Women Behind the Wheel

The internet is currently aflame with debate over (just fired) Google engineer James Damore’s “anti-diversity” memo or manifesto (Gizmodo; Motherboard; Medium), containing the incendiary suggestion that:

Differences in distributions of traits between men and women may in part explain why we don’t have 50% representation of women in tech and leadership.

and the corollary that:

Discrimination to reach equal representation is unfair, divisive, and bad for business.1

This post considers one of the most curious instances of an apparent Talmudic assumption of a “difference in distribution” of a particular characteristic between men and women (although as we shall see, the nature of the characteristic in question is unclear), and its concomitant halachic significance.

The Talmud rules:

ת”ר השוכר את החמור לרכוב עליה איש לא תרכב עליה אשה אשה רוכב עליה איש ואשה בין גדולה ובין קטנה אפילו מעוברת ואפילו מניקה2
בבא מציעא עט:‏

The clear implication is that female riders place more strain, or cause more wear, on donkeys than do male ones, although the Talmud, and (so far as I am aware) the medieval commentaries, are silent as to exactly why this is the case. The Sema gives the startling interpretation that “[a woman] is heavier [than a man]”:

לא ירכיב עליה אשה. שהיא כבידה:3

This explanation is problematic, on two counts. Firstly:

“Males weigh about 15% more than females, on average. For those older than 20 years of age, males in the US have an average weight of 86.1 kg (190 lbs), whereas females have an average weight of 74 kg (163 lbs).”

It is possible (actually, very probable) that this is at least somewhat culturally dependent. Even if we assume that there’s a natural, inherent disparity in average weight between men and women, this can surely be affected by factors in which cultural variations between genders exist, and vary across societies and eras, such as diet, physical activity and aesthetic preferences about body image. Perhaps, then, in the Talmudic era women actually were heavier, on average, than men, even though this is not the case today. [We know, after all, that women of that period actually preferred to look “fleshy”4, in stark contrast to the modern Thin Ideal.] If this is the case, however, we would expect poskim to note that these halachos do not apply, or actually apply in reverse, in contemporary times.

Secondly, even if we do assume that women of the Talmudic era were indeed heavier than men, this was presumably only true of the average, but surely there were many men who weighed more than many women. Since one who rents his donkey for use by a man is (presumably – see below) willing to allow any man to ride it, he should also be presumed to allow those women who weigh less than men to ride it. To this we can counter that the halachah establishes general rules, even if they sometimes result in illogical consequences. Since in general women are (or were) heavier than men, we presume that one who rents his donkey for use by a man means to limit it to such use, even though some of the allowed riders will be heavier than some of the disallowed ones.

In any event, this second objection was raised by the eighteenth century Italian Rav David Pardo:

ובטעמא דלא ירכיב אשה לא פירש”י ולא מידי ובחו”מ סימן הנזכר פירש הסמ”ע לפי שהיא כבידה ואני שמעתי ולא אבין מאי פסקא דאטו לא משכחת איש גדול ושמן ואשה קטנה וכחושה ואפילו הכי סתמא תנא לא ירכיב אשה אפילו קטנה

ונראה דהאי טעמא משום דסתם אשה אינה בקיאה ברכיבה ואינה יודעת וגם אינה בת דעת כל כך להשגיח להנהיגו יפה בדרך כבושה ושמא יתקלקל בהליכתו בדרך עקלתון או כיוצא בזה וכן נראה שהבין ריב”א הביאו המרדכי בפרק הנזכר וז”ל

פסק ריב”א דכל שכן אם הרכיב עליו גוי דגרע מאשה כי אינו חס על ממונו של ישראל ע”כ

מזה נראה דאשה נמי מהאי טעמא הוא לפי שאין לה דעת להקפיד ולהשגיח לחוס עליו שלא יוזק ומשום הכי אתי שפיר דאשה מרכיב עליה איש ואפילו גדול וכבד דהא מדקאמר אשה סתם היה יכול להרכיב אפילו גדולה וכבדה ביותר אם כן כשמרכיב איש על כל פנים עלויי קא מעלי ליה מטעמא דאמרן …5

In other words, R. Pardo understands that women are poorer drivers than men: they are less proficient, and have inferior judgment.

