When a handshake is more than just a handshake


Shneur Odze, a candidate for the European Parliament through a conservative UK party, has engendered some controversy for refusing to shake women’s hands. Odze calls shaking hands with women who are not his wife a violation of his religious beliefs.

Some party activists have condemned Odze, including Fred McGlade, a regional party activist, who resigned from the party over Odze’s inclusion in the list of candidates.

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Others have rallied to his defense. The party chairman of Odze’s UK Independence Party told the Times of London that Odze’s refusal falls within a “policy of tolerance for and acceptance of people’s own religious observance” and “harms no one.”

The issue of Orthodox Jews shaking hands has made media waves before. In a controversial column, Randy Cohen, then author of the “Ethicist” feature for the New York Times, once condemned an Orthodox real estate agent’s refusal to shake hands with a female client. Comparing sex segregation with Jim Crow-era “separate but equal” policies, Cohen averred that “calling an offensive action religious doesn’t make it right.” He advised that the offended client, a self-identified feminist, tear up her contract with the realtor in light of her ideology.  (Cohen does not address the implication that a handshake can be construed as a precursor to sexual contact; clearly, he didn’t take into account the primal excitement some people feel upon concluding a New York real estate deal).

The refusal of some Orthodox men and women to shake hands with the opposite gender is rooted in halacha (Jewish ritual law). Leviticus 18:19 prohibits “approaching unto” a woman in order to uncover her nakedness, and the matter of approach has been extrapolated by many Jewish sages to incorporate all manner of touch. According to numerous scholars, no touch whatsoever is permitted between members of opposite genders outside a marriage — Maimonides even prohibits men from smelling the scent of a woman, lest it arouse sexual thoughts — and the proscription is so strict that some have counted it as one of the commandments that adherents of Jewish law should die rather than transgress.

What’s undeniable is that a handshake is one of the most prominent gestures in Western civilization. A good handshake is considered an indication of good character, and the gesture is considered a universal symbol of trust, accord and coming together.

So it’s ironic that these two positions seem so fundamentally irreconcilable. Without agreement, what can the two sides even shake hands about?

Maybe it’s time to avoid these difficulties by doing away with the handshake altogether. After all, all of us have experienced sweaty-palmed, limp or finger-crushing handshakes (and the weird feeling of imposture when first beginning to shake hands, at the onset of adulthood). Maybe it’s time to take a cue from the Japanese and take a bow instead. The gesture is similarly brief, respectful and can carry a lot of nuance.

But then again, maybe it would just spark another argument: does bowing to your realtor or MP constitute idol worship? How deep and at what angle should the bows be?

Still, I think we can all agree it would solve some problems. Let’s just not shake on it.

Talia Lavin Talia Lavin is an intern at JTA. A recent Harvard graduate and aspiring novelist, she recently returned from a Fulbright grant in Ukraine, where she studied early 20th-century Hebrew literature.