"Society as a Whole Modesty in a Mixed Society"

Rabbi Yuval Cherlow and Ran Huri Including an Educational Program for Youth Leaders By Michal Efrati

The debate regarding the gender make-up of Religious Zionist society has been a heated one for many years. The question of how we view society and how the value of modesty plays out in it is relevant in many areas of our lives: from schools and youth movements, to military and national service and university studies. It is also relevant to the daily lives of adults: in the workplace, within the family and at social events, and more.

This booklet discusses these questions through a comprehensive look at various positions and opinions and with an analysis of the relevant issues. This booklet suggests a world view that strictly follows Halakha and places at its base the normal and natural life within society as a whole, and views modesty in the general sense as one of its more important foundations.

Etzah Laderech, a joint project of Ne’emanei Torah Va'Avodah and the Kibbutz Hadati, develops educational material for use by youth and adults for strengthening Torah Va'Avodah values.

Mixed and Modest: A Vision for a Wholesome Jewish Society

Preface: From the Individualist to the Collectivist Halakhic Approach

By Rabbi Yuval Cherlow and Ron Hori

Debates about proper Jewish norms focus primarily and narrowly on the individual and his or her behavior within the Jewish community. For example, guides to Shabbat observance focus on the private arena: the kitchen, the table, and the individual’s obligation to refrain from work. Questions about the public arena, such as the operation of essential utilities, are rarely discussed in the traditional halakhic literature. Yet precisely this sort of question began to arise as we transitioned to sovereign national life in a Jewish state. Halakhic discourse has thus gradually begun to examine issues through the prism of a nation and society.

One fundamental and essential issue that must be examined through this lens is the Torah’s vision of a proper functioning society. This is a broad issue that touches upon many aspects of human existence, for example: What is the proper model of social interaction? How does this society’s economy function? What should its culture look like? Or its education? Finally, the question this essay addresses: how are we to understand tzni’ut[1] in a social—not merely individual—context, especially within a Jewish society that embraces all facets of modern life? Addressing this question demands that we also examine more fundamental issues, such as: what are the parameters and proper attitudes toward “derekh eretz”? What is the status of women in such a society?

Surveying the current state of discourse about tzni’ut, we find that it is treated much differently than other questions that also relate to social conduct but do not receive nearly as much attention from all segments of society. For many years, this issue has been central throughout the religious Zionist community, and words such as “segregation” (“hafrada”) and “mixed” (or “co-ed”; “me’urevet”) are commonplace in our public discourse. Youth groups address it intensively and it is the focus of much debate, discussion, and disagreement. Attitudes toward modesty are taken as indicators of one’s religious ideology and progressivism.

Before elaborating on the issue from a halakhic perspective, it is important to analyze the ramifications of present conditions. No doubt, tzni’ut is a cardinal Torah value and a great Jewish contribution to the whole world, at both the individual and societal levels. The purpose of this essay is to reinforce tzni’ut and not, God forbid, weaken it in any way. Nevertheless, excessive attention to this issue causes damage by undermining the importance of other important subjects and values and obscuring the full expression of the Torah’s richness and breadth. Regrettably, the centrality of tzni’ut and the need for rabbis to reevaluate it constantly seems to have prevented them from dealing with other, no less important topics. How a society implements the concept of tzni’ut often becomes the only criterion for judging that society, and other important values, such as mitzva observance, charity, social justice, and care to avoid slander and rumor-mongering (leshon ha-ra), are simply marginalized and neglected. Paradoxically, obsessive preoccupation with tzni’ut often creates an atmosphere devoid of holiness and tzni’ut.

This essay seeks to articulate the Torah’s authentic vision of a properly conducted and functional Jewish society as it pertains to parameters of tzni’ut between men and women. It does not seek to present a less-than-ideal (“be-di’avad”) approach that makes allowable concessions to specific circumstances, nor is it based on changes made within halakha over time, though they will be mentioned below. Rather, we aspire to present the Torah’s ideal, “le-khathila” vision. This is of great educational importance because it enables us to avoid setting our world of spirit and conduct upon foundations that are rooted in exigent, non-ideal, approaches. We must first focus on cardinal principles in order to bring us nearer to a true understanding of the Torah’s profound messages and of God's expectations from us.

As the title indicates, this essay contends that the desired Jewish society functions as what has come to be known as a “mixed-modest society” (“hevra tznu’ah u-me’urevet”). This position has been explained numerous times in responsa on the Moreshet website, in lectures, and in discussions. The motive for compiling a summary of these discussions is the desire to provide a foundation for the stance that has been adopted in practice by the majority of the religious Zionist community. We will first present alternative positions, namely, those that advocate gender segregation as an ideal and either apply it to the contemporary milieu or concede that we must make concessions given today’s extenuating circumstances. We will then present challenges to these two approaches. Finally, we will present the preferred alternative: a mixed-modest society.

The Place of Tzni’ut

As noted, actualizing the value of tzni’ut within society is a central element of the Torah’s demands and expectations of us. As such, its relevance is not limited to youth groups; on the contrary, the conduct of our youth should be derived from the conduct of our society as a whole, and the Torah’s vision of it must be articulated with respect to the whole. By relegating discussions of modesty to youth movements, we preclude a principled and comprehensive treatment of the issue and leave untouched the prevailing situation among the adults, which itself is often at odds with what we demand of our youth.

Tzni’ut is not simply about whether a youth movement should be co-ed or whether it is permissible to go on a co-ed hike. It is far more fundamental, pertaining to the general functioning of society. All agree, as a matter of principle, that tzni’ut is a building block of individual and social life.

To begin, we must outline the parameters of the debate on this issue. All agree on the fundamental point that tzni'ut is a basic element of private and public life. It is mentioned only a few times in Tanakh: “walk modestly with your God” (Mikha 6:8) mentions it as one of the basic expectations God has of his nation (though the verse does not speak of tzni'ut in the sexual realm), and "to the modest is wisdom" (Mishlei 11:2) presents the positive attributes of those who act modestly. Nevertheless, these few mentions hold great significance. Over the course of generations, much has been written on how tzni'ut affects one's relationship with God and one’s environment, including relationships between men and women. In this area, tzni'ut is detailed as general rules and then as specific halakhot, such as the prohibition on touching, seclusion, women's singing, and more. We fully believe that the world will ultimately embrace the singular path of Torah in this area.

The disagreements on this issue hinge on differing conceptions of tzni'ut, the foundational principles which stem from it, and its relationship to other values, as well as the exact meaning of the particular halakhot. There are different elements emphasized by each conception, which we will treat in the course of the essay. We begin with a presentation and discussion of the views that champion segregation.


Full Gender Segregation as the Ideal

In all of halakhic literature, there is not a single source that deals with the shaping of society. There is not a single dictum of the Sages that addresses the question of mixed vs. segregated society. Within the halakhic realm, the sources apply to the individual, and the pro-segregation approach regards these sources as the basis from which one can learn how to shape society. According to this position, society is supposed to segregate the genders, and we must work continuously to reduce the contact between men and women in every context. This position is based upon the laws of tzni’ut, the halakha’s great concern about sins of a sexual nature, and especially on Shulhan Arukh well-known statement (Even Ha-ezer 21:1) “a man must stay very, very far from women.” This statement, with the repetition of the word “very” and the understanding that this law intends to define the characteristics of society, is a fundamental expression of this position, and the attitude to many aspects of Jewish law are derived from it.

The responsa literature contains many statements that support the establishment of a gender-segregated society. Furthermore, there are many rabbis today who support this opinion and call for the separation of both adult society and youth movements as much as possible. R. Shlomo Aviner, for example, often relates to this issue by quoting the Shulhan Arukh cited above. He claims: “it is clear to all the halakhists from time immemorial that a mixed society has no source according to the true spirit of Judaism” (Hesed Ne'urayikh, Introduction). Similarly, R. Shmuel Eliyahu states: “a mixed society is strictly forbidden—and an educational mistake.”

