Talking nonsense about religion

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Ever notice how many ridiculous assertions, many of them touching on matters of religion, are printed in serious journals weekly? Last week’s non sequitur prize goes to Jerusalem Report‘s cover story on sexual harassment in Israel. The article quotes a number of social scientists who purport to identify various social and cultural factors that make Israeli society a fertile ground for the phenomenon, including – you guessed it – Judaism.

Among the social factors cited are Israel’s lack of separation of state and religion and the inferior status of women in Judaism. As an example of the latter, social anthropologist Dr. Esther Hertzog notes that former Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau is considered a possible candidate for president despite the fact that he does not shake hands with women.

Frankly, the connection between Rabbi Lau’s handshaking habits and sexual harassment escapes me.

Are those who do not shake hands with women more likely to engage in sexual harassment of various kinds? If memory serves, a recent president of the United States was as affable and undiscriminating a presser of the flesh as ever came down the pike. That did not prevent him from being the subject of at least one charge of rape and many others of groping and lewd behavior no less credible than those being hurled at President Katsav today.

Yet, as far as I know, Bill Clinton is not Jewish; the Hot Springs, Arkansas, in which he grew up, was not notably suffused with Jewish values; and there is a full separation of state and religion in the United States.

Here’s an interesting idea for a study by our social anthropologists: Survey religious women in the secular workplace to determine whether they are subjected to the same sexually crude remarks, suggestiveness, and outright solicitation as their secular counterparts. Or do their standards of dress, demeanor and conduct, and hair covering convey a clear message that they are off-limits and have no desire to be part of co-workers’ sexual fantasies?

One Orthodox woman who worked for years in a newsroom where the male reporters regularly regaled one another – and women reporters who feared being thought to be prissy – with vulgar jokes told me that not once did they invite her to join the fun.

IT IS not traditional Jewish norms that have provided fertile soil for sexual harassment in Israel, but their absence. The Jerusalem Report article provides no cross-cultural statistics suggesting that sexual harassment is more prevalent in Israel than other modern Western societies. And even if it were, the explanation would have far more to do with the original decision to draft women into the IDF (made over fierce ultra-Orthodox opposition), where, in the words of one former Chief of Staff, they served primarily as morale boosters for male soldiers and officers.

The failure of strong legal sanctions to eliminate sexual harassment in the Israeli workplace results primarily from the impossibility of superimposing a legal regime on the workplace that flies in the face of the hypersexualized general culture. Israel’s tabloids, popular music, and TV sit-coms all promote the idea that the main thing on virtually everyone’s minds is sex.

It is impossible to expect people living in a world of double entendres, sex clubs, and clothing designed to leave as little to the imagination as possible to suddenly park the conventions of that world upon entering the work place. And that is especially so when workplace dress no longer signals any clear line of demarcation.

The highest aspiration of our young is to be a celebrity in the Paris Hilton mold. Young girls judge themselves on a scale of how “hot” they are – i.e., by how much attention they attract – in a complete inversion of the original feminist ideal of women being judged as something other than sex objects.

In one poll, cited in the Report article, only 18% of female soldiers reported being subjected to sexual harassment in the IDF. But when asked whether male soldiers or officers had made crude remarks of a sexual nature to them, 55% answered affirmatively. One possible explanation of the disparity is that the crude remarks were not experienced as sexual harassment because they were not entirely unsought, as evidenced by efforts of female cadets to tug their army issue pants ever lower.

WOMEN ARE victims in this process, but not complete innocents. More than one secular writer has noted that there are body parts on regular display in Israel seen nowhere else in the world in public. And the goal is not to turn young men’s thoughts to Aristotle or Proust.

Haim Ramon’s accuser may not have expected to be forcibly kissed. But it is not hard to understand why Ramon might have expected a different response from a near stranger, several decades his junior, who had gone out of her way to be photographed embracing him.

Such confusion and mixed messages are inevitable in a society where sex is up front all the time. A little more of the traditional Jewish sexual modesty would be a big corrective.

MY SECOND entry in the non-sequitur sweepstakes can be found in a recent Jerusalem Post opinion piece (“Thus Spake Zarathustra,” September 15) by the paper’s former managing editor, Calev Ben David: “Any religion in the modern world that does not make an effort to welcome, or seek out, new converts, is fated to diminish.”

As a matter of elementary logic, that statement is false, unless one is discussing the Shakers and other celibate religious communities.

Religions whose members marry and reproduce at a rate in excess of 2.1 children per family will grow. The rapid growth of Muslim populations all over the globe owes little to conversion, and a great deal to high birthrates.

Or let us take a happier example: Orthodox Jews. A close friend of mine in his early ’70s already has a 100 grandchildren plus or minus. With a little more such fecundity, all the hair-pulling about the disappearance of the Jewish people would cease, even if not one more convert entered our ranks.

Indeed demographers predict that by the middle of the century the decline of the Jewish population will bottom out and reverse due to Orthodox growth.

As Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary, never tires of pointing out, American Jewry is disappearing because Jewish women tend to marry, if at all, at a later age and have fewer children than any other religious or ethnic group.

