I was on an El Al flight recently, seated in the very back of the plane near the restrooms. The restrooms could be a problem when the line backs up and people begin to hang out and talk at any hour of the night notwithstanding sleeping passengers all around them. This ultimately leads to long conversations starting and everyone passing up their place on the bathroom line in the interest of continuing the conversation.
So there I was, after a nice meal (I love airplane food) and part of a film (lately I have no patience to sit through an entire movie). The lights were turned off and the passengers were in various stages of drifting off to sleep. Then the conversation started. On one side was a young woman (mid 30's I guessed) who was not Jewish but worked for a small company owned by an Orthodox Jew. It sounded like she did some type of computer graphics work. On the other side was a fellow I recognized from New York. He is a fundraiser for a (minor) Jewish organization that actually does very good work. He's a good schmoozer and I'm sure he is very good at what he does. I would say he is part of the "black hat" community in New York. His sons go to very right wing yeshivos and he davens in a 'frum" shteibel. From my observation of him over the years, I came to like him. He is a warm guy and a very pleasant and nice person. I'm pretty sure he didn't notice me sitting there and even if he did, I don't think he really knows me beyond mere recognition.
The woman and this guy started talking. I wasn't paying any attention to the conversation so I don't know how they got around to discussing his work and her work and how maybe they can even possibly help each other. I knew it was heading for an exchange of business cards. Then it started.
While talking, the woman asked for the guy's name. He provided his name and she said "so nice to meet you" and you guessed it, stuck out her hand. Without even hesitating, the guy responded "I'm sorry but I am Orthodox and the Orthodox don't shake women's hands". I felt that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I think I sensed her embarrassment. However, I am aware of the various opinions on what to do in this situation so I tried hard not to judge this man for the way he reacted. While I would shake the woman's hand, I know there are other opinions that it is wrong to do so and was sure he was simply following these stricter opinions. See Gil's posts (here
) for a halachic discussion of the issue.
It sill was a very awkward situation and I was uncomfortable, mostly for the woman because the guy didn't seem to have any problem with the situation. I should mention that this guy's organization works primarily with non-religious women so I was a bit surprised by his reaction. Okay. No big deal. It happens all the time, and whereas I have adopted one method for myself, I respect the other approaches and halachic decisions on the matter. The awkwardness actually dissipated somewhat when the woman, surprised by what he said, inquired about the prohibition. I don't recall his explanation being in any way objectionable.
The situation deteriorated for me with what transpired next. As I mentioned earlier, the woman had said that she worked for an "Orthodox" man. It was therefore not a surprise when she mentioned how the non-shake took her by surprise because her boss never seems to have a problem shaking women's hands. She asked the guy to explain the discrepancy. I would have responded with some sort of "different strokes for different folks" answer while trying to maintain credibility and respect for both approaches. What I mean by that is not that different Orthodox people practice differently because that could lead to its own set of questions and misunderstandings. I mean a simple explanation that there are various interpretations of certain requirements and not everyone follows the exact same procedures in special situations. Not him. Here's how it went down:
Guy: Your boss shakes hands with women?
Guy: Well, then he is not Orthodox.
Gal: He says he is Orthodox.
Guy: He can't be Orthodox if he shakes women's hands.
Gal: Hmm. Interesting.
Me: (Reached for barf bag).
What is going on here? This wasn't some guy who sits in a kollel all day and has no exposure to the outside world (and who, if taught by the right rebbeim, probably would have handled the situation in a more respectful manner). This was an educated person who is "out there in the real world". How can he possibly say such a thing to someone who doesn't know better? What is wrong with these people? What has gone wrong with our religion when those who outwardly (and presumably inwardly) practice the religion at a very high level not only think that way about someone who shakes hands with women but also is willing to repeat it to a non-Jew in public!? He didn't even lower his voice! He didn't hesitate. Is that the only answer he could come up with? Was there no way to get around her question? Did it make him feel more religious? More holy? Superior?
You realize what must have transpired, don't you? One of two Orthodox Jews ultimately looked bad in the eyes of a non-Jew. She undoubtedly went back to work and repeated this story to her boss thinking he wasn't Orthodox like he claimed. The boss either (1) bad-mouthed the "right-wingers", (2) gently explained that the guy on the plane was wrong, or (3) the boss used my "different strokes" response. But either way, she had to leave the conversation with her boss thinking that the plane guy misrepresented the truth by saying that a man who shakes women's hands cannot be Orthodox. And this coming from someone who seems to represent Orthodox Judaism at a high level? This is what she must have thought!
Bottom line is this: we looked bad. Again. And it was because of someone who, based on their appearance, should be held to a much higher standard when it comes to representing our (usually) beautiful religion. Why is this happening? Why are Jews being trained this way? You don't want to shake a woman's hand! More power to you! But along with instruction as to the actual laws and approach to the situation, let the rebbeim and Roshei Yeshiva teach some damn tact! Teach young Jews how to handle other people's feelings. Teach Jews that people's feelings, whether they be Orthodox, non-orthodox or yes, even non-Jews, matter. People's feelings matter! And beyond people's feelings, the impression one gives of our religion matters! Its called Kiddush or Chillul Hashem and one simple act or a few small words of explanation can determine whether one performs one or the other . These things matter. We are supposed to be a nation of princes, a holy nation, the chosen people. We need to stop acting like morons and boors.
Did I mention that I was sitting near of group of Christians who had just concluded a tour of Israel? We had the nicest conversation earlier in the flight. If only we spoke about Eretz Yisroel with the love and respect that these people do. They didn't have a bad word to say about their trip, the people or the country. Not one. "The country is so beautiful". "The people are beautiful". G-d bless you for living In Israel. "Why doesn't your country stand up to the Arabs and the world", etc. etc. The kind of stuff you love to hear. And yes, I know about the different views regarding the Christians' motives and whether we should view them as friends and allies or not when it comes to Israel. That's for another post. My point is that these same people were witness to the garbage that I had to listen to. I was sick to my stomach.
Fortunately, I got over it by the time breakfast arrived.