I had my first incidence of a Jewish faux pas on this trip. One of my male colleagues came into the office where I was camped out to say hello. I got up and went over to shake his hand in greeting. He politely responded with, “no, I don’t shake”, and then continued the conversation where he had left off, as if nothing had happened. I was taken aback and felt my face flush. On the one hand, I felt embarrassed for not having realized, based on his dress, that my professional gesture would be a violation of tzniut (modesty). The Orthodox interpretation of this Jewish value dictates that, with few exceptions, men and women who are not related are forbidden to touch. At the same time, his demur was so disorienting that reflexively felt insulted – as if he had sat down to dinner at my house and refused to eat what I had prepared because it was unclean.
Of course, my taking it as personal affront was ridiculous. It is rather pointedly not so. After our encounter, I spent some time reading up on tzniut. Rabbi Aryeh Klapper writes in Text and Texture, a blog of Orthodox Jewish thought, that the intention of tzniut is “to preserve and expand the domain of intimacy” by ensuring that it is reserved for one's spouse. Touch is deemed to be an intimate gesture. (If you want to learn more about tzniut, I encourage you to read his thoughtful and articulate piece.) It literally had nothing to do with me. And yet… if shaking hands is part of my professional code of conduct, if I communicate partnership and trust through appropriate and respectful touch, how do I reconcile his traditions with mine?
Most of the GreenRoad team in Israel is essentially secular. They partake in core Jewish rituals – we did a toast for Passover while I was in the office during this visit, and we lit Hannukah candles when I was here last time—but they drive and work on Shabbat, they eat pork and shrimp, and they generally live a life that is unencumbered by halacha, or Jewish law. But there are a handful of people in the company who are observant. This is accepted, respected, and incorporated into the way the company does business. The colleague who greeted me (without a handshake) earns his day of rest mightily; he is online at all hours, working away, responding to after-hours emails within minutes. But he sends a text before Shabbat begins to let the rest of the team know he’s off. And another when Shabbat is over. The team won’t check in any code during Shabbat, even if they’re working. As one of the leads explained to me, “It’s out of respect.”
I'm decidedly unorthodox in almost every way imaginable, and I like myself just fine - but I'll admit that sometimes I feel a little jealous of the zealous. There are times I wish I were a true believer, just because rules relieve the stress of decision-making. Black and white is easier to manage than grey. And, admittedly, intimacy is kind of a lost art in our society, where we feast on reality TV and chase it with tabloid celebrity exposé. If tzniut is, as Rabbi Klapper says, intended to preserve and expand intimacy, and intimacy is “constructed by exclusivity of exposure”, maybe there is something to it. Who is to say how many sensuous relations began with the pretense of chastity in a handshake? (But then again, who's to say it wasn't a handshake between two women?)
I have been thinking about tzniut not because I have any intention of not shaking hands, or because feel drawn to Orthodoxy, or because I feel that God wants me to be more observant of Jewish laws- but because, honestly, it kind of resonates. Because in some strange way, it is easier to say “I can’t” than “I won’t” – and there are situations where it may be better to say “I won’t” than “I will”. There are outcomes where, if you peeled back the onion, you would find a rather innocent-seeming root.
I’m sitting here writing this with the full intention of posting it in the least intimate forum imaginable – Facebook – so I am laughing at myself a bit right now. Most who know me would say that I am more often rightly charged with TMI than with modesty. But that gesture of denying the hand I offered has me wondering… maybe freedom of expression is not always so freeing. It is the spiritual equivalent of the omnivore’s dilemma.
At the end of the day, I feel fortunate to have had this encounter, because anything that gives you good food for thought is a gift. My colleague was asking no more than that I treat his beliefs with respect, as he does mine. It’s not so much to ask. So why did it feel threatening? I'll have to mull that over some more.
Here’s to exploring all the traditions of the world with an open heart. May life be richer for it.