In place of the sentence quoted above, I would offer a far more defensible rule: A religion whose foundational texts and basic tenets are unknown to most of its members, whose rites and practices are observed by few, and which is of so little significance in its members’ lives that well over 50% marry members of other faiths is fated to diminish.

Such a religion, by the way, will exercise little appeal for converts. The heterodox branches of Judaism could hardly be more welcoming to converts, and yet the rate of conversion among gentile spouses of Jews continues to drop.

Now how about a moratorium on silly statements about religion?

Originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post, October 3, 2006.

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22 Responses

  1. Gella Ka says:

    This whole post began with the comment about Rav Lau and it’s wrong – Rav Lau does shake hands with women. He will not put his hand out, but if it is offered he will gladly shake her hand. This is from personal experience, he’s shaken my hand. (and I’m a woman).

  2. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “If we would stop being embarrassed of who we are, we would find that most of the time our beliefs and practices will be accomodated and respected”

    There are two different issues: respect and accommodation. Depending upon the field and level of employment, an employer may indeed respect someone who refuses to shake hands, but since the business world on a whole doesn’t recognize it, he may also not be able to make accommodations for the worker. If it comes to the point that a person turns down a career opportunity because of this issue, he or she deserves respect for the mesiras nefesh involved.

    Regarding the story with Rebbetzin Jungreis and President Bush, the Bostoner Rebbe and his Chassidim had a similar issue when preparing to meet JFK, as they were afraid that Jacqueline might be slighted when they would refuse her handshake. She actually was not in attendance, so this turned out not to be an issue.

  3. J says:

    Very good article.

    On a similar vein, did anyone see the email going around that an Israeli court refused a religious man visitation to his kids because a professional testified that since he is religious and is now divorced, he has no outlet for his sexual desires and is thus more likely to abuse a child. I was shocked by this ridiculous assertion and that it was accepted in a court, but then i thought that maybe it was a hoax? Can anyone confirm or deny this?

  4. grose says:

    Usually Jews are the ones who have problems with the “don’t shake hands with men” line used on them. The non-Jews usually just say “wow, interesting.” That oddity that i’ve noted in my forays into the “outside world” aside: Rebbetzin Jungreis has a fascinating story of this with President Bush. She was invited to be on the dais and was worried about embarrassing the President when she would not shake his hand, so she let the organizers of the event know beforehand the issue and was told it was not a problem. She got nothing less than full respect and cooperation from EVERYONE. The next time she met hte President, he put his hands behind his back and told her that he had his hands behind his back. If we would stop being embarrassed of who we are, we would find that most of the time our beliefs and practices will be accomodated and respected. Yes, there will be times that we will be tested. I worked for a Jewish non-profit and met a politician in the course of my work and did not shake his hand. (I met many politicians and didn’t shake their hands – this one had reprecussions). His aide, a Jew, called the president of the organization to complain that they had such a “fanatic” on board and I was called to task and told to not make my not shaking of hands obvious next time. I, Boruch Hashem, today work within an environment where pride is placed upon keeping Mitzvos and I am never told to “hide” my observance of any one of them.

  5. joel rich says:

    Michoel,
    You as well.
    Gmar Tov,

  6. Michoel says:

    Joel,
    I hear. Good yom tov.

  7. Hirsch says:

    “..At least one charge of rape and many others of groping and lewd behavior no less credible than those being hurled at President Katsav today.”

    Just wondering-does anyone think it really serves any purpose to make honorable mention of the president of israel in the article?

  8. alfie says:

    “The highest aspiration of our young is to be a celebrity in the Paris Hilton mold.”

    I’m pretty sure you are exaggerating here. Or do you really believe that statement? If you do then you need to get out and around more. “our young” — Jewish and Gentile — have high aspirations that have nothing to do with shallow celebrities.

    You do a disservice to your argument by making such silly statements.

  9. Joel Rich says:

    Dear Michoel,
    I’m not sure why you don’t take my post at face value but that is how it was meant and that’s why I made the comment because in the past simple questions I have asked have been misread in much the same way. There was no intended sarcasm; are there not individuals who view the world in the way I articulated? This is not a bad thing (as the Bard put it “only thinking makes it so”)

    I did not intend to get into a debate over permissibility of any of those items or what specific halachik issues were involved. My only intent was to point out that the use of “heterim” in the case presented could be a much broader question than a handshake for some individuals. What about buying lunch for a non-religious individual who won’t make a bracha?

    I didn’t perceive a slight of the modern camp (my general approach is to assume none and try to deal with the issues presented in an intellectually honest way). Reb Boruch – if you meant any slight I apologize for not picking up on it:-)

    Gmar Tov (and mechilla to all)

  10. Michoel says:

    Joel,
    If that is how sarcastic you are when you “don’t mean” it, I would hate to see when you do mean it! Nothing in your list has a clear p’sak that it is assur in the main halachic works, as far as I am aware. They are not comparable to shomer negiah. If you are alluding to Reb Moshe’s t’shuvah on attending college, you probably are aware that Reb Moshe writes clearly that people should not pasken from the Igros.