There is a well-known story that is often quoted to illustrate the importance of strict adherence to the rules of tzni’ut:

Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk was walking down the street with his friend Reb Yitzhak of Vorki, when they encountered an old woman who was peddling knives. Reb Yitzhak wanted to purchase a small knife for himself, for which the women wanted four coins. Wanting to save some money, he offered her three coins. His friend, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, calling him by his nickname, said: “Itche! The Mishna teaches us: ‘Do not converse excessively with women.’”

The social vision that underlies this story implies that one of the sexes must be excluded from the business world, since negotiation is a daily act in that environment.

Another application of this approach appears in the words of R. Hayim David Halevi, who argued that the questions about conduct in a mixed society only arose in the current age, as they were irrelevant and non-existent in the past:

The way of life of our ancestors was “the honor of the King's daughter is within.” The woman's place was within the house as a housewife and as a mother to her children. At most, a woman would leave her house to buy or sell something nearby if it was needed to help support the household. In some place that was the only reason for a woman to leave her home. (Asei Lekha Rav 4, p. 284)

In fact, in order to achieve a gender-segregated society, it is necessary to define areas in the world for each sex; in a world where both sexes are involved in similar spheres, total separation cannot be ensured. Therefore, it follows that this position advocates that the “outside” social and business world is the sphere of males and the “internal” world of the house and family is for females.

This opinion is quite prevalent within the leadership of religious youth movements. Accordingly, these groups are concerned with limiting the contact between boys and girls because, in the preteen and teenage years, there is a real concern for transgressions. The talmudic phrase, “ein apotropos le-arayot” is explained in a way that emphasizes the great difficulty of maintaining purity of thought and action while is in the vicinity of the opposite sex. This applies especially to the youth, who are not yet married but do show an interest in relations between the sexes.

This conception has led to gender segregation in  youth movements, both in local branches and on a national level, for example, during hikes and summer camps. The Ariel youth movement was established, and prides itself, on its policy of segregation. This opinion also affects Bnei Akiva, as the call for separation of the sexes in the movement has intensified and broadened, leading to the gender separation of some local branches and camps.

Sources for Gender Segregation

The verse “You shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness, as long as she is impure by her uncleanness” (Vayikra 18:19) is the source upon which the original halakhic discussion concerning the separation of the sexes is based. The words “do not approach (or come close to)” imply that the prohibition applies also to approaching  a forbidden woman. In his Mishneh Torah, the Rambam collected the detailed halakhot pertaining to the required separation between men and women and offered his halakhic ruling on these issues (Laws of Forbidden Sexual Relations 21). Following Rambam, the Shulhan Arukh presented the principle, as we have already seen, that one (i.e., a man) should distance himself from women. The details of these halakhot are found in Even HaEzer §21.

These halakhic rulings constitute the practical expression of modesty, and must be the basis of any religious society. We will now examine some of these rulings, and their relevance, and see how they are practically applied in  society.

Consider the following ruling of Rambam:

It is forbidden for a man to gesture with his hands or feet or to wink at one of the arayot, to joke with her, or to act frivolously with her. It is even forbidden to smell her perfume or gaze at her beauty. (Laws of Forbidden Sexual Relations 21:2)

Clearly these prohibitions relate to casual behavior or closeness of a sexual nature. However, a closer look at this and similar laws shows something very important: the target audience to whom Rambam addresses his ruling is not Jewish society as a whole. He is not attempting to define the halakha for society but rather to direct the individual, in this case a man, to avoid thoughts and actions that may affect the purity of his mind. Does this halakha or others in the chapter contain a directive to the public, to society? The answer to this question is: no.

It is in this context that one must understand the story about Rav Amram Hasida, who had to deal with the temptation of female captives in his home. He invested a supreme effort which included embarrassing himself deliberately, so as not to sin. This story is frequently brought to express the power of the evil inclination. However, it must be noted that the story deals with captives who lived in his home, not with an issue of public policy. Therefore, this story is not relevant to our discussion.

It is difficult to find sources that discuss the issue of how society should be structured in this regard. The first two chapters in Bereshit teach that man and woman should become a single entity within the framework of a family: “and they will be one flesh” (Bereishit 2:24). These chapters do not give direction as to how all the families in the world should behave together in a society. How should the financial market, the cultural arena, and the educational system function?

The lack of clear sources causes the proponents of gender-segregation to “stretch” the existing sources in order to apply them. Halakhot that pertain to the individual, which are supposed to maintain one’s purity of mind and modesty, are stretched and applied to society at large. Proponents of this view must answer the following questions: What are the limits of this expansive halakha? What is included in the word “very” and what is not included? Do they advocate gender-segregated sidewalks, buses, banks, and even cities? Is there no limit to their concern for gender separation?

The proponents of this opinion within the religious Zionist camp do not usually take this position to its extreme. For example, they host families in their homes despite the fact that the visiting family consists of males and females. It thus remains unclear at what point there must be separation and why. On the one hand, the rulings of the Shulhan Arukh are extended far beyond their actual context. On the other hand, this extension stops at some point with no real explanation as to why this or that boundary was chosen.

Our claim that the halakhot governing gender-separation do not provide rulings for society as a whole must be examined in light of other sources. For example, let us consider the Laws of Holidays in the Mishneh Torah, where Rambam states:

The Jewish court is obligated to appoint officers who will circulate among the people on the festivals and check the gardens, orchards, and river banks to see that men and women do not gather there to eat or to drink, lest they conduct themselves immodestly and come to sin. Similarly, they must caution the people that men and women should not mix at festive gatherings in homes, nor should they overindulge in wine, lest they be led to sin. (Hilkhot Shevitat Yom Tov 6:21)

This halakha requires the separation of men and women at the holiday meal. At first glance, this halakha implies that it is necessary in principle to separate men and women in society. However, it should be noted that the case in question is a long feast filled with wine and other delicacies. In this situation, it is necessary to separate men and women. From this halakha, we cannot deduce anything concerning the day-to-day workings of society. Indeed, Rambam, in a different halakha, relates to the day-to- day workings of society and the mixing of men and women: “But when there are many women together with many men, we do not show concern for the prohibition of a man and woman being secluded with one another (yichud)” (Laws of Forbidden Sexual Relations 22:8). In other words, the halakha is not concerned with separating the sexes in such a routine situation and so does not forbid them to be together.

The context of a halakha is very important. The Mishneh Torah, which deals with details and minutiae of halakha, is divided into 14 sections, each dealing with a different topic—sacrifices, property, torts, judges, and so forth. The Book of Holiness contains the laws of forbidden sexual relations that deal with the laws of modesty and appropriate behavior, and the Book of Seasons contains the laws of Shabbat and the festivals. The citation of a halakha in context has halakhic significance; the fact that the halakha calling for the establishment of officers to circulate and check the gardens and orchards is specifically mentioned in the laws of festivals and not in the laws of modesty teaches that there is a particular importance of this law during festivals. This is in fact a special ruling for the festivals, not a general ruling for the normal operation of society.

Another source relating to the separation of the sexes is found in the laws pertaining to funerals. The Shulhan Arukh rules: “where women customarily walk in front of the deceased, they may. Where they customarily follow behind the deceased, they may. Today, it is customary that women do not follow the deceased from behind, and this custom should not be changed” (Yoreh De’ah 359:1). This ruling assumes the existence of a separation between men and women at a funeral. The question here is simply the positioning of the women—before or after the men. The source of this law is found in Sanhedrin 20a, and in a parallel source in the Yerushalmi, which explains the reason for these different customs. The reason for the custom that women be behind the men is due to the “honor of the daughters of Israel”—to prevent the men from gazing at them during the funeral. The reason for the custom that  the women go first is because Eve was responsible for bringing death into the world when she ate from the tree of knowledge. (Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 2:4) Thus, this separation of genders is based on a specific situation relating to funerals, and is not a general ruling for the everyday functioning of society.

