November 14, 2002
Ethics and Ironies
At least Ann Landers admitted when she was wrong.
And while she may have used a pseudonym, Esther Pauline "Eppie" Lederer claimed only to offer one woman's point of view -- no more, no less.
Times, alas, have changed, and along with them, The New York Times, whose Sunday Magazine's readers are offered the judgments of "The Ethicist." The bearer of that grandiose title also has a name -- Randy Cohen -- but his designation is clearly meant to imply gravitas.
Cohen is generally sensible and very often quite funny. On Oct. 27, though, he goofed badly. And, what is worse, he seems unwilling to own up to his error, not an encouraging sign for any honorable man, much less still The Ethicist.
The question in question came from a woman who had closed a deal with an Orthodox Jewish real estate agent. She became offended, though, when the otherwise "courteous and competent" man declined to shake her hand, explaining that touching a woman other than his wife violated his religious code of conduct. The offendee wanted to tear up the contract they had signed, and sought the columnist's advice.
"Sexism is sexism," Cohen responded, "even when motivated by religious convictions." And, invoking Brown vs. Board of Education to argue that "separate is by its very nature unequal," he advised his supplicant to rip away.
Had he bothered to inquire, The Ethicist would have discovered that the Jewish religious prohibition at issue in no way "render[s] a class of people untouchable," to use his words; it rather disapproves of a behavior. And it does so in a decidedly egalitarian manner. Both men and women are equally bound by Jewish law to refrain from affectionate physical contact with members of the other gender to whom they are not married. Many Orthodox authorities consider even a handshake to be included in the prohibition.
With that stricture, halacha expresses not sexism, but rather respect for both men and women -- respect, that is, for the power of sexuality that Judaism reminds us is an integral part of the human condition.
That power, according to Jewish thought, when properly used is a deeply holy thing. Allowed free reign, though, it is an equally destructive one.
In our sex-saturated -- and in fact, as a result, sexist -- society, men and women eschewing handshakes to avoid any semblance of misplaced sexuality might seem a bit much to many. But that says something only about our base and cynical times, not about deeper, timeless truths. And a good case could in fact be made that the morally confused times in which we live require us to exercise more caution than ever in the realm of physical contact between the sexes. A cursory familiarity with current events should suffice to reveal how easily "casual" interactions can devolve into less innocent, even abusive, ones.
Cohen, of course, may not see things that way. But even he, one imagines, would admit that imposing unwanted physical contact is wrong. And so, as one reader of Cohen's column wryly noted: "'Touch me or you're fired'" would seem "a perfect example of sexual harassment" -- hardly ethical by any measure.
While hope springs eternal, The Ethicist, at least so far, refuses to budge. Responding to some who contacted him, he pronounced: "That the origins of [the halachic prohibition] seem benign make it no less sexist and no less contrary to the values of an egalitarian society." Creating "separate spheres for women and men," he insists, remains "a manifestation of sexism."
Asked if his gender-blindness extended to endorsement of unisex restrooms and dressing rooms, he admitted that "there are a few cases where gender distinctions might be justified."
In other words, according to The Ethicist, it all depends on what he happens to feel is ethical.
Cohen makes no claim to speak for Judaism -- he was raised Reform but takes a "resolutely secular approach to ethics," as he explained in an interview -- and indeed does not. But an ethical ideal to which he clearly subscribes is tolerance. And that should include tolerance of others who choose to subscribe to Torah, not Cohen.
Just imagine The Ethicist's ideal society. Men and women who, out of religious principle, eschew physical contact with members of the opposite sex would effectively be barred from pursuing their livelihoods. But society would be purged of sexism, real or imagined, and all would be well with the world -- at least in Cohen's eyes.
And so we are left with the irony of an intolerant Ethicist. And one, in fact, who embraces decidedly unethical behavior.
For in his quest for some illusory absolute egalitarianism, Cohen did, after all, counsel a questioner to tear up a contract she and her business partner had just signed.
Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America .