    Every implied or imagined slight from the “right” to the “left” should not need to be answered by secure individuals in the more modern camps.

  11. Steve Brizel says:

    Like it or not, anyone in the professional world ( i.e. law, finance, computers, medicine, etc) is a gender integrated workplace. A hand shake is perceived there as nothing more than “yasher koach” or “shalom alechem”. One very prominent RY and RK in RIETS ( ask R Adlerstein who) suggests that one use a limp fish handshake in the context of a mixed gender situation. OTOH, that issue is IMO totally distinct from the subject of R Rosenblum’s article, namely that the secular world , which is almost hypersexualized in many ways, has contributed far more to sexual harassmment than the halachos of tznius and that Jewish continuity will never be reassurred via nonexistent requiremements for conversion,

  12. Baruch Horowitz says:

    Joel,

    I didn’t mean anything negative by the use of the word “hetterim”. At the current time, I do not need to avail myself of hetterim in this area, but I do not discount the need at any future time. I was merely curious about other people who are able to tactfully avoid what is currently considered a social faux pas in Western society. I myself use “hetterim” in my life(I shave, for one thing), and I therefore do not judge anyone else’s situation.

  13. joel rich says:

    I would also like to hear from any Orthodox professionals in the secular world (who don’t rely on hetterim)

    Perhaps you could be a bit more explicit since IIUC there are those who might consider the following as needing “heterim”
    1. being a professional (where did they get the education/ wasn’t there some other way of making a living that would require less time away from learning)
    2. working with/for members of the opposite sex
    3. looking at members of the opposite sex
    4. talking to members of the opposite sex

    I don’t mean this as a sarcastic post but rather to point out that one man’s heter is another’s what’s the question.

    Gmar Tov

  14. Steve Brizel says:

    Yasher Koach on an excellent column that once again, emphasized that the secular world, with its complete absence of anything that we would consider modest,is a walking and talking advertisment for sexual harassment and that lowering the standards of conversion has zero to do with maintaining Jewish continuity. I would add that neither major American political party is immune from these charges ( see the current fascination with the spouse of a Republican candidate for AG in NY) and that those who are rushing to indict a now former Republican congressman for inappropriate emails to a page seem to be forgetting that the last Democratic President and two prominent Democratic Congressmen were accused of far worse conduct (i.e. Barney Frank and Gerry Stuggs).

  15. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “However I have noticed that the article has sensitized many non-Orthodox Jewish and non-Jewish women to the fact the religious Jewish men do not shake hands with members of the opposite sex.”

    I am concerned that the article may have made some people more intolerant of religious behavior. Handshaking between genders should be seen in the context of tolerating other religious rights in the workforce, but there is no legal right, and not everyone is that tolerant. I think that the tolerance depends on what area, and what level of work one does. I would also like to hear from any Orthodox professionals in the secular world(who don’t rely on hetterim) to see how they deal with this issue.

  16. Bob Miller says:

    At what point must we cut ourselves off further from the degenerating general society?

  17. Menachem Petrushka says:

    Barziilai

    At first, I was furious at Randy Cohen’s article in which he advocated dismissing an Orthodox real eatate agent because he did not shake the hand of his female client.

    However I have noticed that the article has sensitized many non-Orthodox Jewish and non-Jewish women to the fact the religious Jewish men do not shake hands with members of the opposite sex. These women will now ask if one would be uncomfortable shaking their hands or bypass the hand shaking ritual entirely when dealing with Orthodox males.

    I still believe that the article’s negatives outweigh its positives and have not read his column since then, yet one must mention the good as well as the bad to be truthful.

  18. Micha Berger says:

    I’m curious to know what the reporter would have written had it been a famous Orthodox woman who refused to shake men’s hands…

    -mi

  19. Baruch Horowitz says:

    Regarding the Ethicist’s “ruling”, it should be noted that it works the other way around as well. There are Orthodox women who don’t shake hands with men. The Ethicist and social anthropologist(in Rabbi Lau’s case) are either ignorant or ignores this aspect.

    The Times did print this response from Robert M. Gottesman:

    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.

    See as well this article by Rabbi Rosenblum:

    http://www.aish.com/societyWork/society/Shaking_Hands_with_the_Opposite_Gender.asp

  20. Barzilai says:

    This brings to mind the notorious Ethicist article by Randy Cohen, whose mindset no doubt reflects that of the Jerusalem Report writers. See http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4196/is_20021027/ai_n10840832

  21. Ori Pomerantz says:

    May I try and explain the logic of Calev Ben David’s statement? It is based on the progress assumption, which is this: “Once, everybody did X. Now, some people still do X and some do Y. Therefore, people change from X to Y, and eventually that’s what everybody will do”. For many, this is an unconscious assumption.

    The application here is: “Once, people raised large families. Today, some people still do that, but many people don’t. Therefore, in the future hardly anybody will raise a large family”. This completely ignores the fact that people with large families have more children in the next generation, and that the trait is inherited.

  22. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    Nice job calling things by their proper names.