Sunday, April 26, 2015

Managing Lust and Shaking a woman’s hand/a Cross-Cultural/Interfaith Perspective – Tazria

Julie Bishop in Iran, image from
Julie Bishop is Australia’s tough talking foreign minister and a conservative politician who had personally taken on Putin and got what she wanted (1).  She disappointed some of her fans this week when she arguably ‘caved in to the religious demands of the Iranians’ by covering her head. Different ways of dealing with lust certainly stir the passions. In this post I explore my traditions’ teachings on this issue and explore how one might deal ethically with these differences. 

Judaism is quite concerned with managing lust. Jewish men are commanded to place strings on the corners of our garments to prevent us straying after “our eyes and hearts” (2).  Jewish women as well as men are instructed to avoid physical contact between people of opposite genders except close family members.  A woman putting out her hand to shake the hand of a strict Jew or Muslim might find her hand left awkwardly hanging because of these kinds of laws.  Should she? Shouldn’t a man living in the west just shake her hand?

From a cross-cultural ethical perspective, a useful question is whether the requirement from either party is a preference or a need. For some religious Jewish men and women, the prohibition against physical contact with the opposite gender is an absolute prohibition (3). To insist that he or she violate their divine law is to demand an act against their conscience.  On the other hand the religious person needs to be aware that their reality is meaningless to someone outside their own religious culture. Their refusal to shake hands will be experienced as sexist and hurtful and as unreal as the monsters children see under their beds,  and in the case of a black man and a Jewish woman, even as  racist.

One approach within Jewish law is to consider the context of the original prohibition: the avoidance of sexual touch or at least affectionate touch (4), which is completely different to the meaning of a modern handshake. A second argument is that to avoid causing embarrassment to someone who puts out their hand and it is left hanging should be the main consideration (5).  This second argument is one I have also heard from Muslim Imams who would choose to shake hands with a woman for this reason.

Yet, for the very religious Jew who follows the view that the cross-gender handshake is forbidden, the Torah is the primary context. While sex within marriage is a considered a virtuous deed in the Torah, there is a concern about the corrupting potential of lust and the call for men to “sanctify themselves” during sex (6). Judaism is also concerned that a man might focus on satisfying himself rather than on his wife’s pleasure. To address this, although not politically correct, the Talmud promises men who ensure that their wives climax first, the reward of male sons (7).   This promise is based on the verse in the Torah: “a woman, when she “seeds”, she will give birth to a male (8)”.  Loving appropriate sex that is “sanctified and tempered by mutual respect”, is contrasted with self-centred and dominant sexuality. The quest for the former and negation of the latter is linked to the symbolism of Circumcision (9).  

Of course there are various ways in which to love and have respectful sexual practices. Strict religion has no monopoly on ethical sex. On the other hand, the strict orthodox Jewish approach does have some benefits. Young men and women are free from being pressured into having sex and all that can come with it (10), before they are ready. Some even escape body image preoccupations until they are in their 20s and are ready to marry. Fidelity in marriage is high, adultery and sexual harassment is low.

Ultimately, what is required is cross-cultural respect. Shaking a woman’s hand when it is offered is one way some religious people show respect by prioritising her dignity. A non-religious man showing understanding for a religious woman who won’t shake his hand is another. Julie Bishop putting on a head scarf also showed respect for people with a different way of being. That is a strength.

