Tempest in a Handshake

Writing and speaking in a public forum is exhilarating. That means it is both exciting and terrifying. When my husband or I put something out before a listening or reading audience, we sometimes find ourselves completely off target in how we think it will be received. It is as disconcerting to see stony faces after making a joke as it is to get laughs after saying something serious. 

When we publish our Ask the Rabbi column each week, we are occasionally taken aback at the lack of interest in what we thought was a fascinating question or, conversely, immense interest when we didn’t expect it. This week’s question was an example of the latter

My husband and I work closely together. After he writes a Thought Tool, he sends it to me for comments and editing. After I write a Susan’s Musing, I send it to him for comments and editing. Nonetheless, Thought Tools is his work as the Musings are mine. Our Ask the Rabbi column is the closest thing we come to writing in a 50/50 manner.  

Here’s how it usually works. I scan the many questions that come in and choose one for us to answer. I then reflect and write an answer that I shoot over to my husband. He edits what I wrote, adds the product of his own prayer and reflection, and sends it back to me. Sometimes we go back and forth a few times and sometimes we initially discuss the question over dinner. (There is no such thing as a quick bite in the Lapin household.) Eventually, we agree on what to publish. 

True confession time. This week, I did something that I don’t remember ever doing before. In addition to a chock-full schedule tidying up after the month of holy days and catching up on things I had missed,  I found myself immersed for many hours in an unexpected but urgent project. I had not begun to pick an Ask the Rabbi question and answer and I had used up everything ‘on the shelf’ during the past month.  The post was due to go out and the clock was ticking. I reached into the archives and pulled out a question that we had run from a decade ago, written by a woman who was not comfortable shaking hands with men. At that point, even though it was early in the evening, my equally exhausted husband and I turned off for the night. 

We awoke to find more comments on this column than we had seen on any Ask the Rabbi column in a long time. Furthermore, the comments came from many different viewpoints, ranging from those who for physical reasons find shaking hands challenging to those who think that not shaking hands with everyone is standoffish verging on insulting and possibly unAmerican. 

What a wonderful reminder on a relatively minor issue as to how difficult it is to mix different cultures. A woman visiting an Orthodox Jewish synagogue and throwing her arms around the rabbi after the services will make him highly uncomfortable.  In turn, any woman offering a warm and platonic hug would feel hurt by a man recoiling away. Assuming that someone with Asian features should be greeted with a bow rather than with a handshake might insult a third-generation American of Asian background while embracing someone raised in a formal British environment might be seen as a brazen and rude intrusion.

Since we cannot hand out questionnaires to those we meet and with whom we interact, it behooves us all to be aware that the joys of having a diverse group of acquaintances is dependent on assuming best intentions until proven otherwise and to remember that what we assume to be normal and customary may not be so for others.  This would be a huge improvement on today’s cultural message that we should find offense in any behavior or thought that is not exactly in line with our own. What a better society we would live in if we all were more sensitive to others but far less easily nettled ourselves.

28 thoughts on “Tempest in a Handshake”

  1. It’s so hard to know all the cultural nuances isn’t it? I went into a patient’s room at the hospital once and introduced myself as the Chaplain. The woman politely said to me, “I’m a Muslim woman.” I said, “oh that’s great, we both pray to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob!” I continued to talk and try and connect with her not hearing or knowing what I missed culturally. When it was her turn she said, “Sir, you seem like a kind man and I appreciate you caring and taking the time to visit me, but as a Muslim woman, I believe that we should not visit like this without my husband present or a female friend present.” I replied, “Oh, I’m so sorry mam. I did not realize that. Forgive me. It was nice to meet you.” I began to leave the room and she said, “I will have the nurse call when my husband returns and you can come back and meet him and pray for us.” The point being, when she told me she was a Muslim, it went right over my head. I had no idea that she was politely telling me that we cannot visit with just the two of us! I missed the boat on that one!

    1. Kevin, I’m impressed by this whole interaction on both your sides. Is it possible that another Muslim woman would be comfortable with you being there and might just be telling you that you come from different faiths? We can do our best to be culturally sensitive but sometimes we just need to be told straight out what’s going on.

