The Ethicist and The Jews

In the October 27 issue of the New York Times Magazine, the column The Ethicist featured the letter, and Randy Cohen's response, below.

Three weeks later, The New York Times printed a selection of the "hundreds of [letters from] Orthodox Jews, outraged at criticism of a religious rule banning a handshake between the sexes."

The New York Times
The New York Times


Between the Sexes


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

This culture clash may not allow you to reconcile the values you esteem. Though the agent dealt you only a petty slight, without ill intent, you're entitled to work with someone who will treat you with the dignity and respect he shows his male clients. If this involved only his own person -- adherence to laws concerning diet or dress, for example -- you should of course be tolerant. But his actions directly affect you. And sexism is sexism, even when motivated by religious convictions. I believe you should tear up your contract.

Had he declined to shake hands with everyone, there would be no problem. What he may not do, however, is render a class of people untouchable. Were he, say, an airline ticket clerk who refused to touch Asian-Americans, he would find himself in hot water and rightly so. Bias on the basis of sex is equally discreditable.

Some religions (and some civil societies) that assign men and women distinct spheres argue that while those two spheres are different, neither is inferior to the other. This sort of reasoning was rejected in 1954 in the great school desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education, when the Supreme Court declared that separate is by its very nature unequal. That's a pretty good ethical guideline for ordinary life.

There's a terrific moment in ''Cool Hand Luke,'' when a prison guard about to put Paul Newman in the sweatbox says -- I quote from memory -- ''Sorry, Luke, just doing my job.'' Newman replies, ''Calling it your job don't make it right, boss.'' Religion, same deal. Calling an offensive action religious doesn't make it right.


The Ethicist was reprimanded by hundreds of Orthodox Jews, outraged at criticism of a religious rule banning a handshake between the sexes.

Between the Sexes

As a Jew, a feminist and a future rabbi, I share the Ethicist's contempt for discriminatory religious norms and practices (Oct.27). However, the practice of ''shomer negiah'' -- of refraining from engaging in any physical contact with members of the opposite sex who are not family -- does not fall into this category. Had the Ethicist done his research, he would have known that the laws of negiah apply equally to both sexes and do not render either women or men peculiarly ''untouchable.'' These laws are based on the belief that platonic male-female contact can easily degenerate into sexual impropriety.

Whether or not one agrees with this logic, it does not lend itself to an accusation of sexism. The real disgrace is that the Ethicist answered this query without educating himself about the religious practice upon which it is based and without consulting Jewish authorities who could assist him in this endeavor.

Cara Weinstein Rosenthal
South Orange, N.J.

The Orthodox Jew who refused to shake a woman's hand after signing a real-estate contract was wrongfully accused of sexism and of acting without the ''dignity and respect he shows his male clients.'' Rather, it was out of respect to his own wife and to other women that the man did not extend his hand; his intent was to elevate and sanctify the relationship between men and women, which is all too often trivialized.

Helen Pogrin
New York

A real-estate agent is hired to rent a house, and the woman who hires him wants to tear up the contract because his religious beliefs prevent him from shaking hands? The agent was courteous and competent. What more did she want? The prohibition of physical contact between unrelated men and women has nothing to do with sexism. Religious freedom is a constitutional and moral right. No one should understand that more than the Ethicist.

Robert M. Gottesman
Englewood, N.J.