Tuesday, August 25, 2009

When Harry Met Sally

There was a movie a while ago called 'When Harry Met Sally'. It asked the question about whether it is possible for a man and a woman to have a platonic relationship.

Judasim deals with this issue.

What are the Halachic parameters of interacting with members of the opposite sex? May we do anything we want as long as Halacha is followed? That may be the letter of the law. But the Mishna in Avos (1:5) admonishes us to be careful: Al Tarbeh Sicha Im Ha-Isha - Do not speak excessively with a woman - and adds that this refers to one’s own wife let alone the wife of of your friend.

There are several questions this warning by the sages raises. Does this mean men and women are never to utter a word between them? Even if married to each other? Obviously not.

I believe the purpose of this admonition is to prevent immoral behavior between the sexes. I do not think it is Halacha but rather advice - as is most of Meseches Avos. This particular Mesechta is also called Pirkei Avos or ‘Chapters of the Fathers’. It is more commonly referred to as ‘Ethics of the Fathers’ because it consists almost entirely of ethical guidelines to live by as offered by our ‘fathers’ - the sages.

So - what exactly does excessive mean? Do individual circumstances matter? What about local custum? What about Hashkafos or family tradition?

I think all of these items matter.

I have heard various rabbinic leaders of different communities respond differently to this issue. In my view there is no ‘one size fits all’ rule about it. Which is one reason I think that Pirkei Avos is more of a guideline than Halacha - one that is subject to local custom and designed to prevent immorality.

For those societies that have virtual brick walls of separtion between men and women - such as many Chasidic communities - any contact at all might be considered risqué. So any conversation is strongly discouraged. And is avoided like the plague.

If one goes to neighborhoods like Williamsburg in Brooklyn or Meah Sharim in Jerusalem - one will almost never see even passing pleasantries exchanged. On the other hand if one finds himself in the wolrd of German Jewry - social kissing (as in a peck on the cheek) is not uncommon. Certainly casual conversation should not be a problem either.

The Modern Orthodox world does not even think about conversations between the sexes as an issue. As modern individuals engaged in the culture, men and women having conversations of any type or of any duration is very common.

The non Chasidic ‘Lithuanian’ yeshiva world is somewhere in between the two extremes. They generally do not have conversations with members of the opposite sex. They do however generally exchange pleasantries when passing each other in the street – if they know each other.

What is the ideal behavior for our time? If one is not a member of any given Hashkafa - which of the above models makes sense? I think a lot depends on what one has become accustomed to. A lot also depends on what one’s intent is. Another important factor in my mind is whether there is any attraction involved. One need to be honest with themselves about that.

This doesn’t mean that if one has a physical attraction to a member of the oppsoiutge sex that they are forbidden to ever speak to each other. But they should certainly avoid forming close personal relationships. That can easily lead them astray under the ‘right’ conditions.

For practical purposes – and what works for me – is along the guidelines of Yichud - secluding oneself with a member of the opposite sex. It is forbidden by Halacha. Chazal undertood human nature and what might develop.

The Torah in fact tells us that if a wife is warned by her husband not to seclude herself with a given man and she does so she is subject to the Sotah ordeal if the husband suspects an affair. I believe this is illustrative of why Yichud was forbidden by Chazal.

The same underlying idea should be applied to casual conversations. In my long term relationships should be avoided especially if there is any attraction at all. Unless they are dating for purposes of marriage. Long and private conversationsshould be avoided. Relatively brief conversations should not be a problem. Especially if they are in public.

The one thing that absolutely should be avoided is embarrassing people. Under normal circumstances one should not ignore people they know when passing them in the street for fear of ‘violating’ the Mishna in Avos. The key word in that phrase is ‘excessively’. A two hour private conversation alone in hotel lobby might be excessive. But a brief ‘hello’ or good morning is certainly not. Not returning a ‘hello’ and may be a violation of the prohibition against embarrassing others.

What about in between those extremes? Like I said it depends on intent and custom.

If one is used to speaking to women in general one should not fear having a ten or 20 minute conversation in the public square. Of course that precludes anything directly sexual in nature. If one is attracted to the other, they should probably avoid speaking at all.

Just some thoughts on this subject generated by a debate on an e-mail list I belong to.