  2. Hi Susan, as usual good choice to discus.
    My personal thoughts and actions is to restrain from contact of those I do not know. I’m not saying that this is the right way but my way.
    For those that I do know I expect a hand shape or hug. One thing I do not do is kisses.
    I have some cousins that kiss as well as hugs.
    But what I see is missing is: what God and Jesus has taught us to do. I believe this is most important.
    Another thing that has stuck in my mind most of my life was a study that was done in Russia I believe sometime back in the seventies or eighties in an orphanage. Two different wings were mostly babies.
    One wing the babies were held and played with, the other were not held or played with and left on their own. Of course most of us would know the results or out come. That to applies to all human life.
    Many of the babies died that were not held or loved. As for the others all lived thrived in life that included love and being held.
    You have to ask yourself is this a form of showing love?
    And how important is love in our society?

  3. Rabbi and Wife…I’m not surprised that comment came from ten years ago! I do love the reality related to the Biblical verse used. Especially how many U.S.A. Presidents have been left handed.
    Even relying on whether you as a person is dominant with right or left hand.
    However, I cannot hug or shake hands with anyone. It exchanges forms of energy such as a person just tightly gripping or loosely. I don’t even want to feel your spirit.
    Though I consider it many times when someone is approaching or introduces me to another person. Some days I will just look them in the eyes when they raise their arms or extend for a handshake with a verbal reply, “I’m not in the mood for hugs or handshakes.”
    It’s not an excuse because my family and friends immediately knows me as loving and huggable. So they know I have the option though turned the opportunity down to greet them the way they chose to greet me.
    I’m very approachable since normally I’m by myself and someone who is trying to strike a conversation may get the inclination that they will not be intruding.
    When I want to know someone personally I observe their behaviors on the space they keep between them and others.
    I’ll shake hands or hug a man or woman just not everyday or everyone.

  4. This is a little off the subject, as usual, but it just popped up when reading your musings. Susan does the Rabbi, when walking down a street or road, walk closer to the street to protect you from any wild horses that might be in the area? Does the Rabbi open doors for you?

    1. Mark, I do remember walking with my father when I was a little girl and him explaining that in different places the man walks closer to the curb or closer to the buildings. It depended on whether a more serious threat was posed by cars and buses going through puddles and splashing the person closer to the street or if the greater threat was posed by people emptying garbage out of their apartment windows. There were no horses where I grew up.

      Yes, my husband does open doors for me. And he does see his role as protecting me, whether from wild horses or wild people.

  5. I was born/raised in California and most people used to hug, or strangers would shake hands. However, we now live in such a global world, with people from many different nations who are carriers of diseases eradicated in America decades, if not a century, ago. Antibiotics and vaccines rarely do much to address exposure anymore. Coming into any sort of contact, physically or even within airborne shot of one another can negatively affect health. Plus, we have a massive number of people with “auto-immune” disorders, taking prescription drugs that literally destroy the immune system’s ability to protect or rebuild itself. Given this, and as sad as it may be, I think it is smarter today to have little close contact with anyone other than very close friends and family (and even with that, we take a chance). It is more complicated for you, the Lapins, because you are public figures who likely meet with throngs of different people routinely, which puts you both, and possibly your families, at risk. That is the world in which we live.

  6. Dear Susan: First, Dale and I always enjoy your musings, the “ask the Rabbi” questions, and other posts. We find your thoughts encouraging and thought provoking, but probably don’t tell you enough! Thank you for influencing so many, and including us in that number. As far as the shaking hands issue, I was always taught that the most gracious thing is to make the person you’re interacting with comfortable. So if a man is inclined to shake my hand and indicates by raising his in a thank you/agreement, I would never pull back. That said, I was also taught that it not customary or required for women to shake hands.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Hi Deborah–
      I’ll let Susan respond to the substance of your note; I just want to say hello to you and Dale and tell you how much we miss seeing you now that we are spending more time on the East Coast than our beloved Puget Sound. Do come visit!

      1. Oh Rabbi Lapin: How often we have recalled such wonderful times and wishing we could see you for a Shabbos meal. We adore all of you. Warmest regards from both of us (and if we come Eastward, we will absolutely let you know)!

        1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

          We’d love that Deborah–
          And you’d get to see a few Lapinettes too!
          Regards to your whole family

        2. We would love to see you both, Deb. I do sometimes see adorable pictures of your grandkids on FB.

  7. I’ve always considered handshakes as a means to bring closure to a social exchange. If a person doesn’t want a handshake, they usually step away as the conversation tapers off. I’m more likely to feel trespassed if someone puts their hand on my back or shoulder where I had no chance to express consent. In multilevel marketing meetings, it was common to see men hug, which seemed over the top to me, so I would extend my hand to throttle the closeness. It seems handshakes are a good middle ground to express warmth without being overbearing. If people are worried about germs, think about all the germs you take in when smelling unpleasant odors, or the germs on a gas pump handle. We swim in an germs.