From sources concerning funerals, let us turn to examine a more cheerful source. The Mishna in Sukkah describes the events in the Temple following the first day of Sukkot. The Temple would undergo annual changes,  which are also mentioned in Mishna Middot and the Tosefta, in order to separate between men and women. The Gemara questions the Mishna’s use of the term "a large fixture" (which can also mean “a great remedy”). Here is the discussion in the Bavli (Sukkah 51b-52a):

At the end of the first day of the festival they descended into the women's court, where a large fixture was made. What was the fixture? Said R. Elazar: As we have learned [in a beraita]: The women's court was formerly without a balcony, but they surrounded it with a balcony, and enacted that the women should sit above and the men below.

The rabbis taught: Formerly the women sat in the inner chambers and the men in the outer ones; but this led to some levity, and therefore it was enacted that men should sit inside and women outside; but still levity arose; therefore it was instituted that the women sit above and the men below. How could they do so? Does not the passage say (Divrei Ha-yamim 1 28:19): “All was put in writing from the hand of the Lord, who gave me instruction respecting all the works of the pattern”? Said Rav: They found another passage and interpreted it, namely (Zechariah 12:12): “And the land will mourn, every family apart by itself, the family of the house of David apart, and their wives apart.” And they said: Does it not follow (kal va’homer) that if at the time of mourning, when the passions are powerless, it is said the women and the men should be separate, then so much the more so in the Temple, where they were occupied in rejoicing and the passions have power over them, they must be separated.

Let us explain the development of this passage. R. Elazar explains the purpose of the “large fixture” by referring to a Mishna in Middot. The Gemara questions the possibility of making changes in the Temple structure, since the verse in Divrei Ha-yamim implies that such changes are not permissible. Rav explains that the legitimacy of such a change in the structure of the Temple was based on a different verse. The prophet Zechariah writes about a eulogy at the end of days at which the men and women lamented separately. Therefore, one must conclude a fortiori that if at a time when the evil inclination is not in control (mourning ) it is necessary to separate, there certainly must be separation at times of joy, when the evil impulse has greater power.

Many have concluded from this Gemara that gender segregation is important in all areas of life, from youth movements to the workplace. Some see this passage as the source of the halakha that we quoted in Rambam about the officers who circulated on festivals. However, these are two extreme cases—the eulogy of many at the end of days and the water libation celebrations. Concerning the water libation ceremony the rabbis taught that “anyone who has not seen the celebration of the water libation ceremony has never seen true rejoicing” (Sukkah 5:1) and listed examples of the way people rejoiced. It should be noted that Sukkot is a festival that has a special mitzvah of rejoicing (Devarim 16:14) and that wine is a central component of this rejoicing. With this in mind, the Gemara (Kidushin 81a) states that the part of the year when immorality is to be most feared is the festivals. Rabbi Shmuel Edels (Maharsha) draws a direct connection between these two sugyot. Throughout the entire year, it was permitted for both men and women to be in the “women’s section” of the Temple; however, during the water libation ceremony and other festivities, this was forbidden.

The public eulogy at the funeral mentioned by Zechariah refers to a prophecy of the end of days, after the war of Gog and Magog. It should be noted that according to halakha, based on Megilla 28a, a mass eulogy is held in the synagogue. Therefore, it is the fact that we are dealing with a sanctified location (the synagogue), a mass eulogy, and the unique circumstances after the war of the end of days that brings the prophet to speak of a gender-separated funeral. This certainly cannot serve as a ruling for normal situations in our times.

Thus, the two cases which explicitly demand separation of the sexes are, according the Gemara itself, extreme cases. One case refers to extreme joy and happiness (and likely drunkenness) and the other occurs in a synagogue and is a case of unusual mourning. The common denominator between the two cases is that they are unusual events where emotions run high the masses are present.

  1. Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel (Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, from 1939-1953) noted that the “multitude” refers to a mass gathering of refined and unrefined people; in such a situation, we are concerned with the behavior of the minority group—the unrefined people who let their emotions get the best of them(Piskei Uziel §44). The context of this responsum is R. Uziel’s discussion of whether a religious person may be a member of the Knesset, since it involves mixed seating. R. Uziel expresses surprise at the thought that the members of the Knesset are considered to be “unrefined and suspected of forbidden relationships.” He claims “that this was not the case in Israel.” The concept that is raised in this responsum is very significant to our discussion: it is not the level of religious commitment that defines a person as unrefined, but rather one’s moral standards as a human being.
  2. Dr. Eliezer Berkovitz (1908-1992), Rabbi Yehiel Weinberg's outstanding student, refers to this source and attempts to draw conclusions from it regarding the involvement of boys and girls in youth movements. He writes:

It is evident that there is an understanding that mixed society was a reality. This is evident from the Mishna that is the source for separating between men and women… What was the situation before the large fixture in the Temple? For hundreds of years men and women would mix in the Temple. The fact that a transformation was required implies that this was not the case for centuries before. It is only from the moment they made this change and onwards that intermingling became forbidden.

We must differentiate between what is mentioned in the Mishna and the educational efforts of religious movements today—they are not the same thing. The Mishna refers to a mass gathering in the Temple, a national celebration during which there is a concern that there will be promiscuous and permissive behavior as a result of the rejoicing. As a result of this concern, the rabbis instituted a transformation in the Temple and separated men and women. The situation in Bnei Akiva is very different. Bnei Akiva is an educational youth movement with ideals, with religious beliefs, and with the intention to further positive goals among its members. Thus it is entirely different from the situation described in the Mishna. Therefore there is no basis to use the Mishna as a proof text to call for the separation of genders within the movement. Nowhere do we find a reason to forbid making an educational effort, or an educational framework, in order to emphasize the ideals of the movement—through the joint activities of boys and girls. There is no basis for this prohibition. (http://sites.google.com/site/meorevet/maamarim/berko/mberko)

How do the two discussions, of the "large fixture" in the Temple and the eulogy at the end of days, affect our discussion? The halakhic boundaries of modesty are extended in extreme, highly public circumstances. Regarding the eulogy, the reason for the extension could be because it takes place in the synagogue. R. Uziel explained that it is due to the frivolous and permissive behavior of a minority in this vast group of people. This concern does not exist in ordinary situations. Do these sources teach the recommended conduct of a society in general in its day to day behavior? Its youth movements? Its markets? Not at all. On the contrary, these sources indicate that separation of the sexes is a deviation from the norm and that separation is only required in extreme circumstances.

Moreover, it is a halakhic error to base a far ranging policy on just one source, especially if that source is subject to interpretation. It is incorrect to assert a policy of gender separation in all aspects of life, based on a unique source relating to the Sukkot festival in Temple days. Rather, one must build a halakhic case on the basis of a range of sources. This claim is based on a number of fundamental points:

  1. A single source is open to various interpretations.
  2. The source itself is part of a whole body of literature, and as a result, may present an extreme view that expresses a certain viewpoint. A good example of this appears in Berakhot 32b-33a. We are told of a certain pious man who was praying by the roadside when an officer came by and greeted him, and the man did not return the officer’s greeting. This behavior endangered his life. However, the story ends with the Gemara stating that halakhically one should interrupt prayer in a life-threatening situation. The story of the pious man aims to raise the importance of prayer. The story is not meant to be the basis of decisions regarding cases of life-threatening situations, and practical halakha distanced itself from the type of behavior of the pious man in the story.
  3. Many sources present us with conflicting or seemingly conflicting positions. Taking sources selectively undermines a full discussion of the topic at hand. For example, there are midrashic sources that teach of the return to Israel only after the arrival of the Messiah. However, religious Zionism has not drawn on these sources, but has chosen to rely on other sources calling on us to establish and maintain sovereignty in the land of Israel.