A major ramification of the varying interpretations of the Sema and R. Pardo is the halachah’s relevance to automobile rentals. According to the Sema, it would presumably not apply, since the relatively minor weight difference between males and females is insignificant in the context of automobiles. According to R. Pardo, however, the situation is less clear. Conventional wisdom stereotypes women as bad drivers, but the evidence is actually somewhat ambiguous. On the one hand, the statistics show that in general, male drivers cause more accidents than do female drivers. But on the other hand, this may be wholly or partially due to the fact that the former drive far more than the latter. Furthermore, at least one famous study found that women are actually overrepresented in certain types of crashes (although exactly why this is so is not entirely clear, and may even be caused by “common stereotypical expectations” that the drivers have of each other):

While men and women often disagree about which gender has better driving skills, a new study by the University of Michigan may shed some light on the debate.

Using data from a nationally representative sample of police-reported crashes from 1988 to 2007, Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle of the U-M Transportation Research Institute studied the gender effects in six different crash scenarios (based on crash angles, direction of approach and speed). These two-vehicle crash scenarios included various maneuvers in which one vehicle turned in front of the other, one vehicle side-swiped the other or both vehicles collided head-on. …

Sivak and Schoettle compared the actual frequencies of different combinations of involved male and female drivers in the six crash scenarios with the expected frequencies if there were no gender differences. The expected frequencies were based on annual distance driven for personal travel by male and female drivers. Because men drive about 60 percent of those annual miles and women drive 40 percent, men are expected to be involved in a higher percentage of crashes for each scenario, road conditions and driving skills being equal.

But the researchers found that crashes involving two female drivers were overrepresented in five of the six crash scenarios, including two by at least 50 percent more and two others by more than 25 percent greater than what was expected. On the other hand, crashes involving two male drivers were underrepresented in four of the six scenarios, including two by more than 20 percent and another by just less than 20 percent. In crash scenarios involving both male and female drivers, actual frequencies tended to be close to the expected frequencies.

“The results indicate that in certain crash scenarios, male-to-male crashes tend to be underrepresented and female-to-female crashes tend to be overrepresented,” Sivak said.

“This pattern of results could be due to either differential gender exposure to the different scenarios, differential gender capabilities to handle specific scenarios or differential expectations of actions by other drivers based on their gender.”

In all, success in handling on-road conflicts depends not only on psychomotor ability but also on the outcome of complex social interactions between traffic participants. In turn, these interactions are influenced by expectations based on prior experience “and a set of common stereotypical expectations that drivers have concerning the behavior of male and female drivers.”

A mini-haburah that I delivered a couple of years ago (partially) on this topic is available at the Internet Archive. A follow-up post will, בג”ה, deal with the propriety of women driving in general, beyond the context of rented conveyances.

  1. This controversy is reminiscent of the one of a decade ago over Larry Summer’s hypothesis (inter alia) that “different availability of aptitude at the high end” may explain “the very substantial disparities … with respect to the presence of women in high-end scientific professions.” []
  2. בבא מציעא עט:‏ []
  3. סמ”ע ריש סימן ש”ח []
  4. שבת ריש נז:‏ []
  5. חסדי דוד (חלק שני) שם פרק ד’ (עמוד לג.) ד”ה השוכר את החמור להרכיב איש []

Fair Dealing and Fraud

My weekly lectures (available at the Internet Archive) and column for this past פרשת בהר discussed the laws of אונאה:

In parashas Behar, the Torah commands (25:14): “And if thou sell ought unto thy neighbour, or buyest ought of thy neighbour’s hand, ye shall not oppress [or ‘aggrieve’] one another.” The Talmud (Bava Metzia 51a, 58b) explains that this refers to onaas mamon, i.e., the mispricing of goods in a sale: a seller may not overcharge a buyer, and a buyer may not underpay a seller.

