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The Woman who Would Not Shake Biden's Hand

July 17, 2022 | by Mati Wagner

Israeli pop star, Yuval Dayan, sets off a firestorm. She’s just being true to herself.

Op-ed: US President Joe Biden extended his hand to Yuval Dayan, the popular Israeli female singer who had just finished performing "Let it Be" at Israel's Presidential Residence. But instead of shaking his hand, she smiled and curtseyed respectfully.

Dayan's very public act of religious modesty sparked intense debate on social media and made headlines in Israeli news. Some rabbis praised her for proudly and publicly upholding Jewish law, which can be interpreted as prohibiting a handshake between a woman and a man who is not her husband or a close relative. These rabbis argued Dayan served as a role model for other women.

In contrast, some feminists argued Dayan was kowtowing to a patriarchy that objectifies women's bodies. She was, said the feminists, buying in to the idea that women "ask for" sexual harassment through their behavior, even if it’s a handshake.

Dayan's take was different. "I just wanted to represent our country with dignity while remaining faithful to my values as a religious woman."

Dayan's decision to abide by the rabbinic opinions that prohibit her shaking hands with a man, even if that man is the President of the United States, seems to be part of her own search for authenticity and being true to who she is.

In a new song released last month she makes this clear. She sings of her humble beginnings and of her struggles to embrace Judaism and Jewish law despite all the temptations that accompany stardom. The song is about authenticity and being true to who you are.

Judging from her own comments and from her latest song, Dayan, whose first two albums went platinum in Israel, was not trying to make a statement about the way other women should behave, as some rabbis suggested. Nor was she obsequiously deferring to the "patriarchy." Rather, she was doing something much more down-to-earth: remaining faithful to her values and beliefs, even when social convention dictates that she should behave otherwise.

Israeli pop star, Yuval Dayan

One of the main takeaways from the Me Too movement is the importance of maintaining a sense of autonomy and empowerment in the face of pressure from powerful figures or corrupt norms. Having the courage to stand up for one's beliefs and values, even when it is unpopular or objectionable to others or when one is forced to pay a price for doing so, is essential for living a moral life.

Yuval Dayan could have shaken the US president's hand. That would have been the easy way out. But Dayan stuck to her principles. She was willing to risk any subsequent fallout and controversy in order to stay true to her values. She also informed the staff of the Israeli president in advance of her commitment to her religious faith.

She might be criticized by some for taking an overly stringent position on the question of a handshake (some rabbis permit it in a situation like this) or for her purported deference to those who claim that a woman is to blame if she is sexually harassed. But many, including myself, respect her for being authentic and true to herself.

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