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.

Share It:
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google Bookmarks
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • del.icio.us
  • Print

20 comments to Touchy Situation

  • Anonymous

    What about a single man or woman? What would be the reason for them?

  • Micha

    When forced to explain these halachos, I usually draw a comparison to the rule many schools and universities have requiring teachers to leave the door open when meeting with students of the opposite gender. Most of the time, it isn’t necessary, but because of the other times, it’s a logical blanket policy.

  • ksh

    Basic business attire in any semiprofessional workplace is not very different for religious women than for other women. Religious women following charedi dress code don’t particularly stand out unless one knows what to look for. No need to mention that. Maybe they are less inclined to take liberties with casual dress, but that mostly goes unnoticed, except by other religious people.

  • Zev

    Good answer, Gedaylya.

    I don’t get the question re. single men or women. The point is that we reserve sexuality for marriage.

  • Eliezer Barzilai

    1. The prohibition should be viewed as a chok – a fiat or dictate of our Torah halacha. We don’t attempt to explain why we don’t eat pork or why we why Kohanim must flee contact with a corpse, and we shouldn’t attempt apologia for this halacha either. This approach has two advantages. First, it is true according to many early commentators such as the Rambam. Second, it removes the dialogue from the rubric of feminism/egalitarianism to one of religious fundamentalism.
    2. Unfortunately, the Taliban have given Modesty a bad name. Jewish modesty is very different from their approach. In our culture, modesty is another way of increasing respect for the other, not dehumanizing them.
    3. This wouldn’t really help you, but it’s worth noting that we don’t shake hands with our own spouses almost half the month, and it would be very strange to do so with women to whom we are unrelated.

  • David Kelsey

    Eliezer,

    What on earth are you talking about? Where is the “chok” in the Torah forbidding handshakes?
    Please tell me, I am curious as to this devine source.

  • David

    “What about a single man or woman? What would be the reason for them?”

    The reason would be that Jewish law forbids touching a member of the opposite sex that is not
    one’s spouse or close blood relative.

  • Eli

    >>What about a single man or woman? What would be the reason for them

    They should save it for their future wife/husband and not desensitize themselvs to the power of a physical relationship

  • ksh

    The rambam in shmone prakim mentions arayot as chukim. 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. He speaks of arayot,but I wouldn’t conclude from this that all arayot are chukim, as the maamar he bases this on speaks of nida. I’d conclude that *some* arayot are chukim.

    “They should save it for their future wife/husband and not desensitize themselvs to the power of a physical relationship”

    These are lavin, not aseys. Touching (or touching derech chiba) is an impropriety. Issurim are about avoiding impropriety. The new-age spin that these issurim are meant to invest our lives with intrinsic *positive* meaning seems to come from Fundamentalist Xian rhetoric (meeting up with Oprah type talk). This twist is IMO destructive. One cannot devote oneself in a positive fashion to a negative. I think the proper answer is that we frown on intimate behavior with those we are not married to, not that we “Save it for our spouses” or “Touch is special” or anything that perpetuates this pernicious business of turning lavin into aseys.

    I would handle this simply by stating the above, and adding that there are those who interpret handshaking as intimate, and those who think it depends on cultural context – this has the effect of keeping the understanding somewhat legalistic, and also doesn’t leave those Orthodox Jews who rely on legitimate heterim to shake hands in business settings looking as though they are violating halacha.

  • Eli

    “These are lavin, not aseys… One cannot devote oneself in a positive fashion to a negative”

    ksh, What is your source for this?

    The independant concept that “we frown on intimate behavior with those we are not married to” (a chok) does not stop us from explaining the taamei hamitzvos to the best of our ability “They should save it for their future wife/husband and not desensitize themselvs to the power of a physical relationship”

    As far as how to present the explanation, that depends on whom you are dealing with, how much time you have and what what you are doing at the time

  • ksh

    “ksh, What is your source for this?”

    what’s my source that we are dealing with a negative prohibition not a positive one??? No source is needed, surely.

    “The independant concept that “we frown on intimate behavior with those we are not married to” (a chok) ”

    A chok is a law with no apparent reason. I spent the first paragraph of my remarks stating that I think it’s mistaken to view this issur as a chok, except with those arayot that are chukim.

    “does not stop us from explaining the taamei hamitzvos to the best of our ability”

    The taam isn’t mysterious. My point is that this is a harchaka to avoid improper behavior. The issur is not about the positive purpose of “Saving the special gift of touch for marriage” or not densensitizing oneself, or any of that new age gooblydook. Some of these may be nice side-effects, just as when I avoid stealing money, I find that I enjoy the money I earn legitimately, but I would not say that the function of the prohibition on theft is to make one feel satisfication in enjoying the fruits of ones labors. The function of the prohibition is to avoid wrongdoing. If theft is prohibited, one is forced to earn an honest wage (but if one doesn’t work, one still can’t steal), and if intimate touch is prohibited outside marriage, one isn’t desensensized (but the issur applies regardless of marital status or future prospects), and the function of the issur is not to create the positive, but to avoid wrongdoing.

  • Moshe Friedman

    “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.”

    Again, as ksh has pointed out, this is apologetics. The source for avoiding public displays of affection is the Rama, who explicitly says that it is assur because it will cause hirhurei aveira in others. He does not say to avoid it because this strengthens one’s marriage. In could very well be that one’s marriage would be strengthened were one allowed to act slightly more informally in public, but it is nonetheless assur because it will cause hirhurei aveira in others.

  • David Kelsey

    Perhaps then, shaking hands with men is forbidden as well, as it is laden with the holy sexuality reserved for a man and wife.

    Imagine explaining that one!

  • Eliezer Barzilai

    Mr. Kelsey, even a cursory reading of previous comments would show that the prohibition only applies where is a possibility of sensuality in the handshake. While there are some unfortunate men for whom shaking hands with another man indeed raises serious halachic issues, they are a small minority. Our Halachic codes do not deal with such men.

    KSH, you point out that negative prohibitions are exclusively directed toward the avoidance of impropriety, and you mordantly characterize interpretions that impute positive benefit to such prohibitions as new-agey, Xian Opratics that do not run to the essence of those prohibitions. Your comment is nicely stated, well thought out, and wrong. The Gemara in Niddah 31b states that the reason the Torah prohibited the Niddah for seven days is so that spouses will feel a sense of renewal and exhilaration when the prohibition ends. I don’t recall any of the commentators characterizing this as apologetics or undisciplined theological adventurism.

  • ksh

    Mr Barzilai, you appear not to have read my comments. I began by saying that nida specifically is a chok, and distinguishing that from other arayot. For a chok, we give taamim; one of them is that hilchos nida renew a marriage. For prohibitions that are not chukim, we don’t spin negative prohibitions into aseys. For example, tzniut is not about self-esteem (and injunctions to women to view tzniut as an asey request that women devote themselves to negative ideals, an impossibility with many pernicious outcomes), married women covering hair is not about “preserving beauty for one’s husband,” and not shaking hands of your friend’s wife is not about sensitizing yourself to touch in your own marriage.

    I would reiterate that handshaking is not a “new” sha’ala, and historically, many poskim all across the spectrum have been lenient; any explanation should not leave the questioner with the impression that those Orthodox who do shake hands are not properly observant.

  • Eliezer Barzilai

    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.

  • ksh

    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

    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.

  • a pashut yid

    ***
    “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

  • ksh

    ” 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.