View From a Height
Commentary from the Mile High City
Monday, December 23, 2002
The New York Jewish Week comments on the controversy surrounding "ethicist" Randy Cohen and his call for an effective business boycott of Orthodox Jewish men who follow the custom of not shaking hands with women. Cohen, a Reform Jew who barely attends temple himself, evidently feels qualified to pass judgment on Jewish Law, and claims that this is based on a rabbinic fear that the man will be "whipped into a sexual frenzy."

Look, there's appropriate contact, and inappropriate contact. Many Orthodox businessmen shake women's hands to avoid embarassing them. But many don't, and Cohen's disrespect for strict religious observance should offend people of any faith.

Cohen professes to be an "ethicist," but the only ethical principle he gives credence to is absolute egalitarianism. Utilitarian arguments might suggest that an economy and a society function better if people don't take offense at everything. A Kantian might argue that reversibility requires the woman to be respectful of others' religious obligations; just as she would want hers respected. There are plenty of Western ethical constructs that would find some solution short of condemnation.

But at a more basic level, Cohen just hasn't bothered to do his homework. The Orthodox man in this case isn't refusing to shake the woman's hand out of contempt, but out of a decent respect for relations between the sexes as he sees them. Jewish ethics imposes an obligation, observed to differing degrees, to observe some separation. But apparently, Cohen has no room for those ethics in his analyses.

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