Last week’s "Ethicist" column in the New York Times Magazine reveals not only the superficiality of what passes for ethical thinking today but also the limits of multi-culturalism as applied to Orthodox Jews.
A woman wrote to the "Ethicist," with the following question. Her otherwise "courteous and competent real-estate agent," refused to shake her hand after signing a brokerage contract, explaining that as an Orthodox Jew he does not touch women. The woman described herself as both "shocked and offended." But since she was a good liberal, who, in addition, to opposing "sex discrimination of all sorts," also "supports freedom of religious expression," she was in a quandary.
The Ethicist, one Randy Cohen, told her that she was entitled to work with someone "who will treat you with the dignity and respect he shows his male clients." He deemed it irrelevant that the agent was acting in accord with his deepest religious beliefs: "Sexism is sexism, even when motivated by religious convictions." Cohen agreed that the action was "offensive" -- nothing less than an attempt to "render a class of people untouchable" -- and calling it religious "doesn’t make it right." For good measure, he cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education that separate educational facilities for black and white students are inherently unequal. In sum, ruled the Ethicist, "I believe you should tear up your contract."
Frankly, in polygot New York, I would have expected a message of greater tolerance for practices that at first strike us as strange. The real-estate agent, after all, did not ask anything of the woman. He did not ask her to don a long skirt and shawl, as tens of thousands of ardent feminists do a year upon entering St. Peters cathedral. Nor did he withhold anything tangible from her. (Presumably she had no interest in holding his hand.)
At most, he engaged in a form of symbolic speech, the message of which both the letter writer and Ethicist misunderstood. Let’s say after signing a brokerage agreement the woman had noticed that the broker, an Orthodox woman, was wearing a wig. And let us say that she considered the halacha that a woman but not a man must cover her hair "offensive" and denigrating to women. Would the Ethicist have also counseled her in that instance to tear up the contract?
What Cohen should have told the woman is: It was your decision to be "shocked and offended." Your reaction does not reflect some objective quality inhering in the agent’s action. You were shocked only due a lack of knowledge of a widespread practice among Orthodox Jews.
Similarly, there was nothing inherently offensive about the agent’s refusal. Brown v. Board of Education, in which the Supreme Court correctly ruled that in the context of a long-standing history of Jim Crow laws educational segregation conveys to black children an unmistakeable state-sponsored message of inferiority, could not be more inapposite.
By contrast, the agent made no statement, either implicit or explicit, showing any disrespect for the letter writer in particular or women in general. Strictly observant Jewish women also do not touch men so the prohibition clearly does not confer "untouchable" status on one sex or another. Rather it proscribes physical contact between sexes equally.
If any statement is being made by the refusal of Orthodox Jews to have any physical contact with members of the opposite sex other than their spouses, children, and parents, it is one of respect for their spouses and the sanctity of the marital bond. Every time an Orthodox man or woman distances him or herself from even the most non-erotic forms of physical contact, he or she is reminded that what is forbidden in this instance is promoted elsewhere – i.e., within the exclusive context of marriage. Every act of distancing is also an act of drawing close to one’s spouse.
True, shaking hands is a pretty innocuous form of contact, and for that reason some Orthodox religious authorities permit shaking hands in the business context. But the same claim of innocuousness is made for kissing and hugging in many circles. Rather than stepping on to a slippery slope and leaving the matter to subjective determinations about the erotic content of any particular act, many Orthodox Jews choose to simply avoid any physical contact.
A ban on touching acknowledges the natural physical attraction between men and women and serves as a warning. Those who observe the ban convey the message that "the erotic element is excluded from our relationship." Far from showing a lack of "dignity and respect" for those of the opposite gender, observance of the ban reflects a determination to treat members of the opposite sex with the utmost respect – i.e., as everything but objects of sexual desire. Judging from the proliferation of sexual harassment charges in work settings and elsewhere many women would prefer precisely such relationships.
Interestingly, the Ethicist overlooked the most serious ethical lapse of all – his own advice that the letter writer unilaterally rip up a contract she had already signed. Nowhere in that contract did the agent undertake to shake the woman’s hand. Rather he agreed to faithfully represent her in the rental of her apartment, and by her own account, he stood fully prepared to do so in a competent fashion.
The Ethicist thus advised her to renege on her own solemn promise in order to punish the agent for observing rules that he views as divinely mandated, but which the Ethicist confidently dismissed as merely "sexist" and "offensive."
My guess is that had the Ethicist been named Charley O’Sullivan, not Randy Cohen, he would not have been so casually dismissive of traditional Jewish practice. Multiculturalists are forever demanding of us greater understanding for truly horrific practices like female circumcision, widely practiced in the Moslem world, and many of the world’s leading news sources cannot even bring themselves to label those who seek only to kill as many innocent civilians as terrorists. Yet many Jews (or those perceived as such by virtue of their names), who share the multiculturalist assumptions, show none of the same tolerance for any aspect of their own religion that is not in conformity with the prevailing zeitgeist.
Cohen’s shallow and uninformed response is better read as an attempt to escape the taint of Judaism than as a serious effort at ethical reasoning.