Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Touch Goeth Both Ways

Beyond BT, links an article discussing the election of Jason Bedrick, a 23 year old Orthodox Jew and Lubavitcher Chassid elected to the New Hampshire State Legislator. This is quite an accomplishment for New Hampshire, which is home to fewer than 10 Orthodox Jewish families and has a population that is about one percent Jewish, according to a source quoted in the article.

Parenthetically, are these figure correct for Orthodoxy in the entire state of New Hamshire? For one thing, summer vacationers don't count ! See here and here.

Representative Bedrick is a proud Jew, and the article discusses the usual issues facing Orthodox politicians, such as Shabbos observance and kosher food. The article also mentions that Bedrick will not shake hands with women. I am not getting involved in what a person should do when faced with such a situation in a business or professional setting--consult your local Orthodox rabbi for guidance on this serious issue!

But what is most amazing is that Bedrick actually received support from several members of the Salem Women's Club, who were instrumental in his victory at the polls! In fact, Bedrick won the recount in his Windham and Salem district, which consists of a population of 4,500, by six votes.

Perhaps the fact that New Hampshire historically had a religious character, has something to do with such respect shown today towards religious values. The Salem Witch Trials, though, were obviously a negative manifestation of religious belief in New England. In Salem, Massachusetts today(not to be confused with Salem, New Hampshire, Jason Bedrick's district) interest in the witch trials feed the tourist industry.

The article discusses the role the women's club played in his election:

Barbara Elliot, co-president of the club, and several of her female friends voted for Bedrick after he wrote them an e-mail explaining why he does not shake hands with women.

"After they read this, my girlfriends understood it was not because he did not like women. It was because of his religion. They changed their mind and they voted for him," Elliot said, adding she would be proud to have Bedrick as a son. "I definitely got him his five votes there."

It appears from the quotations below that Bedrick is explaining the issue of handshaking to women who might perceive the issue as an insult to women, and that is perhaps why he expresses the issue from a feminine perspective:

“My faith out of respect for women does not allow contact between unrelated men and women,” said Rep. Jason Bedrick, 23, R-Windham. He said he explains this on a daily basis to female colleagues who reach out their hands to him.

Usually, that’s the end of the conversation, he says, but sometimes, when he senses the woman isn’t convinced, he adds: “If every man in the world were to keep his hands to himself, would it be a better world for women or a worse world for women?”

In truth however, touch goeth both ways, and the issue should not be phrased solely in terms of respecting women. Regarding physical contact between genders in general, the halacha is completely egalitarian; the prohibition, when applicable, applies equally to both parties. The issue of physical contact between genders, if one puts it in terms of respect, is as much as about respecting men as it is about respecting women! Should a man whose hand is rejected by a woman feel that men are inferior? In terms of respect, maybe the woman is respecting him?

As the first of the articles linked below points out:

Strictly observant Jewish women also do not touch men, so the prohibition clearly does not confer "untouchable" status on one sex or another. Rather it proscribes physical contact between sexes equally.

Perhaps Jason Bedrick does mention this point as well in his encouters.

I can see that there might be a need, regarding the the essence of the concept of mikvah and tahras hamishpocha, to explain that the halacha has nothing to do with seeing women as inferior. And I can also understand that in some cases, the status of the relationship being forbidden or permissable, originates with the women's status(eg, eishes ish and niddah versus incestual relationships). However, in actuality, as far as the mutual issur( prohibition) of physical contact which takes effect between both sexes, there is no need to emphasize either gender, as the issue is the status of the relationship and the mutual contact between two people.

See articles linked below, the first three of which make the point that physical contact in general, and handshaking in particular, have nothing to do with favoring one gender over the other. The first three of the articles below were written in response to the infamous "teshuvah" of the Ethicist, who erred grievously in misunderstanding this point.

See link here, here, here and here.

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