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Mixed Swimming and Halacha
Behavior that satisfies both halacha and identity
Much like wearing yarmulkas for men and skirts/dresses for women, refusing to swim at mixed-gender pools or beaches has been a public test of orthodoxy for at least a century. But from time to time I’ve wondered whether swimming is qualitatively different from the other two, given that yarmulkas/dresses have no real halachic origin (they’ve become important symbols). By contrast, is mixed swimming clearly and intrinsically forbidden?
There’s no doubt that Torah sources unambiguously expect women to dress modestly in the presence of men (Gitten 90a). And men who fail to energetically avoid staring at under-dressed women are considered deeply remiss in their duty (Bava Basra 57b). It’s also clear that water activities like bathing - where it’s common to wear less - are the focus of some specific warnings (Gitten 90b).
It’s also no secret that many leading poskim of the 20th Century were outspoken in their criticism of orthodox people who went to mixed swimming venues. See שו”ת שבט הלוי אבן העזר קפ”ה and שו”ת יחוה דעת ה:סג for good examples.
But I’m not sure that any of that directly addresses whether a woman with no interest in socializing and covered in, say, a “swim dress” may swim at a mixed-gender public site. How is what she’s doing at the pool different from walking the aisles at her local supermarket?
And what if her husband also does the shopping from time to time: considering how the dress code at the local beach might not be any worse than what he’d encounter in the cash register line, is there any reason he shouldn’t be permitted to get important regular exercise in the water? Perhaps he’d be better off living in an isolated charedi community, but that’s not an appropriate option for most of us.
The issue back in the 20th century in America, I suspect, was that banning mixed swimming was just a different way of saying "we don’t like Jewish kids hanging out socially with very little in the way of clothing." To which I can only offer my full agreement. Social interaction involving men and women in casual environments where people tend to under-dress is dangerous and can lead to terrible halachic breaches (see שלחן ערוך אורח חיים תקכ”ט:ד).
But perhaps it’s reasonable to also independently assess the status of a woman who’s doing everything she can to avoid attracting inappropriate attention (swim dresses) or a man who, by spending important health or stress-related time at the pool, might face no greater spiritual and halachic risks than he encounters in his normal life.
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