The religious scruples of a Muslim police officer recently made headlines when she refused to shake hands with Sir Ian Blair at her passing-out ceremony. She asserted that her faith barred her from physical contact with men other than her husband or family members. This is reminiscent of the 2004 statement by President Macapagal-Arroyo of the Philippines warning men not to kiss her as a form of greeting. She announced, 'please, all the men in the country, so that I would not be rude to you, do not make kiss kiss with me’.
Jewish law has a strict code of conduct governing interactions between the sexes. Halachah expects care when it comes to physical contact with others, fully cognisant of the non-platonic potential in every touch. While in our society, contact in the form of shaking hands or even kissing has been desexualised, Judaism wishes us to remain sensitive to the majestic potential in each touch.
Contact between members of the opposite sex is forbidden, excepting close family members, where relationships are absolutely platonic. Restricting even casual contact to the marital relationship assures that the mildest touch can be replete with love and meaning. Judaism believes in powerful and passionate intimate relations and takes great care to ensure that every ounce of sensuality is reserved for marriage.
How far does this restriction extend? Halachah forbids any contact between the sexes that can be construed to be ‘derech chibah’ – holding any pleasurable or sexual suggestion whatsoever. This clearly forbids greeting others by kissing them, and, at least according to most halachists, prohibits even casual contact in the form of a handshake. If necessary, as in the case of the Muslim police cadet, one may have to explain oneself to avoid embarrassing others, or, by holding something in each hand, engineer a situation in which handshaking can be avoided altogether.
Yet some current halachists suggest that the handshake that commonly introduces business and social meetings is utterly devoid of sexual meaning. It is simply a means of activating a communication and is not ‘derech chibah’ at all. Accordingly, in this narrow circumstance it would be permissible to shake hands. A common compromise involves not instigating the handshake, but taking a hand offered to avoid embarrassing its owner. It should be emphasised that while this view is commonly relied upon, is not reflective of the view of the majority of halachists. It is however, the view of a respected minority opinion, and indeed, the view of my own teacher.
These restrictions do not apply to a doctor’s examination, as the halachah assumes that the doctor is immersed in his or her professional duties, which eliminates any concern. Whether they apply to other ‘professional’ circumstances, such as at the hairdresser’s, is a subject of discussion too.