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Shaking Hands with the Opposite Gender

Shaking Hands with the Opposite Gender

The ethicist of the NY Times gets it wrong.


A recent "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 multiculturalism 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 US 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 polyglot 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 request her to don a long skirt and shawl, as tens of thousands of ardent feminists do every year upon entering St. Peter's 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 letter writer 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 to tear up the contract?

Cohen should have answered: It was your decision to be "shocked and offended." Your reaction does not reflect some objective quality inherent in the agent's action. You were shocked only due to 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 unmistakable state-sponsored message of inferiority, could not be more inapposite.

The prohibition clearly does not confer "untouchable" status on one sex or another.

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.

A ban on touching acknowledges the natural attraction between men and women.

True, shaking hands is a pretty innocuous form of contact, and for that reason some Orthodox religious authorities permit it in the business context. But the same claim of innocuousness is made for kissing and hugging in many circles. Rather than stepping onto 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 ― 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 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."

See's Jewish Ethicist, Discriminating Against Discrimination for another answer to the same question.

November 9, 2002

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Visitor Comments: 68

(54) callmesusana, November 10, 2015 2:28 PM

Orthodoxy is a choice

I listened to a radio show in which Randy Cohen described this very situation. What struck me was his emphasis on the Realtor's refusal as a religious choice. The Realtor chose his religion. The Realtor chose to abide by religious law. The Realtor chose to refuse abiding by a Western gesture that, to a vast majority of Americans, solidifies a business dealing.

(53) L.K., March 11, 2015 1:39 PM

Hugs between famillies

I wanted to hug my orthodox cousin at my father's funeral but could not. The first time I tried I noticed he was very uncomfortable and felt almost hurt. How do you express your feelings?

(52) Amanda, June 10, 2014 7:52 PM

Bah! The majority of american women these days become 'offended' for virtually anything.

(51) Anonymous, February 15, 2014 9:14 PM

Both were Negligent

Um... not to be rude, but aren't you guys being a tad bit harsh on the woman and this Randy character?

While I understand that the realtor was Orthodox Jewish and had to adhere to rules and customs, you have to remember that the woman and the Ethnicist guy AREN'T and, as a result, wouldn't be privy to that type of information prior to the occurrence. Yes, Randy didn't do his research but the realtor didn't seem too understanding in that situation as well.

I kind of had a similar experience where I worked together with a Jewish friend and some of his associates on a project.
After the project was completed, everyone shook each other's hands and congratulated everyone for their work. However, when I offered to shake one particular person's hand, he just politely said "I'm Orthodox Jewish," waved and left it at that. As someone who was taught that a professional handshake is polite, I was initially confused by this. But then I became slightly annoyed when my friend (who is a married man as well) gave me a pat on the shoulder and a hug. Now I had a very limited knowledge about the different sects of Judaism and didn't know about the orthodox rules until I looked it up. While I understand why the gentleman refused, it would have cut out some unnecessary embarrassment (as one would feel having a handshake denied in public) and a potentially disastrous misunderstanding if he would have just explained his reasoning instead of assuming I knew what he was talking about.

(50) Molly, October 15, 2013 2:51 PM

They are thinking about it incorrectly

As is very common these days, the woman and the so-called ethicist are assuming that the hand shaking was all about her. It has nothing to do with her! If the agent was friendly and polite to her, clearly he doesn't hate women! It seems that most of us are willing to accept all sorts of different cultures,as long as they aren't religiously motivated. These two had already decided that Orthodox Jews "hate women", long before the hand shaking incident. I remember a similar situation where members of a Black community felt that Korean shop owners were racist because they put the money they gave as change on the counter, and not in a person's hand. It was not racism against Black customers, just a cultural preference not to put money into someone's hand, which is considered crude in their culture.

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