Touchy Situation


I was recently asked to explain why in business settings many orthodox Jews do not shake hands with members of the opposite gender. Here is how I responded:

“Traditional Judaism places a premium on the family bond and emphasizes heavily the unique and exclusive nature of the husband-wife relationship. Judaism expects men to reserve their sexuality for their wives and women to reserve their sexuality for their husbands. While sometimes hard to appreciate in our over-stimulated and media-saturated world, the power of touching can (or should) be formidable, and many Orthodox Jews – even though it is ‘merely’ a business setting – do not touch or shake hands with someone of the opposite gender. This is not strictly speaking forbidden by Jewish law; it is more in the nature of being very attuned to the issue. (Similarly, although not strictly speaking forbidden by Jewish law, many Orthodox couples will not hold hands or show affection in public. This is not prudery, it is privacy. Affection and passion are inherently private matters.)

It is worth noting that traditional Judaism promotes one’s inner self over the outer, physical trappings. For this reason Orthodox Jews, both men and women, tend to dress more modestly than is generally common today in western society. For men in a business setting this does not pose anything unusual, as most business settings tend to conform to basic standards of modesty. For women, however, basic business attire has a number of variations, some of which do not conform to traditional senses of modesty.”

I would appreciate comments to my response.

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10 years 3 days ago

” The context in which he does this is ” ee efshi b’vsar chazair” which also lists “ee efshi lovo al hanida,” and the rambam points out that the issurim listed are chukim…as the maamar he bases this on speaks of nida. I’d conclude that some arayot are chukim.”

This is a mistake; it says ee efshi lavo al haerva. I was confusing my resolution (that this may mean some arayot like nida, not all arayot) with the text.

a pashut yid
10 years 6 days ago

“This is not strictly speaking forbidden by Jewish law; it is more in the nature of being very attuned to the issue.” Then the writer goes on to compare not holding your spouse’s hand in public, which he claims is also not strictly forbidden.

It would seem to me that the former, that of shaking hands with a woman who is not your wife, is a machlokes haposkim. The Chazon Ish, The Steipler, Rav Chaim Kanievesky rule unequivaclly that is it assur to shake hands with a woman. Yehareg V’Al Yaavor is a term I have read quoted in their name. (Avizraihu d’arayos)

If you would like to argue on the Cazon Ish, and say that not only is it not Yehareg V’Al Yaavor, I would think you would need some major poskim who say outright that it is Mutar lechatchila. Famous stories about about Rabbi Soleveitchik who shook a womans hand, WHEN she offered it to him, so as not to embaress her (as the story goes). But even acc to this story, it is assur under other circamstances.

Kesivah vChasima tova

Eliezer Barzilai
10 years 7 days ago

ksh, I agree with the essence of your point, although I think that your hyper-Lithuanian schema is refreshingly obtuse in its rejection of the innovative concepts introduced by some of our speculative thinkers, e.g., the Maharal. In any case, I wish you and all Cross Current participants a y’yasheir kochachem for stimulating and informative Torah thoughts and a ksivah v’chasimah tovah.

10 years 7 days ago

The whole business of chukim or mishpotim is something you introduced to the conversation, and is something of a red herring. I won’t address the specifics even though I think if you look again, you will find that most of the contradictions you cite are more apparent than real, or involve unnecessary interpretation on your end (eg eating nonkosher creates a negative of timtum halev, not a positive). The point in this discussion is that prohibition on touching is a harchaka, to avoid relationships that the general public would mostly agree are improper. No one is asking why religious men are not intimate with people they meet in business settings, only with their wives. They are asking why they don’t shake their hands, i.e if they really believe that a handshake or even a peck on the cheek is intimate or inappropriate. The answer is that any intimate behavior that is derech chiba is indeed prohibited lest it lead to more intimate behavior, and there is dispute whether handshaking counts – some thinking that it clearly is included, others preferring to be strict, and still others thinking that in our culture there is no issur. As for why arayot are impermissible, the notion that nida renews ones marriage doesn’t extend beyond one’s own wife! Almost all the taamim one can find involve negatives, not positives.
The *issurim* in tznius are not about self-esteem. The gemara raises kol k’vuda in in the context of explaining amoni v’lo amonis (al d’var asher lo kidmu); to dismiss the claim that tzi’i maasey yodayach b’mzonosayich is superfluous, and in the context of eydus is raised but is nondefinitive. I think those are the only three cases the gemara raises kol kvdua. They all involve behavior, mostly optional behavior (and note that two of the three cases are to excuse or permit behavior, or to make kol kuvda voluntary).
The larger point is that issurim are about avoiding negative behavior, and one shouldn’t avoid the concept of wrongdoing, as so many in our feel-good culture do. The torah labels some behavior *wrong* – yes, avoiding wrongdoing has positive benefit, but we shouldn’t invert the negative concept, and turn prohibitions into aseys to keep up with new agey sensibilities. Moreover, for many issurim, the concept of devoting oneself to a negative ideal is essentially impossible – whether that ideal is timtum halev or avoiding immodesty – and the climate in which lavin are treated as though they were aseys has created real distortions of priorities in our religious culture.

Eliezer Barzilai
10 years 7 days ago

ksh, perhaps I did misread your comments. This might be because I have long suffered from the inability to draw a bright line between chukim and mishpatim. It does not help that the Rambam in the Moreh 3:38 contradicts the Sifro in Vayikro 20:26 regarding bsar chazir and shatnez, while in Shmoneh Prokim 6 he seems to follow the Sifro. I also recall a Ramban who calls the Rambam’s rationalization of incest in the Moreh 3:49 as “taamim klushim,” weak reasons. And then there is the Gemora in Yoma 67a that calls arayos mishpotim, while Kuperman points out in his Meshech Chochmoh notes there in Vayikro that R Meir Simcha seems to clump all the arayos in the chok column, with the exception of eishes ish. Adding to my confusion is the Gemora in Bava Metzia 61b that says that the exodus from Egypt was worth doing if only to prevent us from eating crawling creatures, implying some obvious benefit, while non-jews eat them and prosper, as R Moshe Feinstein points out in his Dorash Moshe in Vayikro there.
And how about the Gemora in Brochos 33 where they argue whether shilu’ach hakan is a chok or a mishpot. And Korbon Pesach, about which the Torah says “zos chukas hapesach,” even though the Torah then goes on to explain the reason for the korbon!
It is particularly ironic that you mention tzniut as your example of prohibitions that are limited to prevention of proscribed behavior: Tzniyut is not mentioned anywhere in the Torah, so it’s a poor example of a mishpot. Most importantly, and going to the heart of your argument, please note that in discussing tzniyus, Chazal use the expression “kol kvudoh bas melech pnimoh.” That certainly implies that tznius does have positive benefits of self-respect.
My point is that the line is not at all clear; all mishpotim have hidden reasons, and all chukim have hidden reasons. We are not doreish taamo d’kro, and even where the Torah states a reason we do usually do not limit the application to where the reason applies. Rav Yitzchok says in Sanhedrin 21 why aren’t the reasons for the mitzvos given? Because two reasons were given, and Shlomo Hamelech was nichshal. So I don’t see any reason to not attempt to expand the taamim of lavin, if some mussar haskeil can develop from the explanation.