It is unfair to rely only on the source regarding the water libation ceremony, when opposite sources can also be adduced. For example, we have a halakhic source that specifically allows mixed seating, namely, the consumption of the Pesah sacrifice. At the time of the Temple, the Pesah sacrifice would be eaten in groups. Nowhere is it stated that the groups were separated on a gender basis or that there was a partition erected between them. The only exception was made for a bride who was permitted to turn her face slightly away from the group because of her bashfulness. The distancing of a bride was an exception, and all the others in the group, men and women, sat together. This source is used by some poskim as the basis to allow mixed seating at weddings.

The story of Abba Umna (Ta’anit 21b) further strengthens this opinion. The Gemara relates that Abba merited daily greetings from the heavenly academy. He merited this because he would separate men and women in the medical treatment of bloodletting. The Gemara implies that the norm among Jewish bloodletters was not to separate patients. Apparently, Abba was praised for going beyond what the law actually demanded, but the others who did not separate the genders were acting within the norms of halakha.

To conclude this section, it is clear that the sources we have examined deal specifically with the individual’s behavior or with extreme circumstances. They do not refer to normal, day-to-day public policies dealing with male-female interactions.

The Move Away from Basic Derekh Eretz

Those who advocate separation of the sexes throughout society, as described above, use sources that relate to the modesty of an individual and then apply them to society as a whole. This interpretation and application of sources has led to gender separation in youth movements and other social arenas. However, we will now strive to clarify the Torah view on this subject.

A major criticism of the proponents of the segregation of genders within society is that this stance distances itself from basic derekh eretz. What is this concept of derekh eretz, and how are we to relate to it? It is important—if obvious—to point out that we live in a world that consists of both men and women; the continued existence of the world is dependent on both genders. This is the way of the world; this reality is referred to as derekh eretz. The proponents of gender-segregated society defy this basic derekh eretz. We argue that the halakha does not seek to overturn derekh eretz nor to defy it, but rather to raise society’s level of spirituality and modesty.

Ein Apotropos Le-arayot – No One Can Be A Guardian Against Sexual Sin

Is it possible to trust those who are true to halakha, the keepers of the Torah and its commandments, to uphold the requirements in the area of sexual modesty? The title of this section is used by many as the basis of the claim that it is impossible for people who live in a mixed society to fulfill the requirements of halakha; the halakha itself testifies that “ein apotropos le-arayot" – no one can be a guardian against sexual sin.

The truth is that this phrase does not determine that people are incapable of meeting the halakhic demands of the laws of modesty. In order to better understand the meaning and purpose of this phrase, we must trace its origins, as we will do later with the term derekh eretz and its precedence over Torah. This investigation will seek to remove the confusion surrounding the phrase and to clarify its intention.

The Gemara (Ketubot 13a, well as Tosefta Ketubot 1:9) reports a case of a married woman who was in hiding with a priest (a kohen). The discussion of the Gemara concerns whether or not the woman's claim that she did not sin with the kohen is credible. R. Yehoshua argues that the woman is not to be believed. In his argument he states, “ein apotropos le-arayot.” The phrase is used here in an attempt to establish retroactively what happened in a particular situation. In interpreting the phrase, commentators suggest some interesting and surprising explanations. For example, Rashi explains that Rabbi Yehoshua is in fact telling his friends that they cannot be guardians for the woman and claim that she did not sin. To summarize, this passage deals with the clarification of an event after it has happened, where there is a possibility that the woman sinned, and Rabbi Yehoshua states that the woman is not to be believed.

The second source appears in Nida 30b. The rabbis discuss biological facts and the differences between the sexes during their development as embryos in the womb. One of the subjects discussed is an experiment conducted by the Egyptian queen, Cleopatra. When her handmaids were sentenced to death by royal decree, they were subjected to a test which found that a male embryo was fully fashioned on the forty-first day and a female embryo on the eighty-first day. The attempt to use this story as a biological proof is rejected in the Gemara because “ein apotropos le-arayot,” and the maidservants may have had intercourse with other men so that the starting time of the pregnancies could be different. Indeed, it is difficult to expect that a society whose moral levels are so low that they perform such brutal experiments will maintain standards of modesty when it comes to sexual behavior, and therefore it cannot serve as a source which establishes a pessimistic attitude towards a person's ability to withstand temptation. In this story as well, the phrase “ein apotropos le-arayot” is applied after the event.

Another source of the phrase is in Hullin 11b. The Gemara discusses the halakhic rule regarding “an abstract majority.” For example, the majority of women give birth to their children in the ninth month of pregnancy; yet this rule is not based upon testing all women. Many examples are brought as the sugya attempts to establish this rule. One of the attempts is made by Rav Mari, a fifth-generation Amora. He raises the following issue: The Torah (Shemot 21:15) states, “He that smites his father or mother will surely be put to death.” However, the rabbinical court should question whether the man is the child's real father or not. It is easier to be sure of the identity of the mother who gave birth to the son than it is to be sure of the identity of the father. This being the case, asks Rav Mari, how can we put someone who hit his father to death? Perhaps this is not his real father? Rav Mari explains that according to the rule of “an abstract majority” we assume that a woman cohabits with her husband more often than with a stranger. Therefore, it is most likely that a person's biological father is indeed his mother's husband.

The Gemara challenges this by suggesting that perhaps a person is put to death for hitting his father only in a case where there is absolute certainty concerning the identity of the father. This certainty is possible when the mother and father were in a prison cell together and there is no possibility that another person, besides the father, had intercourse with her. In this situation, the rule of the “abstract majority” may not be relevant, as the punishment by death of one who smites his father is only applicable when there is absolute certainty about the identity of the father and not when there is an assumption of his identity. The Gemara’s challenge is problematic because it suggests that a clear verse in the Torah concerning anyone who smites his mother or father is in fact referring to a specific case in which the mother and father are isolated. We can understand this within the context of the discussion and the purpose of Rav Mari's question. The discussion is not about the law of one who smites his parents but rather about the source of the rule of an abstract majority. The Gemara seeks to ground this as a legal principle,  and therefore it carefully examines even far-fetched possibilities which challenge it. This is also the case in the other examples in this passage of the Gemara.

The answer to the Gemara's question is, “Even so ein apotropos le-arayot.” In other words, even in this case we can't establish absolute certainty regarding paternity and we must rely on a presumption based on majority.

If there is a practical conclusion that should be drawn from the use of the principle “ein apotropos le-arayot” according to this passage, it would be that women should not get married since it is possible that they will at some point be alone with a man (by choice or not), and because "ein apotropos le-arayot, " they will cohabit with them. Obviously this is not the case and nobody considers this to be the implication of the passage. The discussion concerns the source on which the court may base its presumptions of paternity. When the court retroactively examines a case to determine the paternity of a given individual, it follows the presumption that in a majority of cases a woman is impregnated by her husband. This presumption is necessary even in a case when they are in prison, because of the principle of “ein apotropos le-arayot.”

From these three sources and others it is clear that the rule “ein apotropos le-arayot” refers primarily to halakhic rulings in events that have already happened. Immediate and automatic application of this rule in general will result in absurd results; after all, we are not interested in ceasing marriages! The existence of promiscuity in society is a fact, and Rambam commented upon this in his Mishneh Torah: You will never find a community that does not have some people who are promiscuous regarding forbidden relationships and prohibited sexual conduct (Laws of Forbidden Sexual Relations 22:19). This conduct, coupled with the strong passions of humans, results in certain cases where we need to consider certain conduct and behavior using the rule “ein apotropos le-arayot” to influence our decisions after the fact.