Onaah applies where the price paid is above or below the merchandise’s ‘correct’ price; it is not entirely clear, however, how to define this ‘correct’ price. The Talmud and early sources apparently take for granted that any particular merchandise has a well defined price, and it seems that there was typically little or no variation in price between vendors (but see Aruch Ha’Shulchan CM 227:7). In contemporary markets, however, merchandise is typically sold at a variety of different prices by different vendors; what, then, determines the maximum price at which it may be sold?

One possibility is that the maximum permissible price is simply the lowest one at which the merchandise is available. Since the buyer is able to purchase the merchandise for that price, any higher price is unfair to him and constitutes onaah (see Erech Shai CM beginning of #209). R. Chaim Kohn, however, rejects this as being both untenable (as according to this view, violations of onaah are ubiquitous) and illogical (why should the lowest price be the exclusively legitimate one?). He argues that any price established by the normal free market forces of supply and demand is legitimate, and onaah applies only to prices outside the range established by these forces (Kol Ha’Torah #49 [Tishrei 5761] pp. 286-87, and cf. Pischei Choshen Onaah Ch. 10 n. 1).

Others suggest that the ‘correct’ price is theoretically defined as the midpoint between the highest and lowest prices for which the merchandise is sold, but in practice, there are various reasons why the traditional laws of onaah will generally not apply to sales in the contemporary free market economy (Darkei Horaah pp. 121-24, and cf. Alon Ha’Mishpat #63 [Nisan 5774]).

The fundamental concept upon which the laws of אונאה are based is that of the merchandise’s “fair price”, which is defined as its local, current price. אונאה is generally committed when one buys or sells at a price that deviates from this price, regardless of the price the seller paid for the merchandise or other considerations. Of critical practical importance, therefore – and yet frustratingly difficult to properly address – is the question of how this fair price is determined in a marketplace where various vendors offer the merchandise for sale at different prices. The great nineteenth century חושן משפט authority Rav Shlomo Yehudah Tabak seems to maintain that the fair price is established by the lowest price available, since if the merchandise is sold above that price, the buyer is thereby injured:

ויש להם אונאה כתב הש”ך אפילו אותו דבר אין שער שלו ידוע נשאלתי אם איסור אונאה דוקא בדבר שיש שער קצוב שכל בעלי חנויות מוכרין בשוה אבל כשכל חנוני מוכר כפי מה שיכול להוציא מן הקונה אם מותר למכור ביוקר בדבר שיכול הקונה לקנות דבר זה אצל אחר בזול והשבתי הדבר מבואר בש”ך כאן … [באונאה] אין לחלק דכל שיודע דאפשר ליקחנו אצל אחר בפחות מאנהו ואסור.1

Several leading contemporary חושן משפט authorities, however, find this position completely untenable.

Rav Chaim Kohn:

ולדבריו [של הערך ש”י] יש לעיין כפי הנהוג בשוק החופשי כאשר המחיר וערך הסחורה נקבעין לפי גורמי ביקוש [ו]הצע האם שייכת אונאה באם אינו מוכר במחיר הזול ביותר שהסחורה נמכרת בה, ולפום ריהטא על זה דן הערך ש”י ולפי זה שייך אונאה גם בסחורה הנמכרת לפי גורמי ביקוש והצע והחנויות באותו השוק מוכרות אותה הסחורה במחירים שונים, וממילא המוכר הסחורה במחיר גבוה מהמחיר הזול ביותר יש בו אונאה. ומלבד דאם כן הוא לא שבקת חיי לכל בריה, עצם הסברא אינה מובנת וגם הראיה מהש”ך צ”ע, דהנה גדר אונאה הוא שהמחיר אינו כפי ערך הסחורה, וקביעת ערך הסחורה הוא כפי הגורמים הקובעים את ערכה בשוק, וממילא בשוק שהסחורה נמכרת לפי גורמי ביקוש והצע כל מחיר שהוא בכלל הגורמים הנ”ל הוא בכלל הערך, ואם כן למה נאמר שהמוכר במחיר הזול ביותר הוא זה שקובע את ערך הסחורה והמוכר ביותר ממחיר זה יש בו אונאה, הא גם המוכר במחיר יקר יותר יכול לומר שזהו ערך הסחורה אם המחיר בכלל גורמי הערך הנ”ל. …2

