Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Ask the Rabbi: "Does My Hand Have a Disease?"

On Tuesday night our interfaith discussion group at Borders (got a real great crowd representing several different faiths) discussed the treatment of women in various religious traditions, with a focus on the Muslim burka. We compared it to the wigs worn by Jewish women in very traditional settings.

It so happens that I had just had this e-mail exchange with Alexa Petersen, a TBE freshman at Tufts. I often hear from our college students and their questions typically are ones that are of general interest. She gave me permission to reprint the exchange here (which I've slightly expanded). Incidentally, she shared my response with feminist philosophy teacher, leading to a great class discussion about the feminist movement in different religions.

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Hey Rabbi-- I have a quick question. I met the Rabbi at the Chabad at our school. He said his wife started the Yeshiva in Stamford across from Stamford High. Anyways, I had a long conversation with him about Stamford, etc. and when I went to leave I put out my hand to shake his hand and he politely declined. Does my hand have a disease? What's going on here?
Thanks and hope everything is well! Alexa


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Hi Alexa.

Interesting question. No you don't have a disease! Very observant Jewish men might decline to have contact with women (including their wives) at "that time of the month," because blood is a source of ritual impurity. With their wives, they know when "that time" is - with others they don't, so they tend to refrain from all contact (some will even avoid eye contact). It's also for them a sign of modesty to avoid unnecessary contact between the sexes, and also a desire to restrain sexual urges. That's called "Shomer Negiah." In this Wikipedia article on the topic, you'll find that shaking hands with a member of the opposite sex has become a matter of dispute among Jewish legal scholars.

Negiah applies to women as well as men, by the way. But it usually refers more to kissing and hugging and other visible signs of affection, rather than mere touching.

It seems offensive to many but you shouldn't take it personally. Ritual impurity has nothing to do with hygiene, and much more to do with how people in ancient societies saw blood as a symbol of life and the source of ultimate mystery and awe. That's in part why blood is drained from meat in order for it to be kosher.

I think some of this stems from an anti-female sentiment that existed in ancient and medieval times, not merely for Jews, but many cultures. Fortunately that is changing today. The laws of purity still exist and are practiced widely in traditional communities (and in fact there is a wonderful ritual bath (called a Mikva) that was created by feminists, in Newton, right near you - read about it here) and even less observant women have found new spiritual meaning in these laws.

Meanwhile, if you feel comfortable with this guy, you might want to hear his explanation. I'm sure he's used to getting these questions from students. If he has anything interesting to say, let me know.

You can cite for him this guideline from the career development center of none other than Yeshiva University:

Shaking hands is a customary part of the interview process. Halacha permits non-affectionate contact between men and women when necessary. A quick handshake can be assumed to be business protocol. Since failure to shake hands will most likely have a strong negative effect on the outcome, it is necessary non-affectionate contact, which is permissible.

Most of all, you shouldn't feel that you did anything wrong at all, simply by being friendly!

A very good article on the subject can be found here.

Regards to everyone up there! Keep in touch.

Rabbi H

1 comment:

Ronnie said...

Unfortunately women are forced to overlook many customs and laws of Judaism (yes, other religions too) because those laws were made up thousands of years ago by men. When it was okay not merely that men were in charge of everything; they even owned their daughters and could sell them as so much property. Why are we taught to be scandalized, for example, that Joseph was sold by his brothers, but nowhere in the bible is there any kind of horror at the sale of women?

It is these customs and laws that I've been struggling with for as long as I can remember. Even at the wailing wall, where there's a barrier between the men and women.

It is sometimes difficult to understand or tolerate that any religion, no less the one I belong to, would continue with this kind of arrogance and prejudice. It's one thing to keep to tradition, it's another to allow immoral practices to continue without taking a stand that they are wrong and trying to change them.