However, the Yerushalmi does use this rule as a basis for a practical directive before the fact, and this directive even finds its way in to the halakhic literature. In Ketubot (1:8), when discussing the faithfulness of a woman, Rabbi Zeira points out that the Mishna teaches that even the pious have adulterous tendencies; even the most pious is not appointed as a guardian over sexual matters. This implies that the fear of the strength of our inclinations forces us to apply prohibitions beyond the scope of normalcy. Rambam states: “We do not appoint even a faithful and observant person to be a guard of a courtyard where women live. This applies even if he stands outside, for there is no guardian against promiscuity. It is forbidden for a person to appoint a supervisor over his home, so that he does not lead his wife to sin (Laws of Forbidden Sexual relations 22:15). These laws reflect the implementation of the rule beyond the basic specific halakhic measures (yihud, touching, women singing), out of a recognition that man's inclination is strong and needs to be kept in check through restrictions to prevent him from sinning.

Modesty is not only based on the strict letter of the law. One can dress fashionably according to the strict letter of the laws of modesty but behave immodestly; this is also the case regarding behavior. However, the use of this rule in halakha is limited—supervision or guarding of a courtyard of women by one man, management of the household by a man who is not a member of the family—a role that requires frequent and intensive contact with women. We should act in a similar way today in order to prevent pitfalls. On the other hand, we have seen that when there are many men and women together there is no fear of yihud, as stated by Rambam. The conditions in which we extend the normal boundaries are not automatically applied to society as a whole, but only to a particular type of interaction. We will discuss expanding the definition and boundaries of the various prohibitions in the next section about the slippery slope.

To summarize the argument thus far, it seems that the principal use of the rule “ein apotropos le-arayot” is as an aid for the judges in various cases that are being judged ex post facto. The rule is based on the recognition that the sex drive is a strong inclination, that promiscuous behavior exists, unfortunately, in all societies, and that it is impossible to be absolutely certain that a person will not sin even when there are clearly defined rules set before him. When the rule is used as a directive, the instruction is limited to certain situations with unique characteristics. Therefore the use of the rule in all aspects of life and society with blatant disregard for basic trust in man and his abilities does not match its original meaning.

The “Slippery Slope” Argument

In every moral arena, one must place a set of limitations to counter the fear of a “slippery slope.” The limitations are set based on three parameters: the danger of what might happen if the limits are not implemented, the likelihood of occurrence, and the price paid by applying the limitation—and whether it can prevent what it is meant to prevent. For example, we can examine the argument that one should avoid learning secular studies in a religious school because such studies might influence the student and lead him or her to bittul Torah (neglect of Torah study). In relation to this premise we must examine the following: What exactly is the danger of secular studies? What are the chances of the dangers being actualized? And what is the cost to a society that fails to teach secular subjects—with respect to their future integration into the wider community, in public activities, to widening their horizons, their financial capabilities, and so forth? We must also assess whether preventing students from these studies will have the desired effect or whether there are other factors, not related to secular studies, which motivate the negative results we fear.

This same model can be applied to the issue at hand. The proponents of gender-segregated society are concerned with sexual promiscuity in a mixed society. However, there is no proof that in a mixed society sexual promiscuity is more or less prevalent than in a gender-segregated society. It is not possible to claim conclusively that one system of society is superior to the other at preventing promiscuity.

In the generation of the internet, the educational position derived from the rule “ein apotropos le-arayot” is relevant to the proponents of a gender-segregated society as well. When we compare the damage caused by light conversation or games played between boys and girls to the spiritual damage caused to a boy or girl who surfs pornographic sites, there is no doubt as to which is more destructive. In simple terms: a mixed society that retains a minimal rule of modesty is preferable to internet surfing by one who takes no part in society and prefers to visit pornographic sites.

It should be noted that this is not a criticism of the segregated society in particular, and, obviously, a mixed society is not a solution to the problem of exposure to pornography. Rather, it highlights that the challenge and difficulty in this area exist no matter what. That said, the approach we are suggesting is not an approach of despair in light of the phrase “ein apotropos le-arayot.” The desired approach is one that believes in human will power, in their awareness of and commitment to God's word, and in their desire to preserve modesty and purity, alongside the use of different methods—a more meticulous observance of the laws of modesty and yihud, intelligent use of the internet, guarding against frivolousness, and establishing transparency toward modesty because “ein apotropos le-arayot.”

Therefore, it appears that the risks of a mixed society are not fundamentally different from the risks one faces in a gender-segregated society. The restrictions applied by a gender-segregated society do not prevent these risks.

What about the “price” paid? In addition to the criticism presented in this publication, there is a further argument that the definition of a certain situation as being immodest is often a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is particularly evident in certain segments of the Haredi world, where there are gender-segregated sidewalks, gender-segregated grocery lines, and so forth. Situations that many of us would not even have considered immodest or promiscuous are considered, in these circles, immodest, evoking fear and dread.

There is an unholy alliance between proponents of this position and advertisers, since they both train men to relate to women based only on their bodies and to see each one only as a tool of attraction and seduction. This is one of the most damaging results of a perverted relationship to a person's capacity for making good choices in the context of normal, natural living. This is the other side of the so-called slippery slope. The constant quest for separation of the genders, turning women into dangerous sexual objects and seeing the sexual drive as a thing of almost unlimited power (in contrast to the attitude voiced by the sources) has made these issues an obsessive preoccupation of daily living, distancing a normal way of life in which these impulses do not lie in ambush at every step.

Exclusion of Women

Halakha does not doubt that the laws of tzni’ut can be followed in a mixed society. On the other hand, the concept of a gender-segregated society has significant negative ramifications for the position of women within society.

Certainly, halakha differentiates between the obligations of men and the obligations of women. However, to extrapolate from these differences that halakha supports an entirely gender-segregated society is an extreme expansion of the basic halakhic foundation. This expansion implies, in practice, the exclusion of women from numerous areas. Saleswomen arguing with customers, businesswomen who lead negotiations, university lecturers who stand in front of classes teaching male students, co-educational university campuses, male members of the Knesset who have female aides, doctors and nurses who treat patients of the opposite sex, and co-educational learning groups would all be forbidden in a gender-segregated society. Women are restricted to the home and cannot be full partners in the male-dominated outside world because this would violate the norms of behavior in a gender-segregated society.

  1. Dr. Binyamin Lau expressed this idea eloquently in an article published in the periodical Pilpul:

Only someone who believes that the place of a woman is within the four walls of her home can continue to be a proponent of a completely separate society and exclude women from participating in the normal framework of life. Those who believe that the world is in a process of spiritual elevation and that women are becoming more educated and more equal cannot be part of a society that supports the isolation of women from society.

Changes in Halakha

We are not arguing that at one time it was correct to establish a gender-segregated society, but with the development of generations, the rise of modernity, and so forth, it has become necessary to change halakha and alter the type of society we should live in. Rather, we seek to ascertain the Tora’s basic vision regarding society and the practical guidelines derived from it. It is important to point out that the proponents of a gender-segregated society also recognize that there are changes occurring in the halakhic world, even regarding this topic. Rabbi Yosef Karo ruled that it is forbidden to ask a woman or even her husband about the wellbeing of his wife. (Shulhan Arukh, Even HaEzer 21:6). However, there are very few rabbinic figures in the religious Zionist camp who would protest to the fact that men ask women about their wellbeing, even among those who are proponents of a gender-segregated society. The details of the laws of modesty have seen many changes through the generations both in lenient and stringent directions. The basing of halakha upon the written word, making generalizations, and ignoring context and common practice are alien to the halakhic way in all areas. Therefore, the rabbis permit men to inquire after the wellbeing of a woman, even though this was forbidden in the past. The developments and innovations that cause every generation to learn and adhere to the Torah and halakha are the soul of Jewish tradition and halakhic rulings. Therefore, we must be wary of making sweeping statements based solely on a text or on past practices.

One of the claims against a mixed society is that it involves a serious and substantial change in Jewish tradition. Beyond our contention that Jewish tradition is not opposed to a mixed society and actually sees it in a positive light (as we will explain later regarding derekh eretz), we should be aware that we are living in an era when many conventions that were accepted within Jewish society have changed, e.g. the acceptance of Zionism and the human role in establishing Jewish sovereignty in Israel.