R. Kohn’s own position is that any price that is in accordance with the properly functioning forces of supply and demand (“גורמי ביקוש והצע”) is perforce legitimate. He develops his thesis at some length, but I do not fully understand his distinction between prices that are in accordance with the forces of supply and demand and those that are not.

Similarly, Rav Mendel Shafran argues that R. Tabak does not actually mean what his closing words seem to imply:

ויש שדייקו מהערך ש”י, שמחשבים את השווי של החפץ לענין אונאה על פי בעל החנות הזול ביותר, לפי מה שכתב בסוף דבריו שכל שיודע שאפשר לקנות חפץ כזה יותר בזול אינו רשאי למוכרו ביוקר. אך באמת אין הנידונים דומים, ולנידון זה אין ראיה מהש”ך, דמדברי הש”ך מוכח רק שיש אונאה גם בדבר שאינו קצוב, אך לא מבואר מדבריו כלל לפי איזה מחיר אומדים את האונאה.3

A mini-haburah I delivered a couple of years ago on the application of אונאה to contemporary markets is available at the Internet Archive.

  1. ערך ש”י חו”מ ריש סימן ר”ט []
  2. רב חיים קאהן, מחירים בשוק חפשי ואונאה בדבר שאין לו שער ידוע, קול התורה חוברת מ”ט תשרי ה’תשס”א עמוד רפב []
  3. עלון המשפט, גליון חודש ניסן ה’תשע”ד #63 עמוד 6, ועיין עוד פתחי חושן, הלכות גניבה ואונאה, פרק י’ הערה א’ מד”ה בהמשך פרק זה []

Sliding Down the Slippery Slope of Circumstantial Evidence

My weekly parashah lectures and halachah column for this past פרשת ויקרא discuss the acceptability (or lack thereof) of circumstantial evidence in halachic civil and criminal procedure. A central source is Rambam’s adamant insistence that anything short of eyewitness testimony is absolutely unacceptable in capital cases:

המצווה המשלימה ר”צ האזהרה שהזהרנו מלהוציא לפועל את העונשים על פי אומד חזק ואפילו קרוב לודאי, כגון שהיה אדם רודף אחר שונאו להרגו ונמלט ממנו לבית, ונכנס אותו הרודף אחריו, ונכנסנו אנחנו אחריהם ומצאנו את הנרדף הרוג מפרפר, ושונאו הרודפו עומד עליו כשהסכין בידו ושניהם מגאלים בדם – הרי אין הסנהדרין הורגים רודף זה על דרך קיום העונש, כיון שאין שם ברור בעדים שראו את הרציחה ובאה האזהרה בתורת האמת מלהרוג את זה. והוא אמרו יתעלה: “ונקי וצדיק אל תהרג וגו'” (שם כג, ז). ובמכילתא אמרו:

“ראוהו רודף אחר חברו להרגו והתרו בו ואמרו לו: ישראל הוא, בן ברית הוא אם הרגת אותו תהרג, והעלימו עיניהם ומצאוהו הרוג ומפרפר והסיף מנטף דם מיד ההורג, שומע אני יהא חייב? – תלמוד לומר: ונקי וצדיק אל תהרג”.1

In response to the question of why this should be so, Rambam offers a slippery slope argument (adding that there is no other possible explanation): were the Torah to allow reliance upon circumstantial evidence, even if this would be limited to extremely compelling evidence, where there is near certainty as to what has occurred, the standards would gradually slip and eventually men would be executed based upon much less compelling evidence:

ואל יקשה בעיניך דבר זה ואל תחשוב שזה דין עוול – לפי שהדברים האפשריים יש מהם שאפשרותם קרובה מאד, ומהם שאפשרותם רחוקה מאד, ומהם בינוניים בין אלו, וה”אפשר” רחב מאד. ואילו הרשתה תורה לקיים עונשים באפשר הקרוב מאד, אשר כמעט קרוב למחייב המציאות כדוגמת מה שהזכרנו – כי אז היו מקיימים את העונשים במה שהוא יותר רחוק מזה ובמה שהוא עוד יותר רחוק, עד שיקיימו את העונשים וימיתו בני אדם בעוול באומדן קל לפי דמיון השופט. לפיכך סתם יתעלה את הפתח הזה וציווה שלא יקיים שום עונש אלא עד שיהיו שם עדים המעידים שברור להם אותו המעשה, ברור שאין בו שום ספק. ואי אפשר להסבירו אחרת בשום אופן.

ואם לא נקיים את העונשים באומד החזק מאד – הרי לא יוכל לקרות יותר משנפטר את החוטא; אבל אם נקיים את העונשים באומד ובדימוי אפשר שביום מן הימים נהרוג נקי – ויותר טוב ויותר רצוי לפטור אלף חוטאים, מלהרג נקי אחד ביום מן הימים.

Rambam’s ringing assertion that even though such an uncompromising policy of absolutely disallowing all circumstantial evidence in capital cases may result in the acquittal of the guilty, “it is better and more desirable to acquit one thousand guilty men, than to execute one innocent man at some point in time” is known in [Western / Anglo-American] criminal law as Blackstone’s formulation, as we have previously discussed here.

My column:

In parashas Vayikra (5:1), the Torah prescribes a sin-offering for one who fails to testify when required to do so, describing the sinner as “a witness, whether he hath seen or known of it”. This wording implies that testimony is possible based either upon what one has “seen”, or upon what one “knows” – even in the absence of direct observation. How is (judicially significant) knowledge possible without direct observation? One suggestion of the Talmud is that a witness who hears someone’s concession that he owes another money thereby “knows” of the obligation although he has not “seen” it. The Talmud then raises the question of circumstantial evidence – i.e., based upon the observed facts, we “know” (with a greater or lesser degree of certainty) what must have happened, although we have not “seen” what actually transpired – and notes that its validity is the subject of dispute (Shevuos 33b-34a). The halachic consensus is that circumstantial evidence is generally disallowed, even in civil cases, and certainly in criminal, and particularly capital, cases (see Yad Ha’Chazakah Nizkei Mamon 8:14 and Sanhedrin 20:1, but cf. Sanhedrin 24:1-2).

Some authorities maintain that this inadmissibility of circumstantial evidence is limited to the general case of ultimately equivocal circumstances, where the conclusion being drawn may be quite likely, but is nevertheless not absolutely certain. Where, however, the circumstances are unequivocal, and we are absolutely convinced of what has transpired, then such evidence is admissible (Bach CM end of #408). Some limit this to civil cases, and maintain that capital cases have a formal requirement of eyewitness testimony to the actual crime (Tumim siman 90 s.k. 14, and see Shut. Avnei Neizer EH 30:3 and 119:104, Achiezer 1:25:4), whereas others argue that there is actually no difference in the standards of evidence of civil and capital cases, and airtight circumstantial evidence that is admissible in civil cases is admissible in capital cases as well (Tosafos Shevuos 34a s.v de’i is lei, Kovetz Shiurim 2:38). Still other authorities may entirely foreclose the admissibility of any sort of circumstantial evidence, even in civil cases (see the discussion in Shimru Mishpat (Zafrani) #53).

My lectures, along with accompanying handout, are available at the Internet Archive, as are two previous mini-haburos I have previously delivered on the topic: I, II.

  1. ספר המצוות להרמב”ם, לא תעשה ר”צ []