My cousin — who isn’t Jewish but works in a very male-dominated industry in NYC — has faced the very derogatory response of no response when she writes to Orthodox Jewish men. These men would only respond to her after her male boss would send them a follow-up email, referring to my cousin’s email and saying “with regards to what [my cousin] wrote to you about…”
I’m alarmed by this. I understand the notions of shomer negiyah — in fact, I support it and find it a beautiful mitzvah (I’ve never been shomer negiyah myself) preserving the sanctity of marriage and keeping a husband and wife sanctified for each other. And, I accept and love the concept of tzniut — but tzniut at the expense of someone else’s feelings and self worth? How can we be modest if that modesty embarrasses someone else? How can we exemplify basic Jewish values if it is at the expense of someone else?
A shomer negiyah rabbi once told me that if a woman puts out her hand to shake his, and he knows she doesn’t mean any harm, he would either, shake her hand (particularly if the situation is too quick) or explain to her — with chesed — why he wouldn’t. There is no need to embarrass anyone.
My aunt, the mother of my aforementioned cousin — who isn’t Jewish, always without fail, wishes me a happy Yom Kippur. I accept this. I don’t lecture her on what Yom Kippur is, or what the appropriate salutation for Yom Kippur is, or get into how solemn the day is. I am grateful for her remembrance and her love and her acceptance and her reaching out. She isn’t Jewish; so why would I want to say anything?
At the same time, I understand that keeping mitzvot can, inevitably, offend another person. What if a situation arises where a non-Jew wants to take you out for dinner but you keep kosher? There are myriad opinions in how to deal with this. And I would never recommend eating treif in order to minimize someone else’s feelings. I’ve found myself in the most compromising of social situations in Trinidad where I don’t see the need to broadcast my religion, and so I demur with, “I don’t eat that, but you can!” and I leave it at that.
But in situations where you take shomer negiyah to the extreme that you will willingly belittle a woman by refusing to sit next to her or even respond to her emails? How is that kosher? How is preserving your tzniut more important than showing a woman: hey, I’m a man and I’m not going to respond to you, anything more than blatant sexism?
Baba Metzia 59 writes that it would be better for a person to allow him/herself to be burned in a furnace than to willingly embarrass someone else, and the Rambam lists it as #305 in his list of negative mitzvot. Judaism teaches, constantly, urgently stresses, that to embarrass someone publicly is tantamount to killing that person.
I cannot be okay with how this mitzvot of tzniut and shomer negiyah is being twisted.
Answer your bloody emails.