For centuries the Jewish people lived in exile, as scattered communities. The drastic change caused by our return to our homeland and the establishment of a sovereign state obligates us to reexamine the ideas and practices that were developed in exile. In the words of Rav Kook, this is a return to “the strength of natural life,” which includes culture, art, economics, and more. The nature of a mixed-gender society in Israel is part of the normal development of our people and our nation.


We began our critique of gender-segregated society by examining the aims and context of the halakhic sources that form its basis. We claimed that they extrapolate these sources and apply them to cases beyond what the sources actually mean. They take sources that deal specifically with the individual and unwarrantedly apply them as rules for society as a whole. Indeed, there are almost no halakhic sources that specifically deal with gender-separation in society. We then turned to the concept of derekh eretz, to the nature of our world in which men and women co-exist and mix. We claimed that the proponents of a gender-segregated society distance themselves from derekh eretz. Two other areas of criticism dealt with the unfair exclusion of woman from many areas of life and the misuse of the phrase “ein apotropos le-arayot.” We also examined the implementation of the “slippery slope” argument vis-à-vis a gender-segregated society, and we showed that this type of society cannot eliminate improper interactions between the sexes. We argued that even proponents of gender-segregated society acknowledge that changes are occurring in halakha both in the rules of modesty and other realms. Therefore, relying solely on the past does not present a proper basis for discussion.

It seems that the position supporting a gender-segregated society is not based in the Torah's worldview and sources. It therefore does not constitute a real, desirable, appropriate answer to the issues raised in our world regarding the laws of modesty.

The Be-di'avad Position that Allows a Mixed Society

Most rabbinic figures in the religious Zionist world view the existence of a mixed society through the looking glass of the youth movements and have come to terms with the mixing of the genders. They argue, however, that the current reality of mixed society is not the ideal situation, nor is it befitting according to the Torah. In order to draw the energies of the youth to the ideals and the work of youth movements rather than negative places, we should compromise nowadays and settle for a mixed society, as it is a time of extenuating circumstances. The classic example of this position is found in the well-known responsum of R. Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg concerning the youth movement Yeshurun. R. Weinberg answered questions raised regarding the nature of the mixed-gender youth movement in France. We will quote parts of his answer that express his support of the movement, his explanations for the co-educational movement, and his understanding of the ideal halakha in this area:

The objection of the ultra-Orthodox to the co-ed youth movement has much to rely upon; after all, according to Torah law, men and women must be separated in order to prevent light-headed behavior [here there is a detailed description of the major renovation in the Temple described in Tractate Sukkah] and for this reason, in all our sacred communities we have avoided establishing organizations that consisted of men and women together. […] Nevertheless, when I was approached by the directors of Yeshurun regarding this issue, I told them to continue their work according to the directives given them by the German sages, who were very righteous, and whose intentions were for the sake of heaven, to save the youth from the dangers of assimilation that was becoming prevalent during their day […] the rationale is “it is a time to act for God; they have voided your Torah,” as I will explain below. […] It is well-known how strong the influence and pull of assimilation is in France and how large the number of mixed marriages is here […] “it is a time to act for God.”

In this view, the harsh conditions of spiritual life in France during the mid-twentieth century, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, required us to cede the principle of a gender-segregated society and to follow an alternative path. Later in his response, Rabbi Weinberg discusses other halakhic issues such as mixed seating, the erection of a mehitza, and joint singing. However, the tone of his answer here is very clear: the co-educational activities within the youth movement are primarily to save the French Jewish youth, estranged from Judaism, from assimilation. Under these dire circumstances, the work of the youth movements in all its aspects is educationally the correct thing to do. This is true even if it means deviating from the halakhic mainstream. It is important to point out that though this ruling was very daring for the time when it was written, it still undeniably remains a position of be-di'avad.

Indeed, many cite the position of R. Weinberg as a source that supports the concept of a mixed society. However, a closer look will reveal that in spite of its importance and educational sensitivity, this position does not represent an answer to the basic Torah vision of how society should be in the ideal. Rather, R. Weinberg’s answer is deeply rooted and connected to the conditions and terms of a specific time and place. In fact, this responsum indicates that there is an inverse relationship between ones level of religiosity and the need for a mixed society. Only severe spiritual troubles can justify a mixed society: “It is a time to act for God.”

This opinion may be heard in varying formulations in various rabbinic responses to the nature of the Bnei Akiva youth movement today. Although the religious youth of today is not, generally speaking, in danger of assimilation and spiritual annihilation, a move toward separating the youth movements would nonetheless drive away a large percentage of the participants, distancing them from the values of religious Zionism and the world of Torah and mitzvot. In order to encourage the young to participate in the youth movement, it is necessary to permit the existence of a co-ed environment.

This position is important because there is a large gray area between be-di'avad and le-khathila. Moreover, in the halakhic world there have been numerous cases where certain actions that were considered to be be-di'avad have become le-khathila (for example, the writing down of the oral tradition). Some remain in between. This enables the existence of a mixed-modest society and a progressive approach toward such a society, but without determining the answer to the basic question. It also leaves a large space for realistically avoiding decrees that the public are unable to bear.

These arguments in themselves support the concept of a mixed-modest society. For those who advocate this position be-di'avad, only these and similar arguments allow the existence of this society. Imperfect reality does not allow us to realize the vision of a gender-segregated society, but as a temporary measure, in order to attract the masses to youth movements and to ease problems of marriage in the future. This is the price we must pay in the non realization of the vision of a gender-segregated society.

A Critique of the Be-di'avad Position

In principle, proponents of this position agree with the proponents of the gender-segregated society. The difference between the two positions is a question of practicality. Those who support a gender-segregated society le-khathila believe that it is necessary to aspire and strive toward maximum separation in all possible ways even today. Those who are of the be-di'avad attitude toward a mixed society claim that today's reality necessitates a compromise, concessions to a problematic reality. Therefore, all the arguments that we brought against the proponents of a gender-segregated society—extrapolating the sources, the exclusion of women—are also applicable to the supporters of a be-di'avad mixed society.

One point that distinguishes this position from the other demands specific attention: it espouses an implementation that stands in opposition to the broader vision. The proponents of this position posit two different answers to the question of the Torah’s vision of the Torah and the question of how this should be applied today. The contradictory answer to these questions confuses and creates tension among those who are educated within this framework. The educational message transferred to the students is that we are living in a bad reality, and throughout our life we live a way of compromised values.

It is not possible to maintain a co-educational youth movement like Bnei Akiva when its central message is that its very existence is be-di'avad and that we should strive to eliminate the reality in which we live. This approach, which places compromise at the center of our lives, causes great educational damage. Youth living with the consciousness that they are living a life that does not meet the criteria of the Torah may suffer great stress or begin to feel apathy toward the Torah. The be-di'avad position perpetuates this feeling, and we see this happening in the youth movements today. These divisive factors led to the formation of other youth movements as the question of society displaced other important subjects and the focus remained on external factors alone (which are of course important, but not exclusively so) and not to the direction of pursuing a life of modesty and holiness.

But this is not simply a question for youth movements. It pertains to all areas of society. This position contends that the majority of the religious Zionist community lives a life of be-di'avad, one that they should strive at all times to change in order to reach a totally gender-segregated society. The definition of be-di'avad is a dark cloud hanging over vast numbers of religious people, and it is difficult to estimate the great damage caused by this opinion. It is equally difficult to assess the damage caused by the fact that most of the community does not strive in any way toward a totally gender-segregated society, despite the fact that the proponents of this opinion require them to do so.

We must take an approach of truth and honesty that sets a goal and strives to achieve it. We should always be striving toward a position of le-khathila. Therefore, it is unacceptable for us to follow a path of be-di'avad, both in principle and educationally.

