For the week ending 13 December 2008 / 16 Kislev 5769

Shaken by a Handshake

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Caroline in NC

Dear Rabbi,

I was recently at a Jewish community event attended by members of the local community of all ages, gender and denomination. I saw there an Orthodox couple that seemed friendly and nice so I went over and introduced myself. To my utter surprise, when I extended my hand to meet the couple, the woman shook my hand but the man declined saying something like “touching is reserved for couples”. I must say I was really offended by what seemed to be a very lame excuse for orthodoxy’s negative attitude toward women in general or towards me as an “outsider” in particular. As a Jew myself, I don’t want to harbor bad feelings against other Jews, but because of what happened I didn’t enjoy my conversation with them at all and I ended it as soon as I could. Would you please help me make sense of this?

Dear Caroline,

I’d be happy to lend you a helping hand, figuratively speaking that is.

You see, Orthodoxy restricts physical contact between the genders except between close family relatives and spouses.

The reason for this is that physical touch is viewed as a potentially powerful and sensitive venue of interaction between people in general, and attraction between genders in particular. Even something as innocent and innocuous as a social handshake still involves touch, the underlying message of which is a mutual consent to connect. It is not coincidental, then, that in many cultures a verbal agreement becomes binding with a handshake. The hand-to-hand physical contact establishes a bond that binds people to one another. When this bond occurs between people of the same gender it is merely one of friendship; when between opposite genders it may extend, even if only subconsciously, further than that.

Admittedly, this might seem extreme and out of hand, but that may be because we’ve become desensitized to the power of touch. The general culture at large is so based on the physical and sensual, a person being bombarded constantly with implicit and explicit messages in all spheres of life, that we have lost the intrinsic sensitivity to intimacy and contact. The couple you met, in the spirit of Orthodox Judaism, is trying to maintain and preserve the purity and sensitivity of the power of touch in order to be able to share it entirely and exclusively with each other.

It has nothing to do with Judaism having a negative attitude toward women. While this is not the time to go into detail since we have addressed this issue in the past (in my article called One-Upwomanship), I assure you that Judaism has the utmost respect for women, and your issue is a case in point where women are not to be viewed as objects of physical contact but rather individuals with which interaction is encouraged on a higher plane. Also, according to the explanation above, the woman of the couple you met would have refrained from coming into contact with another man. So you see, it’s nothing against women but rather about preserving the power of touch for the proper context.

It also has nothing to do with Orthodoxy being standoffish or unfriendly to “outsiders”. Here too, the Torah is replete with commands and teachings regarding accepting, being friendly to, and caring for the needs of the “stranger” in our midst. This applies to all people, and certainly to other Jews. And again, your question is a case in point. You saw that the couple was friendly and nice, and since it was a mixed communal event, you probably saw them interacting with others like yourself and were thereby encouraged to introduce yourself. Unfortunately, for no fault of your own, a lack of familiarity with their religious sensitivities resulted in an uncomfortable situation for all. Since you were understandably flustered, you didn’t have an opportunity to have your favorable impression of the couple confirmed.

As far as their handling of the situation is concerned, it’s hard to say what else they could have said or done. I suppose the husband’s brief response was intended to explain/apologize for any awkward feelings without making too much of an issue over it. Perhaps the wife should have looked for you afterward to explain in more detail – and who knows, maybe she did.

After all is said and done, this was a learning experience where you have become more familiar with another point of view. You should use it as an exercise in patience and tolerance and thereby as an opportunity for growth. I would encourage you to try to contact the couple (but this time shake only her hand) or a local outreach organization in order to give Orthodoxy another chance. I’m sure that once you get past the initial introductions you’ll see that they are just as friendly and nice as anyone else.

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