In traditional Judaism, the concept of shomer n’giah (observant of touch), means not everyone will shake the hand of someone of the opposite sex.
A congregant once told me how hurt and humiliated she felt at her father’s (Orthodox Jewish) funeral, when the rabbi shook hands with only the men of her family.
Jewish tradition offers clear rulings with regard to physical contact between men and women. Leviticus 18:19 prohibits a man from “coming near” a menstruating woman. The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 195:2) states “he shall not touch her even with his little finger”.
Much debate concludes that contact of a sexual nature is forbidden
according to Torah law, but non-sexual contact is forbidden only
according to later rabbinic law.
There is another issue here, implicit in the rabbinic texts, and that is the inability of men to control their sexual impulse in the presence of women.
Why was Joseph not taken as a model of chastity and self-restraint, in refusing the advances of Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39:7-10)?
Surely we must challenge the assumption that the most mundane and socially-accepted physical contact between a man and a woman might result in uncontrollable passion.
The model to emulate is Rav Eliahu Lopian (teacher of Torah and Mussar in London and Israel) who, when faced with a woman’s hand extended to him in greeting, took her hand and shook it.
When asked later why he did it, he said he believed it more important not to embarrass the woman than to refrain from shaking her hand.
When we are again back to
‘normal’, I would hope that this will be
a model followed by all – especially when offering condolences during Shiva prayers.
- Rabbi Rachel Benjamin serves South Bucks Jewish community