A Mixed-Modest Society—Le-khathila

Throughout this essay, we have presented and critiqued opinions that advocate the establishment of an absolutely gender-segregated society rather than a mixed-modest society. We argued that there is in fact no source for full gender segregation, and that the sources marshaled by proponents of this opinion do not meet the standards of evidence that justify regarding them as the vision and principle of the Torah. In this section, we will present our main argument, which leads to a society built according to the path of the Torah and which also avoids the damage that the other opinions cause both to society and individuals.

The foundations of this approach are:

  1. The entire corpus of halakha is based upon derekh eretz. God is the creator of the world as well as the Giver of the Torah, which builds holiness and modesty into the world as it is.
  2. The halakhic sources show that society should be mixed and modest.
  3. There is no other realistic alternative to a mixed society, and so the differences between the different opinions really come down to where one draws the line between acceptable and unacceptable mixing.
  4. A mixed-modest society is most conducive to a life of holiness and modesty in youth movements and in society at large.
  5. Halakha requires the shaping of society in the light of principles of holiness and modesty whether through particular halakhot (such as yihud, touching, dress, etc.) or through the general atmosphere of the halakha.

We will extensively present the foundations of this position. The basic concept upon which the proponents of a mixed-modest society relies on the phrase “derekh eretz kadma la-Torah” (proper behavior antecedes Torah). This phrase is usually understood to mean that ethical values, moral behavior, manners, and interpersonal relationships must precede black-letter halakha. However, it is well-known that there are dangers in interpreting rabbinic dicta. Mistakes are made when phrases are interpreted using modern language as opposed to understanding the context and meaning of the phrase. Therefore we will explain the meaning of the phrase “derekh eretz,” “kadma,” and “Torah” according to the sages in order to understand the overall meaning of the phrase.

The phrase itself does not appear in rabbinic literature in the exact formulation just quoted, but rather in a slightly different way. The phrase appears in Vayikra Rabbah (9:3):

The Torah came into the world 26 generations after the precepts of derekh eretz had been in effect, as it is stated “To guard the way of the tree of life” (Bereshit 3:24). The “way” is derekh eretz which is then followed by "the tree of life," which is Torah.

This Midrash suggests that derekh eretz precedes Torah in the chronological sense. The Torah was given to the 26th generation after the creation of Adam, the generation of Moses. The nature of this derekh eretz is unclear, and we must examine other sources in rabbinic literature to ascertain its meaning. There are many sources use this phrase in a very different way than is understood today. Thus, for example, the phrase used by Rabbi Yishmael to explain “that you may gather in your corn, and your wine, and your oil (Devarim 11:14)—behave toward them with the customs of derekh eretz” cannot be understood in terms of having good manners and courtesy toward the corn, wine, and oil. Similarly in the Haggada: “and he saw our affliction (Devarim 26:7)—this is the abstention from derekh eretz [i.e., marital relations].” The Mishna (Avot 2:2) states: “Torah study is good together with derekh eretz, because the exertion put into both of them makes one forget sin.” Here too the reference clearly not to manners and etiquette, which do not require exertion and do not “make one forget sin.”

These sources indicate that “derekh eretz” refers to normal behavior of the common person. It encompasses all aspects of life: economic and social, public and private. Derekh eretz is literally “the way of the world,” a normal, natural existence. There is a practical difficulty in determining what derekh eretz is because normative behavior differs from society to society and from era to era. However, despite this practical difficulty, we cannot dismiss the very existence of derekh eretz and behavioral consensus in many areas.

Let us return now to the Midrash we quoted earlier. The meaning of the phrase, according to the Midrash, is that for 26 generations before the giving of the Torah at Sinai, the world ran according to derekh eretz, which encompassed all spheres of life. This was the infrastructure and basis of the world before Torah, and the Torah was superimposed on it.

What is the meaning of this derekh eretz? What are the practical applications in our daily life? Let us consider family life and procreation, manual labor, social order, and so forth. The Torah was not given in a vacuum, nor was it presented to man before the creation of the world; rather it was given 26 generations later.

Thus, it is necessary to determine the attitude of the Torah to all that existed before it: Was the Torah meant to annul the concept of derekh eretz that existed before it? Was it indifferent toward derekh eretz? Or was derekh eretz to be used as the foundation of the Torah? In truth, even before the Torah was given there existed extensive legislation in the world (e.g. the code of Hammurabi). Humans related to natural moral principles as a basis for a code of behavior. Is there a relationship between these principles and those of the Torah? Does the Torah ignore all human achievement prior to its appearance, or does it designate a place for them?

There is no doubt that where derekh eretz contradicts the Torah, the latter overrides the former; the duty to obey the Torah is absolute and fundamental to our faith. So, for example, we find a number of issues that the Torah rejected entirely—such as a man marrying sisters.

The question arises as to how to relate to the areas that the Torah does not discuss but that exist within the concept of derekh eretz. What degree of commitment do we have toward them? To what extent is derekh eretz considered obligatory? If we suppose that the Torah does not command physical manual labor as the way to earn a living, but that this is the way of the world—is there still an obligation to make a living through physical manual labor? Is this the Torah's vision for the economy of the Jewish people? If we suppose that the Torah did not deal with the obligation of returning a favor with a favor and had not made this a commandment—would there still be an obligation to behave this way based upon our natural ethics? Moreover, in the areas where it is possible to interpret the Torah in a number of ways—must we take derekh eretz into consideration?

It is possible that the reader will immediately respond that religious Zionists answer this question affirmatively. After all, they are involved in social, economic, and cultural life and actively take part in commerce, education, the military, and all other spheres. Derekh eretz is a basic daily feature of the life of the individual and community within the religious Zionist camp. However, the answer to the question is positive even without turning to the ideology and characteristics of the religious Zionist. We can confidently state that the way of the halakha, as evident in the sources in all areas, is not to lessen nor annul derekh eretz but rather to build upon it. Halakhically, the times for reciting the Shema are based upon “when you lie down and when you wake up”—the time when the sons of kings go to sleep or wake up. Many principles in the laws of negotiations, the prohibitions of Shabbat, and financial disputes are based upon people's desire to maximize profits and minimize loss. Many marriage laws are based upon the natural behavior between men and women, and as we have already seen, “marital relations” are referred to as derekh eretz.

This approach is like a thread that runs through many laws, even those that seem to have no connection at all to the world of derekh eretz. For example, the Talmud (Rosh Hashana 34a) rejects the possibility that the order of sounds made by the Shofar would be teru’ah (which represents wailing) followed by shevarim (which represents groaning) because “ordinarily when a man has a pain, he first groans and then wails.” There are many other examples in many halakhic areas of this phenomenon, but the point is clear.

Let us now return to the question of a mixed society. As we pointed out earlier, the world that God created has men and women, and the world is maintained by their coexistence and cooperation. The laws of tzni’ut that call for the avoidance of touching, seclusion, gazing at that which is forbidden, (a man) hearing a woman sing, or excessive frivolous conversation with a member of the opposite sex do not negate derekh eretz but are constructed atop its foundation. The burden of proof lies with those who wish to negate this claim and contend that the Sages had an alternate vision. However, as we have shown, the laws of modesty refer to the individual, and it is hard to find a source that relates to it from a societal point of view. Therefore, we turn to derekh eretz and we discover that mixed society is a basic fact in the running of society. The proponents of a gender-segregated society are choosing to distance themselves from this derekh eretz.

What are the halakhic demands of this society? Our theory is that it does not require distancing from derekh eretz. The derekh eretz of the world is the basis of halakha, but the halakha demands that we change from a mixed society to a mixed-modest society. Halakha does not prevent social gatherings, which constitute part of derekh eretz, despite the fear that there will be lashon hara (evil gossip) at these meetings (we should point out that according to the Sages, most people fail regarding implied slander—avak lashon hara [Bava Batra 165a]) but rather commands us to guard our mouths and to be careful with what we say, to not behave frivolously nor to engage in idle banter. In the same way, in this area of halakha, men and women who live in a mixed society and as such maintain relationships with each other are commanded to maintain purity of thought and action.

