Un-Canadian and un-Jewish(National Post February 8, 2008)

Barbara Kay, National Post 

Published: Friday, February 08, 2008

Normally, I respond to every e-mail I get as a courtesy to readers, but since I will be criticizing the behaviour of some ultra-Orthodox Jews today, I'm pre-emptively warning those inclined that I will not respond to any e-mails that 1) accuse me of being a self-hating Jew or 2) remind me of the "code," whereby Jews do not criticize the Hasidim -- Jews who subscribe to the most theologically conservative form of Orthodox Judaism, and whose male adherents are instantly recognizable by their long black coats and oversize hats -- because it gives comfort to anti-Semites.

It was reported this week that the Deputy Mayor of Richmond Hill, Ont., Brenda Hogg, attended two cultural events of note last year: a Menorah-lighting Hanukkah ceremony and an Eid celebration. At the former, two rabbis refused to shake her hand, making her feel "different," and at the Eid festivities some of the Muslim men "would not recognize me at all." A certain Rabbi Mendel Kaplan took umbrage at her complaint, calling it "distinctly un-Canadian."

I'll let some feisty Muslim woman columnist take on the Muslim men, and I will confine myself to the ultra-Orthodox rabbis, or the "black hats," as other Jews call them.

Now these rabbis are entitled to their old-fashioned attitudes regarding women and the intermingling of the sexes. But they surely must have known that Ms. Hogg would be in attendance in her elected capacity as deputy mayor. Are they so hermetically sealed in their religious world as to be unaware that it is a convention in our society -- a very Canadian convention -- for people to shake hands when introduced?

The obvious courtesy -- the no-brainer courtesy -- would have been to call the deputy mayor's office, or at the very least take her aide aside at the event before the public ceremonies, and graciously point out exactly who would be unable to touch Ms Hogg and explain it was not a personal rejection of her.

For courtesy and consideration are also Canadian conventions, and would immediately have pro-actively smoothed any potentially ruffled feathers. But I would remind the two rabbis who refused Ms. Hogg's handshake--one leaping away from her in apparent horror when she extended her hand to him -- that they are also Jewish conventions. I was always taught by my rabbis that it is a mitzva -- a commandment -- to avoid humiliating another human being by insensitive conduct or words.

The fact is, only the black hats are so extreme in their observance of Jewish purity laws that they will not make an exemption for a political or public ceremony. In future, municipal officials should seek collaboration with non-Hasidic Orthodox rabbis, who are as authentically "religious," and certainly more engaged in public life in general than the selfghettoizing ultra-Orthodox.

If the black hats feel their beliefs will not permit them to observe the small courtesies and rituals that oil the wheels of civic life on occasions where they volunteer to interact with their fellow citizens, then let them stay in their self-wrought ghettoes and eschew public life altogether. They can't have it both ways.