2)    Numbers 15:39
3) “In Mishneh Halachos (6:223)  Rav Menashe Klein is asked about shaking hands with a woman who offers her hand and it would be embarrassing to her if rebuffed.  Rav Menashe Klein states: “that this is absolutely not a heter” (excemption, or grounds for special dispensation).  “Not embarrassing someone is not a sufficient reason to transgress "Abizrahu D'Giluy Arayos"; an ancillary prohibition to illicit relationships…”
4)    This distinction is discussed in various contexts. The Shach (Sifsei Cohen – Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 157:10 states that Maimonides only stated (in a discussion of the prohibition of contact between the sexes) “when one does hugging and kissing, in a way that is sexually affectionate”. However the counter argument by Rav Menashe Klein is that the case of the Shach is a Doctor taking the pulse of a woman.  Since it is in the course of carrying out a professional duty the Shach is lenient. This might not apply to social gestures where there isn’t that hyper focus of the professional such as a doctor with a patient. A question was asked of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein about travelling on the New York subway in which men and women come into contact with each other on the crowded trains. He explains that the prohibition of physical contact discussed by Maimonides is “only in the way of desire/lust”. (Igros Moshe, Even Haezer, vol. 2, 14). Rabbi Feinstein does not apply that distinction to handshaking, which he suggests is forbidden although he acknowledges that Rabbi Yaakov Gershon Burstein (in Igros Moshe, Even Ezer, vol 1, 56) “who said that he saw God fearing (people) that are lenient about this, one can judge favourably that they rely on the principle that if she puts out her hand to them that they would not be doing it in a way of affection and lust, but it is difficult to rely on this… this is not a contradiction to what I permitted for people to travel on buses, because in that case there is not, for anyone, any situation of affection” (Igros Moshe, Even Haezer, vol. 4, 32:9). A detailed argument to permit handshaking is made by Henkin, Rabbi Y,
5)    Sherlo, Rabbi, Y.,  Rabbi Cherlow is Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Hesder Petach Tikva. One blogger claimed that “Among many, Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky has been quoted as saying that one should shake hands and not embarrass others at the expense of one’s Chumros (stringencies)”. a second hand account stated: “Rav Schachter - conflicting reports. A friend of mine saw him shake a woman's hand in the bank, and on being asked about it he explained that it wasn't possible to explain and wasn't derech chiba and he'll probably never even see her again. I have heard similar statements from him. I have also heard from him that it should be avoided if possible to do so in a polite way, which seems fair…(in terms of the first story) I can vouch to its authenticity, since my chavrusa was there, although that doesn't help the rest of you”
6)    Talmud Shavuot 18b, this is also related to the verse in Leviticus 12:2, but linked to its proximity to a the commandments about sanctifying oneself “you shall sanctify yourselves and you should be holy because I am holy” found 4 verses earlier in Leviticus 11:44
7)    Talmud Nida 31a
8)    Leviticus 12:2
9)    Sacks Bris Millah,, circumcision is also discussed at the beginning of our Torah reading this week, Tazria, Leviticus 12:3


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Closing the Empathy Gap with the “unlike”

Last night I had a powerful experience that relates to the issues of discrimination and compassion for people who seem different to “us”.

At a skilfully facilitated session (1) led by Shoshana Faire and Chantelle Ogilvie-Eliss (and initiated by the recently departed social justice champion, Elizabeth Ban) we were asked to tell as personal story that relates to one of four values themes.

 I told a story about something that didn’t happen. I didn’t show up at a birthday party on a boat for my non-Jewish friend Ray. Ray had been a good friend, he helped me when I had car trouble, he was loving and generous in his attitudes and words about me personally and he also volunteered huge amounts of time for a project we did together. Yet, I didn’t attend his special celebration. Perhaps I didn’t forget. It might have never fully registered in the first place. I am ashamed to say it, but at that early stage of my cross-cultural interfaith journey, I think I had a deep mental block about personal friendship with a “goy”. 

The six men and women I sat with shared anecdotes about freedom and cross cultural acceptance. Then we heard from a Hazara boy who recently finished school and a Tamil schoolgirl of 17 about their values, like charity, compassion, caring for others, independent thinking, fun playing volley ball and education. We really connected! I certainly care more now about the plight of asylums seekers subjected to cruel policies in Australia, than I cared yesterday before this session.

I think the power of the experience last night relates to two ideas discussed in the academic literature. One is that “research indicates a strong inverse relationship between levels of prejudice and empathy (2) and suggests that “invoking empathy can reduce racism levels (3) ”. This research found that empathy is more significant than information in countering prejudice. Yet, another scholar argues “We have more empathy for those we see as (being) like us”. In one research experiment “when viewing pictures of faces, people showed more empathetic responses, as measured by physiology and self report, for members of the same ethnic group” and that”empathy leads to helping only in cases when the  person in need is a member of the in‐group (4)”. This sounds like a ‘catch 22’, empathy is key to countering prejudice, yet empathy is least likely in cross-cultural situations, unless of course one can come to see “them” as one of “us”. This was certainly achieved last night. 

It is appropriate that the Torah reading this week deals with the un-kosher bird, called the stork in English but “Hasida” in Hebrew. There is a belief in Judaism that non-Kosher animals have bad characteristics, yet the name of the stork, “Hasida” is related to the word “Hesed” which means kindness. Yet our traditions teaches us that the stork is only “kind to its friends”, or its “own kind” (5). My prayer is that more Australians can extend our tradition of mateship to our fellow humans seeking safety and a better life on our shores. Let us all realise that “they” are “us”.

1)    The event was hosted by the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies in collaboration with the Sydney Alliance
2)    Batterham, D. (2001). Modern racism, reconciliation and attributions for disadvantage: A role for empathy and false beliefs? cited Pedersen, A., Walker, I., & Wise, M. (2005). Talk Does Not Cook Rice: Beyond anti-racism rhetoric to strategies for social action. Australian Psychologist, 40, 20-30.
3)    Finlay & Stephan, 2000 Finlay, K. A., & Stephan, W. G. (2000). Improving intergroup relations: The effects of empathy on racial attitudes, cited in Pedersen
4)    Prinz, J, Is Empathy Necessary For Morality, accessed 14.04.2015
5)    This theme is further developed in my post