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Is Judaism Sexist?

by David Bendory, Summer 2004

The simple answer to the question "Is Judaism sexist?" is an adamant "no." Unfortunately, those of us raised in these supposedly "enlightened" times are unable to see beyond the boundaries of mechitza (the partition dividing the men's and women's sections in synagogue) to appreciate what Judaism has to say about the sexes.

I am reminded of a column by Randy Cowen who writes "The Ethicist" for The New York Times on Sundays. Someone wrote in to ask the following question (I'm paraphrasing):

Dear Ethicist:

I recently closed a real estate transaction. The counterparty, an Orthodox Jewish man, refused to shake my hand because I am a woman. Should I accept this and go through with the deal, or is this lack of respect a deal breaker?

—Ms. Woman

The ethicist responded (I'm paraphrasing again.):

Dear Ms. Woman:

In our culture, the handshake represents the consummation of a deal, affirmation of agreement, and mutual consideration and respect between the parties. If the counterparty cannot respond to a simple handshake, there is no doubt that he is not trustworthy to go through with the deal. He doesn't respect you as an individual. Why would you do business with such a person?

The Ethicist

This column resulted in an outpouring of letters of protest to the Times. The Times and the Ethicist, the bastions of liberal tolerance and political correctness, were assailed for their closed-minded and possibly anti-Semitic views. While they are tolerant of every other culture's morals and values, they were accused of severe intolerance with regard to the ways of the Orthodox.

Unfortunately, Ms. Woman, the Ethicist, and all the letter writers missed the point. Mr. Orthodox did indeed refuse to shake Ms. Woman's hand because she was a woman. But that had nothing to do with his disrespect for her. In fact, it had to do with his utmost respect for women. Now, before you accuse me of "putting women on a pedestal," read on.

You see, we Orthodox have our own code of modesty which functions very differently from that of our surrounding society. It would have been immodest for Mr. Orthodox to shake Ms. Woman's hand — not immodest of her but immodest of him. How is that?

Well, an Orthodox man is only allowed physical contact with a very small set of girls and women. These include: his daughters, mother, sisters, and wife. Among these women, only one — his wife — is not a blood relative. As such, she is the only woman sexually available to him. (Women have a reciprocal set of restrictions placed upon them.) To touch any other woman outside of these boundaries is considered not only immodest behavior but insulting to his spouse.

It has been years since I had physical contact with any woman other than my wife. Being this careful about touch has made me dramatically sensitive to it. I am aware of minor brushes with strangers in subways and lines. Suddenly the sensuality of a casual stroke is electrifying, powerful, and highly potent. When the only legitimate outlet for such contact is your spouse, all of your desire for sensuality is channeled into marital intimacy. The results are simply explosive: my nearly 10-year-old marriage maintains all the passion of our first week. (No, that is not an exaggeration.)

In contrast, our American society — that same culture from which we gaze in at Judaism and label it "sexist" — has cheapened touch. Friends kiss each other's spouses hello. Married men and women dance with each other's spouses in ways which were rated "R" (or "X") when I was growing up. We raise our children on music videos so sexually explicit there is no longer any room for innuendo. Not only is all of this behavior immodest, it is downright degrading to those who engage in it — both men and women. I can't imagine my fury if I saw my spouse dancing close with another man. Such behavior would be tantamount to her having an affair. And G-d help me if she saw me do such a thing. How could we possibly degrade the importance of touch to the point where "one little kiss," hug, or dance with another is meaningless? And if it is so meaningless, so unimportant, why is it so desired among singles?

And yet it is from this point of view, the point of view of this "value system" in which women and men are free to pursue whatever sensual delights they choose, that we have the audacity to label Judaism "sexist" for maintining its utmost respect for the dignity of the sexes. Well, if I'm sexist for reserving myself for my wife, so be it. I would rather offer her the respect she deserves than be "liberated" enough to kiss every woman who comes my way.

I'll take Torah. Let the masses have MTV.

Back to Lo Ba'Shamayim Hi

For concise but thorough essays on this topic, see:

For a beautiful essay on the impact of such Torah values on our children, see The Age of Innocence on Aish HaTorah.

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