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.
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
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.