Applying Old Halachot to New Conditions

Walking Behind Women: A Discussion Between Tsits Eliezer and R.Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, ZT”L

The Context

In volume 9, responsum 50 of his Tsits Eliezer, R. Waldenberg writes to R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, recalling that at one of their recent meetings, R. Shlomo Zalman had asked him what he thought about the Talmudic prohibition for a man to walk behind a woman.  He was raising the question specifically in the context of getting on a bus, when the woman sometimes deserves the respect of letting her go first (or just the politeness of so doing).  I find the interaction fascinating for a few reasons, as we can see by going through it.

R. Waldenberg recalls that when they met, they had discussed the comments of Ritva at the end of Kiddushin.  Ritva had noted that when it comes to issues of modesty and avoiding inappropriate sexuality, there is a significant personal element, so that one person might legitimately allow himself modes of conduct that others would find inappropriate, because he knows himself to be unaffected, while another man might refrain from fairly ordinary kinds of interactions, because they are, for him, wrongly stimulating.  Presumably, they raised that as a reason to allow the bus case, the confidence that neither of them would actually look at a woman in that way while getting on the bus.

Before I get into the back and forth in the correspondence between them, I want to note that this letter is dated 24 Tishrei, 5726 (which translates to October, 1965), when R. Waldenberg was almost 50, and R. Shlomo Zalman around 56.  I enjoy the idea of two friends getting together, and having a Torah conversation they then follow up with a back and forth.  But I enjoy even more noticing that two giants of Torah knowledge were still struggling towards an answer to a fairly basic question when they were approaching, or were in, middle age.

Tsits Eliezer’s Suggestion

Tsits Eliezer wrote R. Shlomo Zalman to say that he thought he had found a relevant source, while researching another matter.  I am always interested when I see a man of astounding bekiut, wide-ranging knowledge, stumble across a new source he had never known (and, as we will see, that R. Shlomo Zalman also had not known).

Terumat haDeshen, a 15th century authority, was cited by a student of his as permitting walking behind a rabbi’s wife (the term is actually eshet haver, which would mean the wife of anyone seriously devoted to proper observance of mitsvot , but assumes a certain level of knowledge of those mitsvot as well) or one’s own mother, because currently, the prohibition is not in as full force.

As Tsits Eliezer notes, the comment is odd in two ways—why a rabbi’s wife and why connect that to conditions in Terumat haDeshen’s time?  His first suggestion was that these two women are people to whom one owes respect—the rabbi’s wife out of respect for her husband’s Torah knowledge, and one’s mother out of filial respect—but he rejects that because it does not explain the reason that Terumat haDeshen himself gave, the different conditions of the 15th century.

He notes, then, that Radvaz 2;770 was asked a similar question about women in Arab countries, where they are covered head to toe with clothing; would that make it more permissible to walk behind them? While Radvaz rejects the idea, because he says the problem is hirhur, improper thoughts, and those can come regardless of what the woman is wearing, perhaps Terumat haDeshen thought that a woman’s status as an eshet haver or being the man’s mother would stop him from having such thoughts, and that would be sufficient to free him of the obligation to refrain from walking behind her, particularly if it was a matter of showing respect for Torah knowledge.

Added to that, Tsits Eliezer suggests, perhaps Terumat haDeshen’s reference to changed circumstances had to do with the greater presence of women in the marketplace in general. In Rambam’s time—the 12th century—women tended not to go out very much, and it was seen as proper that they spend most of their time in their homes.  As that had changed by the time of Terumat haDeshen, the effect of meeting a woman in the market had changed as well, and perhaps that was why he ruled as he did.

R. Shlomo Zalman’s Return Mail

Tsits Eliezer includes R. Shlomo Zalman’s reply, which I think is interesting in two ways.  First, they were clearly operating by mail rather than phones, since R. Shlomo Zalman refers to getting the letter on Erev Shabbat, and his reply is dated Motsaei Shabbat, and this was the mid-60s in Yerushalayim! Second, Tsits Eliezer happily includes someone else’s work in his own volume, unconcerned about sharing the spotlight, as it were.

R. Shlomo Zalman thanks him for the source—meaning, he didn’t know it until then—and adds that he would take it in a slightly different direction. He notes that when Shulchan Aruch Even haEzer 21;1 codified this Talmudic dictum, he phrased it as “paga isha ba-shuk,” if a man encountered a woman in the marketplace, implying—as Tsits Eliezer had said—that this was an uncommon occurrence.  In addition, he suggested, the halachah only applied to walking behind a woman, because the man might be tempted to look at her in a way he would not if he was facing her, since she would catch him doing so.  Third, when there are only few women in the public thoroughfare, it is reasonable to suggest the man walk elsewhere.

None of those realities are true today, however.  First, women are significantly more present in public society, so that meeting a woman is a common occurrence. Second, there is no longer a difference between walking behind or towards women, because men feel no embarrassment about looking at women in immodest ways. Third, even if a man moved from behind one woman, the likelihood is that he’d be following others.

For all those reasons, especially since Terumat haDeshen showed the way, R. Shlomo Zalman felt comfortable deciding that we need not be careful about the technical qualities of this halachah, and can, when the situation requires it, walk behind a woman.

The Continuing Question

While at one level this is a fairly ordinary correspondence, it highlights for me an aspect of halachic discourse that is often lost.  For Terumat haDeshen and the 20th century poskim, the issue was one of how to apply an earlier rule to changed circumstances. The extreme positions—which we see in our times on many issues—are to either insist on applying the Gemara’s rule as codified without regard to change, or to decide the rule could be ignored now that society has changed.

In our case, that could mean someone deciding it was still absolutely prohibited to walk behind a woman, regardless of how that warped one’s public conduct, or, alternatively, to decide that the greater public presence of women allows men to simply look as much as they want.

The two letters show us the middle path we must tread: keeping the underlying premise of the original halachah, that modesty means removing any sexual content from male/female interactions other than marital ones, while yet being aware of the reasonable ways to apply that to various social circumstances. That, to me, is a perspective of halachah that is too often lost, but is clear in these giants’ discussion.

Shabbat Shalom.

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