The Leftist Ethicist, R-E-S-P-E-C-T (August Advice)

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August 27, 2013

The Leftist Ethicist is an advice column for Zeek readers who envision a more just world and act to create it. With a commitment to justice and progressive Jewish teaching (and a loving nod to the Bintel Brief), the Leftist Ethicist provides a space to raise questions, without judgment, and receive sensible solutions.

I have a guy friend that I haven’t seen for a few years. We used to be close, but from what I see on Facebook, he is now hardcore Orthodox. When we were in high school, we would hug and even cuddle on a couch. I’m a girl. Normally, when I see a friend I give them a hug or a kiss, but I don’t know what to do when I will see him at an upcoming reunion. I don’t want to treat him differently, but I want to respect him. All of this stuff weirds me out, and I feel like I don’t even know him anymore.

Your friend is now part of a different culture that is full of stringent expectations around outward behavior. For a man becoming an Orthodox baal teshuva — secular Jews who returns to religious Judaism — even being in a room alone with a woman may present a moral dilemma as he tries to align his values with the norms of his new community. Meanwhile, for old friends and family, new, rigid boundaries may bring up confusion, anger, and disappointment.

Ask your friend about his preferences around touch. You can even ask him ahead of time. Rabbi David Jaffe, founder of the Kirva Institute who chose to become Orthodox in his early 20s, suggests saying something as basic as “I know Orthodoxy has this thing about not touching. Where are you with that?”

While dealing with the inevitable awkwardness you’re feeling, remember that your friend is also experiencing loss. In his journey, he will leave behind many parts of his secular life, including friends. Against the odds, you have the opportunity to keep building a connection.

“I really encourage people to keep going for closeness, even if there are obstacles,” Rabbi Jaffe says. “There are so many things in Judaism that can separate us, particularly in Orthodoxy.” Break the ice, so you can get down to what really matters.

I’m a male educator, who talks a lot about gender, masculinity and patriarchy. Thing is, I am only attracted to beautiful women. I’ve met women whose personalities I adore, but I just wasn’t attracted to them. I’ve really tried. All of my relationships have been with women that most of society would deem to be beautiful. I feel ashamed of this truth about myself.

As Dustin Hoffman said in a candid interview that went viral earlier this summer, “There are too many interesting women I have not had the experience to know in this life because I have been brainwashed” into never taking the time to approach them. Like many men, you want to pursue meaningful relationships, but you’ve also got a superficial streak. Patriarchy creates a no-win situation. You’ve narrowed your dating pool severely, while women’s livelihoods and social status are determined by their natural or purchased ability to be “beautiful.”

Since you are well-versed on the concepts, enough to teach them and feel guilty, you probably are well aware of all that. There’s hope for you, yet.

“As men, we are all a work in progress. Most men are on remote control, just doing it as we’ve always done. As it relates to physical attraction, the guy asking the question knows he’s still operating in the Man Box, and he is on a quest to be out of the Box,” said Tony Porter, director of A Call to Men, an organization committed to creating a world in which all men and boys are loving and respectful, and all women and girls are valued and safe.

What exactly is “the Man Box”? It’s Tony’s shorthand for the “collective socialization of men.” In the Man Box are many of the ingredients that make up what it means to be a man — like being tough, strong, not showing fear or weakness, emotions, and that women are sexual objects. Tony said the box is also very homophobic. The questioner, he said, should “use his challenges to be transparent with other men. He shouldn’t allow his transgressions to stifle him from still being proactive as a man.”

You can also write a list of the substantive qualities that you find beautiful, just to clarify what you really are looking for in a relationship.

And, if all else fails, remember that “beautiful” women need genuine love too, especially from someone who values her thinking, personality and individuality, while being conscious of his place in the Man Box.

The Leftist Ethicist is not intended as a replacement or substitute for financial, medical, legal or other professional advice. It’s just my opinion! What’s yours? Talk back in the comments!

Send questions about ethical dilemmas to

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