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Parshas Vayeitzei (5771)

The Indonesian Minister and "Extramarital Handshaking"

I’m sure you have heard the latest news that everyone’s been talking about …

After allegedly shaking hands with First Lady Michelle Obama [during U.S. President Barack Obama’s present Asian tour - dz], Indonesian Communications Minister and conservative Muslim Tifatul Sembiring tweeted that he reluctantly shook her hand at a Tuesday reception. His discomfort stemmed from his interpretation and observance of Islam: Sembiring doesn't touch female non- relatives. "I tried to prevent (touching First Lady Obama) with my two hands but Mrs. Michelle moved her hands too close to me, then we touched," he tweeted on Tuesday. Video footage of the meeting shows Sembiring reaching out to shake her hand. Now, his commentary has enraged the Indonesian blogosphere: Some say he's lying, and others accuse him of humiliating the moderate and tolerant Muslim country. [Source: Elizabeth Weingarten in]

Imagine that! This Indonesian minister won’t shake hands with female non- relatives! How degrading! How sexist!

What you may not know is that Islam is not the only religion which (according to strict interpretation of the Koran) requires men to refrain from touching women to whom they are not married or related. According to Halachah (the collective body of Jewish religious law) as well, a man may not engage in physical contact with another woman (if she’s not his wife or a member of his immediate family) even just to shake her hand.

One source for this prohibition – referred to in the Halachic sources as Negiah (lit. ‘touching’) – is the verse in Leviticus 18:6 which states: “Any man shall not come near his close relative to uncover nakedness; I am G-d”. This is interpreted by the Sages of the Talmud as an expansive prohibition against "coming near" any of the Arayos, or Biblically prohibited relations. As traditionally defined by Halachah, the prohibition precludes only physical contact which is done derech chibah - in an affectionate or lustful manner – but it has been broadened to include all manner of potentially intimate contact with the opposite sex, even shaking hands.

It should be mentioned that there are Halachic authorities who allow returning a handshake to a woman who extends her hand first in greeting (not in an affectionate manner), if, by not doing so, the woman would come to be embarrassed and humiliated. In most cases, however, it is possible for the man to explain to the woman why, based on religious grounds, he won’t shake her hand, and, more often than not, the woman will understand that it’s nothing personal and will not be embarrassed.

Now I am sure that some of you reading this are thinking that the fact that the Torah has such a law on its books makes it degrading and sexist (G-d forbid). If you, in fact, think this way, you are in (good?) company. No less a personage than the author of The Ethicist column in The New York Times Magazine, Randy Cohen, recently responded to a woman who was upset by the fact that her Orthodox Jewish real estate agent refused to shake her hand after signing a brokerage contract, that she should tear up the contract because “sexism is sexism, even when motivated by religious convictions”, and that the action was "offensive" and nothing less than an attempt to "render a class of people untouchable". [See Jonathan Rosenblum’s very excellent response to Randy Cohen’s article at:]

It has been said that a little knowledge is dangerous. The fact of the matter – apparently unbeknownst to Mr. Cohen - is that the Halachah also forbids women from touching men, so the prohibition clearly does not confer "untouchable" status on one sex or another. Rather it proscribes physical contact between sexes equally.

So if – as the Halachah indicates – the laws of Negiah have nothing to do with a woman being ‘inferior’ and ‘untouchable’, why then would the rabbis forbid even the most casual handshake? After all, in most cases, it is highly unlikely that a simple handshake at a business meeting will lead to an extramarital affair! I believe that (part of) the rationale behind this seemingly ‘paranoid’ and ‘over- cautious’ prohibition is that the Torah wants to ensure that we have the most dynamic, exciting, and passionate marriages possible. Allow me to explain with a personal story:

When we first moved to Atlanta in 1998, my wife and I went to a party at a friend’s house. Coming toward me from across the room was a young woman I had never met before – while her friends were seated at a nearby table watching the scene unfold – and she held out her hand in greeting. I was about to shake her hand (so as not to embarrass her publicly) when, all of a sudden, she pulled back her hand and said to her friends with great dramatic flourish, “Oh, I forgot, the Rabbi doesn’t touch women!” Now I wasn’t going to let this go – especially since it was patently false that rabbis ‘don’t touch women’ – we do have kids, don’t we?! So I walked over to her friends’ table and explained to them why I don’t shake hands with women. I told them, “There are only so many expressions of intimacy and closeness that one can share with one’s spouse, and which are so important in strengthening the bond between husband and wife. And I want to save all of them – even gestures as ‘insignificant’ as holding hands – for only one person in the world, the love of my life, my wife. Would you let me do that?” Trust me, those friends of hers were very understanding of my ‘religious position’ after hearing that!

The Torah’s rules proscribing Negiah were designed to safeguard and protect our relationships by limiting all those powerful expressions of intimacy to the one we love the most. This way, we can guarantee that even holding hands will be something truly special, shared only with our spouse.

A rabbi I know tells me that, when given the chance to explain himself, he says to women who extend their hand in greeting, “I’m sorry, but I don’t believe in ‘extramarital handshaking’.”

Unfortunately, we have spread around our ‘power of touch’ so much – using and abusing it with so many people - that it has now become just a ‘casual’ handshake, and has lost all its power and passion. Even worse, that greatest expression of intimacy between husband and wife – sexual relations – has lost much of its ability to generate passion in a marriage, since far too often it is just ‘casual sex’. How tragic!

So you see how the rules of Negiah are not that crazy after all. Maybe they are just what our relationships need to keep them going at full strength.

I would like to conclude with a humorous - and true - story I heard recently that took place over 65 years ago during the famous Rabbis’ March on Washington toward the end of World War Two:

The Rabbis' March was a protest for American and allied action to stop the destruction of European Jewry. It took place in Washington, D.C. on October 6, 1943, three days before Yom Kippur. It was organized by Hillel Kook, nephew of the chief rabbi of mandatory Palestine, and involved more than 400 rabbis, mostly from New York and cities throughout the eastern United States. (My late grandfather, Rabbi Joseph Mordechai Baumol ZT”L, was one of the prominent Rabbis in the group.) [To learn more about the Rabbis’ March on Washington and its impact in saving tens of thousands of Jewish lives during the Holocaust, see:]

At one point during the march, as the rabbis were standing in a lineup, waiting to meet with Eleanor Roosevelt, it occurred to the first rabbi in line that the First Lady would undoubtedly extend her hand in greeting, and that he needed to decide his course of action. As she held out her hand to shake his, the rabbi said, “I am sorry, Mrs. Roosevelt, but my religion forbids me from shaking hands with a woman to whom I am not married”. To which the First Lady responded, “I only wish my husband had that religion!”

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