The Jewish Ethicist: Discriminating Against Discrimination


When does toleration conflict with standing up for equal rights?

Note to readers: The following question was sent to a columnist in a major American newspaper. His reply generated much controversy, and a number of readers requested that I respond to the same issue. AM

Q. The courteous and competent real-estate agent I'd just hired to rent my house shocked and offended me when, after we signed our contract, he refused to shake my hand, saying that as an Orthodox Jew he did not touch women. As a feminist, I oppose sex discrimination of all sorts. However, I also support freedom of religious expression. How do I balance these conflicting values? Should I tear up our contract? J.L., New York

A. There are indeed profound paradoxes in the seemingly straightforward ideals of toleration and freedom. These ideals raise perplexing questions: Should I be tolerant even of intolerance? Should I support freedom even for tyranny?

The key to resolving paradoxes like these is to go beyond superficial slogans and reflexive statements and examine the deeper meaning of our ideals.

A commitment to tolerance means an acknowledgment that no single person can encompass the totality of truth. Reality is so vast, so complex, that a myriad of distinct individual viewpoints are necessary in order to enable us to begin to comprehend it. The Talmud prescribes a special blessing on seeing 600,000 people at once, blessing God Who comprehends the “wisdom of secrets.” The Talmud's explanation for this blessing is that “Just as each person's face is different, so are each person's beliefs different.” Only when we have thousands upon thousands of people together do we begin together to approach an understanding of the world's inner being. This variation among human beings is not only acceptable -- it elicits a blessing.

Yet this doesn't mean that all beliefs are valid! The Sages of the Talmud certainly acknowledge that some beliefs are completely false and dangerous. They identified a few fundamental ideas as being so contrary to the very foundation of Jewish belief that they stated that those who hold them endanger their place in the World to Come.

When probing the limits of toleration, we must ask ourselves: Is this opposing view an additional, alternative piece of the puzzle of existence? Is it one more facet of the “wisdom of secrets”? Or does this view attack the foundation of existence?

This approach allows us to remain passionate in our own beliefs, while remaining tolerant of many other points of view because we recognize some essential insight or lesson they convey.

Applying this criterion to your own dilemma, we must ask ourselves: Is the custom of many Orthodox Jews not to shake hands with members of the opposite sex one piece of the picture of ideal human relations, or a contradiction to it? It seems clear to me that this practice is indeed one aspect of the ideal, even an essential aspect.

Building healthy and respectful relations between men and women requires a delicate balance: there is a desire to develop normal friendly interaction, yet there is also a need to avoid the overtones of exploitation and objectification which have an unfortunate tendency to develop when expressions of intimacy creep in.

In order to make progress towards this balance, there must be an uncompromising insistence that everyday social and commercial interaction should have no degrading physical overtones. One way of expressing this insistence is to refrain from any physical contact with members of the opposite sex in an ordinary social context, as practiced by Orthodox Jewish men and women. In this way, expressions of intimacy between men and women are limited to non-exploitative relationships of total commitment.

It is true that feminists are strongly opposed to any practice that seems to impose a subservient position on women. But their viewpoint shouldn't constitute any obstacle to this common Orthodox custom, since the custom applies in a completely parallel way to men and women alike.

When I was in college, I took a course in feminism from a distinguished scholar, Professor Barbara Solomon. One point that my section leader in this fascinating course strongly emphasized was that there can be degrading as well as uplifting equality between the sexes. Her example was that the goal of equal treatment of the sexes in media representation was meant to end the portrayal of women as sex objects. To her dismay, the result seemed to be the opposite: the treatment of men and women equally as sex objects. I am convinced that fully equal treatment of men and women with regard to physical contact would have the same effect: more rather than less objectification.

You should not view your agent's religious expression as an affront to your humanistic ideals. Rather, this particular custom is an affirmation, albeit a partial one, of these ideals. Avoiding casual physical contact with members of the opposite sex is one way of demonstrating resistance to relationships that objectify men and women.

Answering your more practical question, it is clear that tearing up your contract would be completely unethical. Even if you can't convince yourself that your agent's action deserves respect and toleration, taking offense at someone is certainly not grounds for reneging on a signed agreement.

SOURCES: Talmud - Brachot 58a; Sanhedrin 90a; Meiri commentary on Avoda Zara 20a.

For another perspective on this issue, please see: Shaking Hands with the Opposite Gender.

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