That is: a mixed-modest society is largely rooted in the foundation of the way of the Torah. Halakha is based upon derekh eretz of the world but does not accept it at face value; rather, it expands it in certain areas and minimizes it in others. In some areas it commands us to show restraint and refrain, and in others it encourages us to be involved. We see that in all these special laws, halakha acknowledges that society is comprised of men and women yet demands sanctity and purity within this framework.

It is therefore apparent that the basic attitude of the Torah on this subject is that the desired pattern of relationships between men and women, boy and girls is based on a mixed society, in the way of derekh eretz, yet is modest, as required by the details of the Torah and halakha. The Torah strives toward mixed activities and actions in the public and social sphere and does not strive to constrain women into their home or into other frameworks.

Within the context of a mixed society, both men and women can actively participate in many areas of life: learning and working in joint institutions and engaging in public issues at a political, economic, and social level. In this society, in which men and women cooperate, the Torah demands that purity of thoughts and of heart and the rules of tzni’ut, both sexual and spiritual, all be observed at their highest levels. The Torah does not negate this active society but rather promotes and directs the relationship between the sexes in a serious and worthy manner. The Torah establishes the uniqueness of the Jewish people upon a foundation of derekh eretz. The Torah does not annul natural life, but rather sanctifies it.

In other words, the existence of a mixed-modest society is of supreme importance. It is not a capitulation to human whims and the constraints of society, but the basis of a le-khathila reality. In this society, male and female elements are expressed and contributions are made by all aspects of God’s diverse world. In this society women are not excluded from realms of life, yet the distinction between men and women is retained. This society is open, a fact that strengthens the fight against exploitation and objectification. In this society, the concept of tzni’ut is strengthened, as women are not considered to be objects of constant temptation, but rather an integral part of the world. In this society there is time to focus on a fear of God that is directed toward improving society rather than focusing solely upon constant attempts to erect walls that are never sufficiently high. In this society, people live truly modest lives and meticulously follow the proper limitations on the relationships between men and women. This is a society that God-fearing and God-loving people establish, and they live by its light.

In addition to the above, there is a strong connection between living in a Jewish state and the importance of the existence of a mixed society. R. Dr. E. Berkowitz expressed this idea:

Nowadays it is impossible to place responsibility for a state's economy solely upon one sex. The diversity of professions and all that is necessary to ensure the existence of a state requires the full cooperation and participation of both sexes. Can just the males be doctors? Is it possible for the social workers to work in a social arena without constant contact with members of the opposite sex of the families involved?

If we reach the conclusion that the Torah desires a state, then we must conclude that the Torah is instructing us to use the methods and means necessary to achieve this. This is the purpose of the Torah and the commandments.

One cannot bring any proof from the events that took place during the exile. What was possible for the exiled communities—is absolutely impossible in an independent state!

Within the youth movements, the question of gender separation or integration should not be the focus of the discussion. All of our efforts and resources should be focused on ensuring that the youth movements are a place of modesty within mixed society, in accordance with the halakha and the spirit of the law. Furthermore, this is how we can make the youth movement an educational environment that prepares for life in the mixed modern adult society.

  1. Berkowitz relates to this as well:

The conclusion is that specifically through education in a mixed environment we are capable of educating youth toward a more moral life regarding gender relations. In a youth movement like Bnei Akiva, one of the educational goals is proper behavior toward another. One should behave morally and specifically according to the way of the Torah. Without such an education, our youth will be faced with difficult problems in the outside world. They may easily stumble when they meet secular youth, young men and women from an environment completely alien to Jewish values and sex ethics. As a result, I would suggest that specifically co-education enables us to live a more moral and pure life, as the Torah demands of us.

A Torah-based mixed-modest can be modeled in a youth movement where boys and girls engage in deep discussions and experience joint staff meetings, seminars, and activities. The participants develop a profound awareness of the values of the youth movement. This is not a simple exercise or experience. It requires constant work, internally and externally, on a personal and educational level. We must always strive to improve and advance tzni’ut within co-ed youth movements, with four main goals:

  1. Continuous improvement of the seriousness displayed in mixed interactions. We must search for additional ways to advance tzni’ut within the mixed society from within. The different attempts through seminars to achieve this aim are very positive (this refers to the relationship to both sexes, because the atmosphere of levity is not desirable in any framework).
  2. A strict adherence to the laws of yihud. It is important to adhere to all halakhot, but experience has taught us that not keeping these specific laws creates an opportunity for slip-ups. It is therefore important to meticulously adhere to the laws of improper seclusion.
  3. Modesty in personal dress and behavior. Here we are referring to the behaviors of both sexes in term of:

    1. Sexual behaviors and attitudes
    2. Body language
    3. Demonstration of wealth and/or ostentation
    4. Attracting attention to oneself
  4. The removal of the phrase “shomer negia” from the lexicon. The definition of a person who does not touch members of the opposite sex as being unique—“shomer negia”—legitimates those within the movement who are not meticulous about observing these halakhot. It defines those who do not keep these halakhot as being the norm when in fact the opposite is true. The youth movements must run educational programs in order to remove this phrase from their vocabulary as well as the contact between the sexes.

Focusing upon these four important goals through a constant effort to advance the youth movement towards adherence of these halakhot and in an educational environment which reinforces them is tantamount to the realization of holiness and purity amongst the youth of our day, who aspire to normalcy and a natural life along with deep commitment to God's word. These principles are applicable in the adult world as well. Living in a mixed society of adults is not be-di'avad; it is the way of the world, and halakha is founded upon it. The obligations of tzni’ut and the avoidance inappropriate contact between the sexes shape a society in the way of Torah.


We have dealt in detail with the question of how society ought to run vis-à-vis a burning issue in our communities: the question of co-educational social groups and the place of tzni’ut and its halakhot in Judaism. This topic disturbs many, is discussed in many frameworks, and does not always have positive consequences. Sometimes it is apparent that the constant preoccupation with tzni’ut is immodest, as it places the fear of falling and sinning in a prominent and central position in life. The fact that there is no youth movement activity—from singing the local branch’s theme song to taking trips and attending camps—which does not hinge on this issue is very worrying for anyone who values the word of God.

It is ironic that in a publication addressing the issues of tzni’ut there is criticism of excessive focus on the subject. However, the way that the question is dealt with today causes both individuals and communities to pay a heavy price in the form of a lack of spiritual progress, endless debates with no practical convincing solution, the frustration of living a non-desirable way of life, the neglect of public progress concerning modesty in our given reality, disputes, schisms, and separations. This publication is a broad presentation of one position with a comprehensive reference to differing opinions. Its aim is to clarify, not polemicize.

We aim to stress the place of tzni’ut in our lives, adhering to halakha, and the great efforts we, as individuals and a community, must invest in order to progress in a way that sanctifies and teaches us and future generations the correct behavioral norms. The necessity of a mixed society is not disconnected from tzni’ut, does not deny it, and does it try to move away from it. On the contrary, it seeks to build a ladder firmly based on the ground, on basic derekh eretz, through joint activities of men and women in all spheres of life. The top of the ladder reaches the heavens in purity, holiness, and fear of God. The challenges of mixed-modest society are not simple. The Sages frequently caution us about how excessive focus on sex is an impediment to those who seek to serve God. So much depends upon our decision to follow God’s path, as  set down in the Torah, to constantly orient ourselves toward improvement and thus ascend the path that leads to the house of God.


Etzah Laderech, a joint project of Ne’emanei Torah Va'Avodah and the Kibbutz Hadati, develops educational material for use by youth and adults for strengthening Torah Va'Avodah values.

[1][Translator’s note: Tzniut can be variously translated as “modesty,” “humility,” “privacy,” and “austerity.” The term “tzanu’a” literally means “hidden” or “inconspicuous.” We have chosen to leave the term untranslated in the body of the essay.]