  8. I have always thought a smile would be appropriate, but occasionally even that has been misinterpreted. I just follow the lead of the other person and adjust

  9. If it’s a firm handshake it sends the arthritis in my hands into a tailspin, especially if its a strong man with big hands. I find it awkward to shake hands with women, but i do adore my husband being the first to shake hands with another man.

  10. Thank you Rabbi and Susan ~
    After a pleasant phone conversation with a new mechanic today I extended my hand first when meeting. There was a mutual respect upon leaving with no need to “connect”.
    Shabbat Shalom

  11. There are so many disparate customs and conventions just in this country (USA, *not South Africa). 70 years ago, as a child I was taught to shake a man’s hand with a firm grip and looking him in the eye. Now, in the Seattle/Bellevue area, shaking hands, hugging, cheek-kissing, upper arm gripping, etc. within and between the sexes can all prevail. I’m a bit uncomfortable with all that. I have a friend who has Asperger’s and he makes a really super effort by offering his hand to shake and looking a person in the eye hoping that will suffice and avoid the hugging/kissing stuff. There should be some way we could just pass out emojis to effect the rituals and deprecate the physical contact. 😊 I hope this doesn’t become a political issue. It seems like some people have very strong feelings about it. We need to hear from a prominent celebrity so we’ll know how to behave in public.

  12. Dear Susan,
    It is so nice to be part of a community where we can talk about things that are important, which often don’t get talked about because it can be uncomfortable. I really enjoy talking about tough issues that people often don’t see eye to eye on. It’s hard, in my little corner of the world, to find people who are willing to talk about the deep things of life. This has been so helpful to me! I try my best to always keep in mind that I don’t know what the other person(s) has been through which would influence their behavior. I also don’t mind too much when there is disagreement. I do live by some absolute truths which I will not budge on, all of which are in the Bible. I can and have learned a lot from a Rabbi and his wife Susan. Thanks for listening.
    Terry Sterling

    1. I agree, Terry. It is so important to distinguish between what cultural differences matter greatly and which are unimportant. And it helps a great deal to remember, as you say, that we don’t know what is going on in other people’s lives or where they may have different backgrounds and expectations than we do.

    2. I found in a class on linguistics after the fact, how gestures not commonly considered ill-willed here and are of good will are obscene elsewhere. Awareness by all is good, wouldn’t you say?

  13. I thought the same thing. This is merica and in merica we shake hands. I thought because we are a Judeo-Christian Country with strong a English background that we would have the same sort of customs. I guess not. I think it’s sad.

    1. What I see in the comments to the Ask the Rabbi, Shawn, is that in America we don’t necessarily shake hands – certainly not men and women. A number of people commented on having been brought up not to do so. And in England it relatively recently was not done. I’m not sure what is sad about it, if you want to elaborate.

      1. I have lived in several different states. West, north and south and always have shaken peoples hand when I first meet them. Both men and women. You look them in the eye and shake their hand. Never occurred to me that was improper. In fact, if I meet someone who didn’t do that I would think of them as untrustworthy. Here is where it’s sad. How is it that I have been born and raised in a Judeo-Christian country and have no idea that it is improper for me to shake your hand? When And how did our customs drift so far apart? I won’t be shaking women’s hands anymore. Literally everything American is under attack. Down to the handshake. If I read this when you first published it 10 years ago I wouldn’t have the same reaction.

        1. Thanks for elaborating Shawn. I don’t think I would use the word improper. That makes it sound like something is wrong. And it isn’t customs drifting far apart as much as different customs evolving. As my husband teaches, the word friend in Hebrew is made up of the word for hand repeated twice – hand in hand. We see a handshake in the book of Judges used as a way to show you have no weapon (though it backfires when Ehud is left handed as was not expected by the king of Moab). But that is between men, not between men and women. It was pretty much a universal norm until very recently that rules governing interchanges between the sexes were different than between men and men or women and women. Clearly that area is problematic and the MeToo movement is one reflection of that.
          As people write, though, sometimes there are physical reasons men can’t shake hands and,like Bob Dole, it becomes unfair to assume negative vibes if a man doesn’t shake hands.
          We too taught our son to have a firm handshake, but hopefully to be sensitive to body language clues as well.

Comments are closed.

Shopping Cart