New York Times ethics column raises uproar with Orthodox

NEW YORK — The New York Times' coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has come under harsh attack in the Jewish community. Now come accusations that the Times is insensitive to the Jewish laws of modesty.

The alleged culprit is Randy Cohen, whose "Ethicist" column in the Sunday Magazine last week said that it was ethical for a woman to "tear up the contract" with an Orthodox real estate agent because the man refrained from shaking her hand.

The advice so incensed members of the Jewish community that a delegation from the Orthodox Union was to meet this week with Cohen and Times editors "to sensitize the Times on this issue," according to O.U. officials. Ironically, Orthodox feminists have found themselves in the unique position of defending a tradition that the Ethicist calls "sexist" and offensive.

The Ethicist's query was posed by "J.L." who said she had a "courteous and competent real-estate agent" whose religious refusal to shake her hand "offended me…As a feminist, I oppose sex discrimination of all sorts. However, I also support freedom of religious expression. How do I balance these conflicting values? Should I tear up our contract?"

Cohen replied that though it was "a petty slight, without ill intent," she doesn't have to work with someone who denies her "the dignity and respect" he shows to men. "I believe you should tear up your contract" at the offense of the Orthodox man rendering "a class of people untouchable." He rejects the Orthodox theory of separate but equal, citing the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling against Jim Crow.

Needless to say, Cohen's answer elicited waves of e-mails on the Times' online Forum, and among Jews in private chat lists.

One reader posted: "Touch me or you're fired — a perfect example of sexual harassment." The TeaneckShulChat list on Yahoo posted Cohen's response to his critics: "I understand that the prohibition against touching derives from sexual modesty, but so do most of the proscriptions in sexually segregated societies, from the chador to allowing only men to vote."

Said Adena Berkowitz, a feminist activist and long-time member of the UJA-federation Medical Ethics Committee: "I continue to be amazed how too often tolerance only runs in one direction and in fact soon become intolerance. What would Mr. Cohen like next: to have the Justice Department bust up Orthodox synagogues because men and women sit separately?"

Blu Greenberg, president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, added, "tolerance to the right always seems to be in shorter supply. Pluralism means you sometimes have to stretch and understand the other person's convictions.''