The No Handshake Thing

January 9, 2014

BH

“Why did you think he’d be interested in your blog?” my husband Zev and daughter Rivky asked incredulously as we left the Apple store.

“Well, he asked me to repeat the name which is more than some people do.” I answered.

You know how people are who work at Apple–smart, edgy. The gleam in Jon’s eye signaled there was a chance he might be interested in Jews and G-d. Probably not much of one but still a chance. Besides, I wanted to practice an elevator pitch for three-story buildings.

We had been shmoozing, too. He told us where he went to college, about his other job in marketing. He didn’t seem to mind that we kept him until after the store closed before deciding that an iPad would be just what I needed to blog on the go.

But as we closed the sale, the inevitable happened: Jon went to shake my hand. My husband intercepted, as he usually does, followed by his standard, “my wife doesn’t shake hands,” as if the sight of a man’s outstretched arm renders me suddenly unable to speak. But, this time, before I could offer my usual explanation which never makes much sense anyway, both Zev and Rivky chirped, “hey, you should write about not shaking hands!”

So here I am.

The no handshake thing is near and dear to my heart. When Rabbi Sholom Lipskar politely refused to shake mine almost thirty years ago at our first Shabbaton, I was utterly humiliated. I looked like an ignoramus in front of someone I wanted to impress. It was an awful feeling.

If my husband had listened to my ranting when Rabbi Lipskar walked away and I demanded we leave the place immediately, it’s safe to say that my life would be very different today. I would have been “turned off” and joined the legions of people who want nothing to do with the “Orthodox” because of their manners, their dress, their way of thinking, their everything.

But instead I became one of them. In the course of that very week-end no less.

Because what I sensed from Rabbi Lipskar’s refusal to shake my hand, from his apparent effort to adhere to laws that transcended even basic social propriety, was a commitment to Something Really Big.

Something Really Big, I quickly learned, was G-d’s Torah. And, suddenly, handshaking (and so much more) became a modern American cultural thing; not handshaking (and so much more) became a Something Really Big called G-d’s Torah thing. Which quickly became my thing.

Initially I thought the no handshake thing could spark curiosity about Something Really Big called G-d’s Torah, but I don’t know that it ever did. (I do remember writing a detailed letter to a man whose hand I didn’t shake, telling him the reason, and even offering to come and speak to him more about Judaism; he said that that wouldn’t be necessary.) But by the time I realized that nobody was too interested in the reasons why I didn’t do it, I had become committed to it. Along with my commitment came attempts to offer to succinct explanations like “I hope you understand there’s a religious prohibition against men and women shaking hands,” but I’m fairly sure nobody knew what I was talking about. When I could, I tried consoling men by telling them how much better prepared they’d be the next time they met an observant Jewish woman. I think mostly they were happy to get away from me.

Observant Jews who are lenient with this stringency have their reasons. They don’t want to embarrass others, they feel assured that handshaking is not hazardous to their spiritual health.  It’s also a lot easier to simply shake hands rather than make a whole event out of it. But, Torah life is not simple, and there is nothing less simple or more holy than the relationship between a husband and wife. And all the strictures regarding the separation of men and women that seem so out of step with the rest of the world–including the no handshake thing– protect the sanctity of this relationship. The relationship in which a simple handshake is supposed to be anything but simple.

I championed the cause of observant women committing to the no handshake thing, suggesting that we needed to be more unified in our practice. I even wrote an article called “Unshakeable Commitment” for the Chabad women’s magazine. Because women who do shake hands make women who don’t shake hands look rude or, even worse,  fanatic. And the fact that some do and some don’t make all observant Jews look confused–are we allowed or aren’t we?

The best part of the “Unshakeable Commitment” article was what happened the same day I submitted it. My husband and I were invited with Rabbi Yisroel and Blumi Rosenfeld, our head shluchim in Pittsburgh, to join a press conference with President George W. Bush at a downtown hotel. When it ended, the cameras started flashing in a flurry of chaos as the President lunged toward the people in the front rows to offer a presidential handshake. It was too late to think; before I knew it, the President had shaken my husband’s hand and was extending his hand to me. I was unable to speak because I couldn’t quite believe what was happening. I just stood in front of the President, smiling helplessly, hands locked together behind my back. The awkward moment lasted only a few seconds before the President remembered the protocol: he nodded and smiled, then offered the same nod to Blumi who was standing next to me. After her, the President thrust out his hand to Rabbi Rosenfeld and moved on.

My fifteen minutes of fame actually lasted fifteen seconds. Ever since then, I have been introduced as the woman who didn’t shake the President’s hand. But, President or no president, a commitment is a commitment, especially when it’s in writing.

So far, so unshakeable. After all, how are people supposed to know that it’s a G-d’s Torah thing for men and women not to shake hands if we don’t show and tell them?

So now I’m telling you.

4 Comments

  1. Reply

    Shaina S

    Superb! Waiting for the sequel – the whole President bit…

  2. Reply

    sararivka

    lieba, you brought up a very important point—-women in the observant world should stand together on this ‘no handshaking thing’—because it does make those who refrain from the proffered hand look fanatical—-and that diminishes so much else. this article is just another proof that HASHEM has a ‘hand’ in EVERYTHING!!!!

  3. Reply

    CSN

    I get funny looks all the time when I refuse a mans extended hand. Ultimately I feel empowered knowing that I have the choice about who I touch, and that feeling is what I value most.
    The challenge I face working in the medical profession is can I touch my patient but refuse to shake his hand? My husband heard different rabbinical opinions regarding hand shaking. Some held that in America it is a standard greeting and okay to shake, others said absolutely not. I lean toward the lenient opinion with my patients, but turn down other males handshakes. I hope I am not making it harder for other non-hand shakers by making this exception.
    This hand shaking situation becomes more interesting when you think about transgender individuals. How would I respond to meeting someone transgender who is genetically male? Do I refuse to shake their hand? I have not asked a Rabbi this question but I would be curious to know what a sensitive Rabbi’s response would be.

  4. Reply

    YehudisBasya

    Rabbi Yehuda Henkin poskens that hand shaking is not categorized as either a matter of darkhei hazenut nor pe’ulot. Also, the Rambam doesn’t count shaking hands as one of the activities that lead to more intimate ones. A religious woman who chooses to shake hands in a professional or greeting (non-sexual) manner (or touch a patient as a care provider in a medical setting) appears to have that option open to her, without much controversy- if you understand the halacha.

    This is a matter of personal observance, so just as my husband expects to routinely field questions about keeping his head covered, so, too, would I about not shaking mens’ hands. To ask all women to accept this mode of observance would not be, in my opinion, a smart move. By acknowledging that there are a variety of personal hashgafos, we are forced to remember the origin of shomer negiah and why we each hold the way we hold. If we are more severe in our practice, that’s our own personal deal. But if we see another woman accepting a handshake, rather than seeing her as a troublemaker (or even C”V less religious) perhaps we should instead think about seeing her as someone who has struggled with the halacha and come to a different conclusion. And that’s okay.

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