Thursday, March 18, 2021

The Missing Handshake

Something has been bothering me since yesterday that I would like to get off my chest.

In traditional Orthodox Jewish law to which my wife and I both adhere, we abstain from touching any member of the opposite sex unless s/he's a spouse or very close relative, like a parent or child.

For this reason, I politely refrain from shaking hands with women, and certainly from hugging. Likewise, my wife refrains from the same with men.

It's always awkward to explain this observance to people when I meet them in person and they extend their hand. Especially if it's outdoors or loud and hard to communicate. Even indoors, it's often kind of difficult to articulate.

Sometimes women get insulted and take it the wrong way, as it might imply something unclean about women. Of course, such is NOT the case at all. It's about an ancient religious observance to create respectful boundaries between men and women, a symbolic partition of sorts to remind us that intimacy ("chiba" in Hebrew) ought to be between a married couple only. It also seeks to preserves the unique intimacy that can be implicit in touch between a man and woman.

Of course, I understand that to the vast majority of people in modern society -- in which women participate in the workplace alongside men -- a handshake is simply a polite and cordial gesture, and does not necessarily imply inappropriate closeness between two people who aren't married. Nevertheless, this is my personal observance, and that of most orthodox Jews worldwide. It's hard to spontaneously explain it to people who are unfamiliar with it.

Why do I mention this here?

Yesterday, I had the honor to attend a medical freedom rally outside the state capitol in Hartford, CT. Many ladies warmly greeted me and extended their hands, but I had to uncomfortably decline the handshake. It was outdoors, loud and difficult to hear, so I didn't even bother trying to explain it.

I felt bad since these were all heroic women who came out -- some from as far as NJ and Vermont -- and braved the cold to stand up for truth and freedom. I had already known and respected many of these ladies from their writings on Facebook. They included medical professionals, lawyers, powerful advocates for children's education and religious freedom, and most of all, devoted mothers fearlessly standing up to protect their children from medical tyranny. These were individuals of the highest caliber -- guardians of humanity -- deserving of praise, acknowledgment and encouragement. I felt truly as though I had failed to honor them adequately with so much as a handshake, and wasn't even able to explain my failure to do so.

Of course, medical freedom advocates are the highest quality of people you will ever meet. They are not petty or easily insulted. They have thick skin :)

They all took it in stride and didn't seem offended. Some understood that it's a religious thing, although I imagine that others might have assumed that I was refraining from shaking due to covid concerns.

This latter thought really troubled me. You see, I am the LAST person on earth to be concerned about alleged covid contagion. I don't wear masks, don't socially distance, never tested or isolated, never stayed home (except for when I was actually sick with cold symptoms). I shake hands and hug men regularly. In fact, in the chassidic tradition, men kiss each other on the cheek when greeting one another. I do this often when encountering friends in Brooklyn (it's normal in those circles). I never refrained from doing this during the past year, nor did most of my friends.

In fact, I believe that the whole idea of social distancing is -- and always was -- a grave error. The gift of human touch is essential, especially for people who are sick. Especially for elders, young children, people who feel lonely or alienated.

Humans are social beings. We need each other. We need to feel the skin of other humans. Shaking hands and embracing with others is essential to humanity.

Every fortuitous concourse of two humans is an event of Divine significance. When two people shake hands, it's symbolic of the two tablets of the Covenant that are coupled and cannot exist independently of each other. The five fingers of each hand -- akin to the five commandments etched on each tablet -- fuse to form ten. Accordingly, a simple handshake represents the complete Ten Commandments. Shaking hands expresses the Divine Covenant.

A human being is not a risk to his/her fellow. Just the opposite. By closely interacting with others, we help bolster each other's immunity.

The five commandments etched on the first tablet does not detract from, preclude, or contradict the five commandments etched on the second tablet. Quite the contrary: they complement and strengthen each other. [1]

The concept of "asymptomatic transmission" is an egregious lie, an insidious attempt to subvert humanity and make us suspicious of each other, to place artificial barriers between one another.

So you can understand how I felt terribly remiss if I had given anyone the wrong impression that I had refrained from shaking hands due to covid fears.

In order to dispel the slightest perception of chilul Hashem [2], I feel obliged to clarify things here and now:

My not shaking had NOTHING to do with covid or any other health concern, real or imagined. There is NOTHING dirty about your hand, your aerosol, or anyone's 'germs.'

Likewise, it had NOTHING to do with anything condescending or inferior (G-d forbid) about women. Just the opposite.

It was just about my faith -- my moral and ethical personal observances. Which was what that event was all about -- asserting our religious freedoms even if means differing from what others perceive as normal or even necessary, like vaccination, for example.

Of course, we respect their right to vaccinate and live their lives in accordance with THEIR spiritual values, but expect them to accord US the very same respect.

Anyway, if you are reading this and know any of the awesome ladies who were present yesterday at Hartford, please pass this on to them:

I would like to apologize for not being able to explain my not shaking hands.

You are the very best that humanity has to offer.

It was humbling to be in your presence.

My profound appreciation and respect for you far exceeds anything that can be conveyed in a simple handshake.

Thank you for hearing me out and for your understanding.

[1] Each commandment lines up perfectly with its counterpart on the other tablet. Just as one can read them top to bottom, one can also read them side to side, in which the commandment on one tablet complements the equivalent commandment on the other tables:
    1. Commandments 1 and 6: Every human is created in the image of G‑d, so murder is an affront to the Creator.
    2. Commandments 2 and 7: When one worships a deity other than G‑d, it is as akin to adultery. G‑d is our loving spouse (and much more).
    3. Commandments 3 and 8: A person may feel that stealing is only between him and the victim, but it is also a crime against G‑d, whose name will ultimately be taken falsely.
    4. Commandments 4 and 9: Through keeping Shabbat, we testify that G‑d created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. When one disregards Shabbat, he testifies falsely about the Divine origin of the universe.
    5. Commandments 5 and 10: The juxtaposition of jealousy and honoring parents tell us that one who lusts after that which is not his, will ultimately give birth to a child who curses his parents and honors others instead.
See Midrash on Shemos 20:13. (Summary comparison above is from an article by Menachem Posner featured on Chabad dot org).

[2] "desecration of G-d's name" that occurs when we do not act in accordance with G-d's laws or commit a sacrilege. In contemporary times, regarding an asymptomatic human being as unclean or contagious is downright sacrilegious and a desecration of everything holy.

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