Friday, November 12, 2010

The Handshake Hullabaloo

Way, way back, during one of my summer stints as an intern at System Automation, a coworker confided in me that she had her doubts about a certain frum member of the staff. (I have no idea why she talked to me. I was in 11th grade. But she did.) What gave her cause for concern? His handshake.
It seems that every time he shook her hand, he gave her a "dead fish", and she felt that he seemed weak, and slightly off. Of course, I knew exactly what was happening. He, coming from a somewhat Chareidi background, and following years of segregated yeshiva study, had been ingrained with an appropriate sensitivity to the separation of the sexes. She, on the other hand, not only had no knowledge of what negiah is, but would have trouble understanding it if someone took the time to explain it to her. So, in a business setting, he would shake her hand, but psychologically he just couldn't give her a firm handshake. His palpable discomfort brought about the "wet fish" handshake that was hurting his reputation in a business environment.
I've been thinking of this story in light of a mild brouhaha regarding the notion of shaking hands with a member of the opposite sex. And a brouhaha it has been.
It started with an article in Yediot Achronot, which publicized a recent psak halachah of Rav Yuval Cherlow's in which he decided that if a woman extended her hand to a man, then he would be allowed to shake her hand and not embarrass her in public. This is really a deeper halachic discussion which demands extended analysis, which Rav Cherlow actually did (on his site here). In the shiur, he examines the nature and prohibition of non-sexual physical contact between members of the opposite sex. Then he attempts to measure the halachic significance of embarrassing someone in public, and to what degree halachah should bend to avoid that embarrassment.
(As an important aside, this is an ongoing debate between the Chareidi world, which feels that halachah should not bend at all for the sensibilities and feelings of others, and the more "modern" world which does take issues of kavod habriyot (personal dignity) into account in its halachic decision-making process.)
Objectively, his psak is not shocking nor that striking. While issuing a lenient ruling, he explicitly recommends that one make an effort to avoid physical contact if at all possible, and forbids extending one's hand to a member of the opposite sex. Still, Rav Cherlow - who's something of a lightening rod for criticism (much of it justified) - for some of his liberal halachic pronouncements, drew fire yet again.
Ma'ariv (
there's nothing the Israeli secular press loves more than an inter-rabbi halachic scuffle) happily published the response from Rav Aviner, a much more right-wing RZ rabbi, who issued the following psak in the weekly newsletter Olam Katan (which is very, very popular among young people. Just this week a young person told me, "If you're in Olam Katan, you're 'in'. If not, you're not.") Rav Aviner answers SMS Halachic questions, so his answers are always brief - 140 characters or less.
(As another aside, the entire SMS psak halachah phenomenon, which is huge here in Israel, requires analysis and attention as well. Simply put, you can't answer questions in 140 characters, and I'm not sure that publishing all of them is a great idea for Judaism. But they're really entertaining to read. End digression.)
Rav Aviner wrote,
אין להעליב את חברו אבל כאן הוא שגורם לעצמו בושה. הגר"ע יוסף לא החזיר יד לראש הממשלה הגברת גולדה מאיר. הגר"מ אליהו לא החזיר יד למלכת אנגליה ובערב שניהם קיבלו התנצלות. אכן יש להתחשב ברגשות של שומרי הלכה
"One may not embarrass his fellow man, but here he causes himself embarrassment. The Gaon Rabbi Ovadia Yosef did not shake the hand of Prime Minister Golda Meir. The Gaon Rav Mordechai Eliyahu did not shake the hand of the Queen of England, and that evening, they both apologized to each other. Rather, one must take into account the feelings of those who guard halachah."
I won't quote the harsher comments from more hard line rabbis. You can read the article yourself.
Of course, the Hareidi websites watched with glee as, in their estimation, Modern Orthodoxy stepped in it yet again demonstrating its willingness to compromise "true" Jewish values to live in the Modern world. I haven't even read any of the Hebrew websites, but I'm sure they were perfectly happy to rip Rav Cherlow to shreds.
Yet, thinking of my coworker from so long ago, things aren't so simple. First and foremost, the secular world constantly looks to jump on the Rav Cherlow bandwagon in its search for "moderate" Jewish voices. In that same vein, the Chareidi world is more than willing to attack him even when he says something that's not all that shocking, nor that controversial. Finally, Rav Aviner was answering a text for a youth-oriented publication. He probably thinks that it's forbidden to shake hands in general, but his answer to teens looking for loopholes, who struggle with halachically mandated separation of the sexes, makes a lot of sense. The last thing we need are kids running around telling each other that Rav Aviner says that you can shake hands. His one-sided answer ensured that wouldn't happen.
Two final points (sorry for the long, long post).
The first comment (Israelis calls them "talk-backs") to Rav Cherlow's shiur came from someone who wrote that in his secular work environment (here in Israel), he at first would shake the hands of women so as not to embarrass them. To his shock, he was quickly identified as "Dati Lite". When he changed tactics and stopped shaking women's hands, his coworkers had no issues and the work environment did not suffer. So here in Israel, where everyone knows that there are people who won't shake hands, it might be much less of a problem not to shake hands with a member of the opposite sex. Rav Aviner really might have a point.
Yet, in the States, where most people are not Jewish and not familiar with halachah, the concern for embarrassment and also negative financial consequences is significant. I think back to my coworker of so long ago. I actually told him what I had heard, and he stopped giving women the "wet fish", which did help . Should a person meeting someone of the opposite sex at a job interview set out on the wrong foot from the get-go? Is that what halachah demands?
Rav Cherlow doesn't think so, and neither do I.