Dear Rabbi Fried,
I recently read in a letter to the editor of The Dallas Morning News, titled “Scripture Doesn’t Justify Prejudice” (April 29, 2015), that a woman was offended by an Orthodox Jew who declined to shake her hand for religious reasons.
The author contends that this is just another instance of an individual or group of individuals invoking “religious freedom” as a justification for hurtful and discriminatory attitudes and actions, and is the result of antiquated, fundamentalist teaching. He compares this with the laws recently passed (and subsequently withdrawn or modified) in Indiana and Arkansas.
Those laws, and this act, share the same underlying principle: a discomfort, dislike, fear or downright hatred of a certain group of people just because they’re different. Whether the targets are women, gays, Muslims or dark-skinned immigrants, citing scriptural passages from the Bible or Quran to justify ugly prejudices has little to do with actual religious conviction, but is part of the “religious freedom” invoked by fundamentalists of all faiths.
That is the gist of his comments, and I wondered if you have anything to remark about the above? Is a man refraining from shaking hands with a woman an Orthodox law and, according to your interpretation, does it exhibit disdain toward women?
The comments of the writer which you quote is predicated upon a gross misunderstanding of Jewish law in general and this law in particular.
This author’s comments are obviously based on his worldview that the laws of the Torah are not prescribed by God, rather man-made (and not “woman-made”).
Hence, it is plausible that this or any other Torah laws could be fundamentally chauvinistic and prejudiced against women.
Anyone who believes that the mitzvot of the Torah are of divine origin would know, however, that there must be something deeper going on, and not simply some vehicle of hatred. Obviously the Creator of woman does not disdain His creation; man and woman are equally beloved in the eyes of God although they are obviously different in many ways.
Not understanding the law
The said author also reveals his total ignorance in the understanding of this particular law, namely the Torah’s prohibition of coming into physical contact with members of the opposite sex (except, obviously, for close relatives). The author assumes, based on his bias, that the prohibition is for a man to have physical contact with a woman, when, in fact, a woman is equally proscribed from physical contact with a man (in the situations mentioned above; we obviously are not referring to a husband and wife, or parents and children, etc.).
This instruction is not some fundamentalist, extremist attitude, rather a verse in the Torah, (see Leviticus 18:6; Maimonides Code, Issurei Biah 21:1; and codified in the Code of Jewish Law 20:1).
All of the above is with regard to physical contact conducted in a loving or lustful way. Maimonides is clear that the Torah prohibition applies only when the contact is in the above manner. Where there is room for dispute is in regard to shaking hands in a businesslike manner.
There is a dispute among the later authorities if this would come under the broader concern that physical contact of any kind may lead to other things, or it would be excluded since, presently, it is not with that intent.
All Halachic authorities of Jewish law prohibit hand shaking of the opposite sex, maintaining that even if it would not be proscribed by Torah law, it would come under rabbinic prohibition, applying equally to men and women.
There is, however, a dispute if a member of the opposite sex has already extended their hand. Some contend that one could then shake their hand in a minimal way as so not to potentially insult the person. Many authorities consider this to be under the same prohibition as general physical contact.
Just as an observant person wouldn’t think of eating non-kosher food in order to not insult another (he or she would find a way to explain they don’t eat such food), so too they refrain in this thorny situation, and do their best to explain to the other to the best of their ability that the other person will not be insulted.
This has nothing at all to do with disdain or hatred for a member of the opposite sex; it only means that all physical contact is reserved for one’s spouse or family members. I, personally, act in accordance with the first opinion, which was that of my late mentor Rav S.Z. Aurbach ob’m, who contended that one should not risk insulting the other person, relying, after the fact, on the reality that the handshake is not lustful contact.
Many, however, act in accordance with the second opinion, and both are acceptable practices as we have explained, and should not be criticized for conducting themselves in that manner.
I wonder if the author in question would maintain that the Orthodox Jew should, indeed, partake of the non-kosher food offered by a non-observant Jew as not to insult him or her.
Would he further maintain that not to do so is exhibiting a fundamentalist approach and a disdain, or even hatred, of his or her host to decline the food?
Would the author similarly criticize a Conservative rabbi as racist because he refuses to conduct a mixed wedding? We have a lot to think about the slippery slope society is sliding along when those in Indiana and anywhere else are no longer allowed to exercise their own religious freedom when it clashes with the opinions of those who reject them.
We have lived through too many times in our history when our religion was considered outmoded, and we have sadly lived (or died) through the results of those times.