Monday, September 26, 2005

Learning Torah on the Subway

Can a man learn Torah on the subway or bus when there are immodestly dressed women there?


I. The Problem

One Sunday this past summer, I drove with my family up to "the country" to visit our neighbors (of eruv fame) in the delightful Riversite Bungalow Colony, near South Fallsburg, NY. While there, we discussed -- particularly with R. Dr. Chaim Neuhoff -- whether a man may sit by the swimming pool during men's swimming time and learn Gemara. The issue is twofold. First, one may not learn Torah in a place where people are immodestly dressed (Shabbos 150a). Second, one may not learn Torah in a bathhouse even when everyone there is dressed, because the bathhouse is designated as a place where people are normally undressed.

In my opinion, neither of these issues should prevent a man from learning Torah poolside. First, since all of the men and boys were wearing bathing suits, they were all modestly dressed. To my knowledge, there is no rule regarding men that when body areas that are normally covered are uncovered, this is considered immodest dress. Second, a bathhouse is one that is humid and stuffy (see Magen Avraham 85:2). This was an outdoor swimming pool that would not qualify as a bathhouse. Even though women frequent the swimming pool in what is technically immodest dress, the area is still not considered a bathhouse because it is outdoors and airy.

However, I believe that there is a further consideration that makes the above irrelevant.

On the subway and on city busses, there are invariably women immodestly dressed during the summer. Technically, then, one should not be allowed to learn Torah within eyesight of these women. According to the majority of Ashkenazic posekim, as recorded in Mishnah Berurah (75:1,129), even closing one's eyes is insufficient. One must (discreetly) turn one's back before learning Torah. On the subway or bus, this is frequently impossible. Are we then prohibited from learning Torah in those frequent situations?

II. Types of Learning

The Gemara cited above contains a dispute over whether hirhur (thinking) is like dibbur (speaking). In the course of that debate, the prohibition against learning Torah in the presence of nakedness is raised. Rashi (sv. ha-hi) explains the Gemara as saying that only reciting Torah is prohibited in the presence of nakedness. Dibbur is prohibited but hirhur, thinking about Torah, is permitted. The Hiddushei Ha-Ran also explains the Gemara this way. One could conclude, then, that while one may not learn Torah out loud in the presence of an immodestly dressed woman, one may learn in one's head -- or read from a book without saying the words. The Magen Avraham (ibid.) raises that possibility, and it is confirmed by the Mahatzis Ha-Shekel (ad loc.). The Arukh Ha-Shulhan (Orah Hayim 74:2, 85:2) also explicitly permits hirhur of Torah in front of an immodestly dressed woman.

[As an aside, note how hirhur -- or hirhurim -- is used positively in this context.]

Thus, according to this line of reasoning, a man would be allowed to learn silently on the subway or bus, and certainly at the poolside.

Dr. Neuhoff suggested (if I recall correctly; I should probably just call him and ask) that R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach discusses this in Halikhos Shlomo but I could not find it. If anyone can find it, I'd appreciate being informed exactly where it is.

III. The Surprising Leniency

The Hazon Ish (to whom R. Daniel Sperber attributes a large share in the alleged contemporary paralysis in halakhah -- Tradition 36:3, Fall 2002) has a surprising leniency on this matter. The Hazon Ish (Orah Hayim 16:7 sv. u-le-inyan tefah) writes that when dealing with immodest dress and not actual nudity, one need not turn one's back but may merely avert one's glance. Thus, someone on the subway can simply look into his book and learn without worry.

R. Eliezer Waldenberg (Tzitz Eliezer 15:11) supports this leniency and cites other authorities who ruled similarly. R. Yosef Hayim Sonnenfeld (Salmas Hayim 1:26-27) was asked whether one may preach Torah in the street when there is invariably an immodestly dressed woman. He replied that one may, and should simply not look at such women.

Therefore, R. Waldenberg concludes, one may learn Torah -- even audibly -- in the presence of immodestly dressed women if one takes care not to look at them.

This leniency is not one on which I would normally rely because it contradicts the understanding of this law as I learned it from my teachers, as well as (from what I can tell) the majority of aharonim. However, this ruling is also tied to that of the Mordekhai regarding hearing the singing voices of women while learning. The Mordekhai ruled if non-Jewish women sing near a study hall and there is nothing that the students can do to avoid hearing them, they should continue learning and not pay attention because they have no other option. Similarly, men who take the subway or bus every day have no other option and would otherwise lose some of their preciously small time available for learning. Because of this "emergency," it seems that if one should reject the reasoning in the previous section about hirhur, there is still room to rely on this leniency.

IV. Conclusion

For what little it is worth, it is my opinion that one may learn Torah quietly on the subway and bus even if there are immodestly dressed women in one's eyesight (my rabbi agrees). It might be advisable, though, to refrain from "speaking in learning" if possible. Ask your rabbi.

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