Originally published 3/11/08, 3:02 PM, Eastern Daylight Time. Link no longer works.
An incident occurred in the Greater Toronto Area whereby an Orthodox rabbi was criticized for not shaking hands with the female deputy mayor of one of the cities in the area. Fed by certain newspaper reports, this became a major issue until the two involved individuals wrote a joint letter of reconciliation. That, though, may have not been enough for some of those who used the incident as an opportunity to attack Orthodoxy.
There actually was much discussion that surrounded the issue. Some felt that the mistake occurred in the briefing process that should had preceded the event that caused the outcry. The deputy mayor should have been forewarned that the rabbi would not shake her hands and no offence would be intended. Was the problem in the rabbi's staff or the deputy mayor's staff for not properly briefing the deputy mayor on what would happen and the rabbi's departure from normal etiquette due for religious reasons? We do not know the answer to that question but clearly the lesson is an important one to learn. Many are respectful of those who follow different standards; they would just like to be aware of any changes so they are not left looking foolish. In observing Torah, we must be aware of our obligation in this regard.
Nevertheless, even proper briefing may not be enough and in such cases we must stand strong in defence of our Torah values. The incident, though, brought, a new type of attack. One columnist critiqued the rabbi is not really following Orthodox law but choosing not to shake hands for some other reason, some stringency that puts Orthodoxy even further beyond the pale. See, further, http://network.nationalpost.com/np/blogs/fullcomment/archive/2008/02/10/barbara-kay-responds-to-her-pro-hasidic-critics.aspx.
While there may be lenient opinions in regard to this law, there are also opinions that forbid this practice and this rabbi should be entitled to follow that which he believes. How often do we see people attacking religious people, of all types, by stating that what they believe is not even what their religion believes? I find myself greatly insulted if I am told by someone that Judaism doesn't even believe in that which I may be saying (or doing) and quoting some Reform rabbi to that effect. My Judaism is not this Reform rabbi's Judaism and I should not be evaluated from that perspective. The same is true, ll'havdil, within Torah. Sometimes, one challenges me by quoting from another Orthodox rabbi. If this person is asking me a question in learning, wishing to know the point of disagreement, I am very considerate and welcome the opportunity to talk in learning. But if one wishes to challenge my Torah, use someone else's opinion as if it is the only view of Orthodoxy, I respond impatiently. Orthodoxy is not monolithic. Don't tell me what I believe!!!
I state this in regard to other religions as well. I find it most difficult when someone argues that Osama bin Laden is not a true Moslem because some other Moslem states that his position is contrary to the Koran. Who am I to say what a Moslem should believe? There are most likely Moslems that read the Koran one way and others who read it another. That is really not my issue. I may wish to know to whom I can relate and to whom I cannot, but it is not up to me to state what is the "true" belief of Islam. It doesn't really matter what I think the Koran is saying -- I don't really care what it is saying. What matters is what the other who believes in that book thinks that it is saying -- and my opinion on his understanding is not relevant to him/her.
If one wishes to argue with another over general philosophical or theological questions, I have no problems -- but know the limits. I think it is arrogance, though, to tell another what he/she really believes based upon your analysis of that person's religion.
Rabbi Ben Hecht