Pen Ultimate / Sole Searching

On the biblical and cultural contexts for 'putting off,' 'loosening' and flinging footwear.

Politicians of every ilk rightfully competed in condemning the man who hurled his shoes at Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch on January 27. Sharing the outrage at the violent act, commentators of every stripe were quick to point out - and right they were, too - that the shoes were thrown by an individual, but the act was a nasty manifestation of public contempt for the court and the judicial system in general, and of efforts by people (including politicians and others in the corridors of power) to undermine that system.

This is a grave matter: Shoes, which are made for walking, can also trample some of the important values underlying the very fabric of our society. One must stress this before going on to examine the phenomenon of the "flying shoe" in its wider cultural context.

The first shoe hurled by Pini Cohen, 52, hit Justice Beinisch in the face, breaking her glasses and making her nose bleed (she managed to duck the mate). But this was a copycat act: Iraqi journalist Muntadar al-Zaidi set the trend on December 14, 2008, when, during a press conference with president George W. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad, he stood up, shouted "This is a goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people, dog" - and hurled his footwear at Mr. Bush. The president deftly ducked the first shoe, and the second also missed the target.

Experts on Eastern culture hastened to point out that throwing shoes constitutes a serious show of disrespect. Said the BBC's Martin Asser: "In Arab culture it's considered rude even to display the sole of one's shoe to a fellow human being. Certainly, crossing one's legs ankle-on-knee style should never be done in a public place for fear of offending the person next to you. The sensitivity is related to the fact shoes are considered ritually unclean in the Muslim faith."

Before continuing - and I'll try to tread lightly, and even wear slippers - one should note that in both cases mentioned, the shoes in question had laces. Had they been loafers, it would have been a different story. But untying laces indicates premeditation, and even determination, on the part of the assailant.

With no disrespect to the Islamic faith, the root of the notion that shoes are ritually unclean is older than the prophet Mohammed. It dates back to the Bible, which describes several instances in which shoes are the main prop, each one of them significant in terms of our story.

The first time a shoe is presented as a significant object is in Exodus 3:5, and the Bible does not beat around the bush. Moses hears a voice from inside the flames (and is told that God is speaking to him, which no one has ever disproved) that says: "Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground."

Rabbi Bahya Ben Asher (Spain, 1250-1340) interpreted this as a request that Moses divest himself of unclean, corporeal attributes. A shoe envelops the foot and is thus a symbol for the body and/or flesh, which is merely a vessel for the soul. And the soul, the rabbi explained, must be open and exposed to holiness. Being a mere outer covering of the foot, the shoe can be shed. That is apparently the root and the reason for the Islamic custom of taking off one's shoes before entering a mosque.

The second time a shoe assumes symbolic qualities is in Deuteronomy 25:9, and involves a situation where a still-childless woman becomes widowed. Since society at that time attached much importance to preserving paternal power and lineage (women were not allowed to own property, for example, and were themselves considered the property of their husbands), the brother of the deceased husband was obliged to marry the widow and thus maintain the family heritage. Should the brother refuse to fulfill that duty, "Then shall his brother's wife come unto him in the presence of the elders, and loose his shoe from off his foot, and spit in his face, and shall answer and say, So shall it be done unto that man that will not build up his brother's house. And his name shall be called in Israel, the house of him that hath his shoe loosed."

In his commentary on those verses, Isaac Abarbanel (Portugal, 1437-1508) writes that the shoe was actually a sandal, and when the woman loosened it from the foot of the non-obliging brother, she symbolically freed herself of the fetters of his family.

As a footnote, one should mention that the concept of a woman being the property of her husband's family - and the idea of the shoe embodying that concept - may also have been the root, in Anglo-Saxon marriages, of the custom whereby the bride's father brought her shoe to the groom, who touched her on the head with it, symbolizing his authority. That ritual apparently developed, over time, into the custom of throwing old shoes at couples who have just wed, and of tying old shoes to the cars of newlyweds.

The ritual of dissolving binding family ties is also mentioned in the third incident involving a shoe that is mentioned in the Bible, in the Book of Ruth (7:8-9). One night, Ruth, a fair gentile widow, surprises Boaz, a rich, young landowner, when he is sleeping. She "uncovers his feet" - which could be interpreted to mean that she removes his shoes - thus waking him and precipitating an intimate relationship (details not divulged by the writ). Boaz later offers to buy a plot of land that belonged to Ruth's dead husband. As it is written: "Now this was the manner in former time in Israel concerning redeeming and concerning changing, for to confirm all things; a man plucked off his shoe, and gave it to his neighbor: and this was a testimony in Israel. Therefore the kinsman said unto Boaz, Buy it for thee. So he drew off his shoe."

Commentators agree that the shoe here is a token of a done deal, but they differ on the issue of who gave the shoe to whom.

For his part, Rabbi Abarbanel draws our attention to the verbs used in connection with shoes/sandals in the three references in the Bible: "putting off," in the face of holiness; "loosening," in the case of the woman being freed; and "drawing," a verb also used in connection with a weapon, in the last example.

Abraham Ibn Ezra (Spain, 1089-1164) asks why a shoe is used in the latter instance as a symbol or token, and then gives the simple answer himself: A shoe is something that can be removed easily without causing discomfort or embarrassment. So, we can infer that people who want to throw something, and have no other convenient object around, are likely to use a shoe, or two. The choice of a shoe may be a sort of metaphorical extension of the act of kicking, which is much more effective when done by a foot shod in a boot. And then, of course, there is the expression "to give someone the boot" - to fire someone.

Which brings me to perhaps the most relevant biblical quote for our purposes, about the way enemies should be treated, in Psalms 60:8: "Moab is my washpot; over Edom will I cast out my shoe." The original Hebrew uses the imperative of "to hurl," hashlekh.

The throwing of footwear is definitely not an "act of free speech," as president Bush joked. And there is clearly a rich cultural and biblical context, according to which such an incident can be discussed, beyond its immediate political (or medical) repercussions. But that's easier said than done when the shoe is on the other foot.