It happened again. A religious Jew has made public that he refuses to shake a woman’s hand. From Matzav:
Shneur Zalman Odze, a prospective MEP for the North West of England, has told party members his Orthodox Judaism forbids him from physical contact with women other than his wife.
This is not entirely accurate. There are exceptions in Halacha based on differing interpretations of the Shulchan Aruch. And the exceptions vary among different segments.
Halacha forbids physical contact between the sexes. But unlike Mr. Odze’s assertion Halacha permits contact not only between a husband and wife – it permits it between a parent and child, too. This is accepted by all segments of Orthodoxy. But as one examines the legitimate practices of other segments of Orthodoxy – one will find other exceptions.
For example most Poskin allow physical contact between brothers and sisters, too. There are also some Poskim that freely permit platonic (none sexual) physical contact between all men and women. I have been told by members of the German/Jewish community that their Poskim had always allowed even social kissing!
Most of the Yeshiva world where many customs are based on the traditions of Lithuanian Jewry – have a different exception. It’s kind of a compromise between the two extremes. They too do not permit physical contact of any kind – even platonic. But they do permit something like a handshake – and even encourage it – if not doing so would embarrass someone. The practice that is usually followed is that if someone of the opposite sex extends their hand in a friendly handshake, you take it so as not to embarrass them. Especially if this is in public. I believe this was the stated position of Gedolim like R’ Yaakov Kamenetsky.
Chasidim are the most rigid. They make no exceptions at all. Satmar Ger, Chabad and other Chasidic groups do not permit ever shaking the hand of a member of the opposite sex under any circumstances. So that even if a someone innocently extends their hand – they will just leave it hanging there – which can embarrass that person. Now it’s true that they might explain that the reason they refuse to do so is not personal. That their religion forbids any physical contact between a man and a woman unless they are married – as did Mr. Odze. But in some cases the damage is done anyway. Especially if the person ‘left hanging’ has been in similar circumstances where a religious Jew did shake their hand.
Now before I am accused of bashing Chasidim again. I am not. I am simply stating the facts – which have been played out again here. But at the same time, I must admit that I do not understand why they are Machmir on something that may cause a Chilul HaShem if practiced.
In defense of Mr. Odze, however, there should not have been any embarrassment by anyone. It seems he made clear up front that this is a religious belief and nothing more so as to prevent any future embarrassing circumstances. There were no prior embarrassing moments. The political leadership of his party backed him up. But that did not stop a few members of his party from making an issue out of it.
What is the matter with those people? Can’t they understand what their political leaders clearly understand? I can only conclude that there is a bias against any religion that counters their beliefs about male female equality, regardless of the reason. And that supersedes any sense of religious tolerance.
In an interesting contrast, Racheli Ibenboim, a member of the Ger (sometimes referred to as Gur) Chasidic community adopted the policy of the Yeshiva world. If there is any Chasidus that is obsessed with male female interaction, Ger is it. The extent to which this community goes is so extreme that husbands and wives do not walk together in public. The husband will always be a few paces ahead of his wife. And there’s more. From an article by Tuvia Tenenbom in the Forward:
The Gur people, for one reason or another, are ever busy with ever more rules forbidding more and more “sexual temptations” of whatever kind. For example, not long ago a new prohibition was announced: A father shall not dance with his little kids at public events. Kids, apparently, have been declared to be sexual temptations. In the old days, only women were the “temptation”
Having met Mrs. Ibenboim, Tenenbom relates the following:
A man, God has said long ago — in case you didn’t know — shall never talk with a woman who is not his wife or mother. In addition: A woman, as every child of God knows, never shakes hands with men, unless he is her husband and she is not on her period. Yet, when we meet and I offer Ibenboim my hand, she takes it.
She explained her reasons which pretty much amount to the same reasons the Yeshiva world makes these exceptions. It is truly an amazing bit of courage for someone who comes from a society where the subject of sex is so taboo that women only learn how to make babies shortly before they are married. Until then all talk of sex is forbidden and never spoken about. This was illustrated by Judy Brown who explained this custom through the experiences of the fictional main character of her book, ‘Hush’. Judy Brown was raised in the Ger community.
About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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