Secular society is becoming less and less tolerant of gender distinctions of any kind. So it is no wonder that Amanda Bennett, a columnist for the Washington Post, took offense that an Orthodox Jewish man refused to shake her hand at a business function. Rather than accepting this incident for what it was—a religious safeguard—she chose to frame it as gender bias.
In fact, she did see it as a religious choice but nonetheless viewed it as "toxic." Here's the quote: "Why are biased acts against women—even religiously motivated ones—considered so much less toxic than biased acts of any other kind?"
To be sure, Orthodox Jewish men aren't necessarily doing their part to smooth over the awkwardness of rebuffing a woman who puts out her hand for a polite handshake. While there are poskim who have ruled to accept a handshake from a woman, when offered, rather than embarrass her, there are perhaps a greater number of poskim who consider any physical male-female contact absolutely assur, some even mi'De'oraisa,
Nonetheless, headlines are rarely helpful.
When international flights are delayed by men who refuse to take their seats because they believe sitting next to a woman is Halachically problematic, it's hard to find sympathy. One must wonder (a) if these people spoke to legitimate poskim, being that this is a new problem that doesn't seem to have occurred in previous decades, and (b) why these issues were not worked out prior to walking onto the plane five minutes before takeoff.
So though I will admit that there is a measure of entitlement and irresponsibility behind the demands of these so-called "ultra-" Orthodox Jews, the reality remains that they are acting out of nothing more than religious principle. If a Muslim, Hindu, Sikh or Baha'i, citing religious principle, refused to take his seat on a flight, my guess is that most Jews would be more sympathetic. But when it comes to witnessing other Jews doing the same, their judgment is clouded by a differing view of Halachah. Rather than satisfy themselves with a simple rolling of the eyes, they cannot resist unleashing their vitriol on our offending brethren.
But even tolerance of the religious principles of others falls away when it butts up against sacrosanct gender issues. Ms Bennett wonders, "Would such blatant behavior be treated merely as a social choice, a courtesy issue or an awkward airline customer-service problem if the targets were anyone other than women?" What if someone refused to shake hands with blacks? she asks. Or Jews?
Here, she makes two errors. One, equating the separation of genders with the separation of races and religions. Two, that this separation is somehow equal to "targeting" women.
As to the first error, although society is quickly moving to dissolve any and all barriers between the sexes, this transformation is not, and may never be, complete. We still do have gender segregation—bathrooms, changing rooms in department stores, even certain gyms and gym classes. Yet, we do not tolerate racially- or religiously-segregated bathrooms or gym classes. So the equation of race and religion to gender is inaccurate.
As for the second error, this is not about "targeting" women (I find that suggestion offensive). When it comes to maintaining space between the genders, women do it too. Many Orthodox women refuse to shake hands with men who offer them. When the female cashier at the kosher bakery puts my change on the counter rather than handing it to me directly is she "targeting" me? Am I supposed to feel shunned and inferior because she is avoiding incidental touch? No and no.
Liberals have trouble wrapping their heads around this. Gender separation of any kind is seen as patriarchal and offensive. Their orthodoxy revolves around the dictum that "separate but equal" is "inherently unequal." But that Supreme Court ruling discussed race, not gender, and was specific to "educational facilities." It says nothing about bathrooms and handshakes.
Though some may take gender segregation to an extreme that many do not condone—no one ought to condemn it either, certainly not for something that it isn't.
At the same time, while everyone is required—and entitled—to follow his or her own poseik when it comes to the sensitive and crucial topic of gender separation, the mitzvos of "Ve'ahavta lerei'acha kamocha" and Kiddush Hashem do not simply fall away. Being machmir means strictly adhering to the entire corpus of Halachah. Doing so may require advance planning and quick thinking on one's feet, but if that's what's required then we best get to it. Especially if there's a plane to catch.