next to a woman on a mixed-gender bus. They wanted buses to be completely separate. Using pressure and enticement tactics, they started to organize special routes and to force everyone using them, at discounted subsidized prices, to sit at the front with the men, get out of there to the back of the bus if it’s a woman.
The Orthodox public sighed, and just like any other herd, it slowly started to reconcile itself to the new development. There aren’t enough brave Orthodox who would hit back at the fanatics who tell them not to sit next to their woman, or maybe the brave ones are traveling in their own mixed-gender cars. There are no Orthodox who has the strength to stand up to those who speak in the name of modesty, and God, and do it at half price. After all, everyone has children he wishes to see married.
And so, the silent majority that up until a moment ago traveled in mixed-gender buses easily gave in, and started obeying the “religious edicts” elicited from the leading rabbis (they too, you will be surprised to hear, do not have the courage and strength to stand up to their fanatic students.)
If this was only about religious law and modesty – I would remain silent. Yet we are not talking about modesty. We are talking about extroverted defiance against the world out there and also against the modern religious world, which is open and a little feministic. Our natural and normal commitment to religious law is being exploited in order to sell goods and habits that are not religious in nature, but rather, social, in order to define who “belongs”” and who doesn’t.
If you don’t believe it, take a look at old photo albums form the early 1970s and see how modest rabbis’ wives dressed only 20-30 years ago. The skirts are not as long as they are today, and the sleeves too, sorry for noticing it, are much shorter.
Reaction to secular permissiveness
The strict dress code is apparently a reaction to the permissive dress on the secular street. Indeed, permissiveness hit the secular street hard. So we, the religious community, decided on a ridiculous act of retaliation: For every centimeter that has been cut back in the secular skirt, we added two centimeters to the religious skirt. For every sleeve that was cut down in the secular world, we added another piece of cloth for religious women.
Modesty has value and purpose, and there are clear religious parameters for modest dress. The fear of permissiveness is also a justified fear, and this argument is not about the principle, but rather, about the extent and reason. The assumption that modest dress will safeguard the religiosity of girls is similar to the argument that the more umbrellas we have the more rain we shall see.
This is the case when it comes to dress code and separate buses, and also when it comes to the ban on women drivers and the complete gender-separation of some religious weddings. We are not talking about modesty, but rather, about the desire and possibility to force one’s worldview upon others. Those who speak out against it are immediately perceived as “not religious enough” or “defying religious law.” The attitude to the length of the skirt is becoming the supreme test of the level and type of religiosity.
Take a look at the old albums. Modesty reigned supreme back then, but not this kind of strict and exaggerated modesty. The dress was appropriate and in line with religious law, but it did not include the exaggerated need to display modesty; because defiant displays of modesty, and separate buses, and a dress craze are not about modesty.