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As I'm sure that many of you have had to "break it" to a coworker or friend that you're Shomer Negiah, have you found a strategy or choice of words that seems most effective? As I wasn't raised frum and only adopted Shomer Negiah over a year ago, it's still kind of awkward to tell people, as I assume they're thinking I'm crazy or weird.

I usually start out with, "I'm sorry, I don't have physical contact with women other than my wife" and then usually end up blabbing on about why I do it and that it in no way is indicative of male chauvinism, etc. and I usually feel pretty much like a fool at the end of it.

I'm flying out to work onsite with a company which I was just hired to. I have the ability at present to simply send an email to all of the women on the team addressing the subject to diminish the potential awkwardness when I'm there. How should I address this?

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Related: judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/7531/… –  Dave Dec 20 '11 at 17:38
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@Dave, related, but this one seems more specialized -- that one is about avoidance in general, including answers like "hand over a buisness card", while the OP here asks about discussing it specifically. Is that distinction worth preserving? (Don't know, just asking.) –  Monica Cellio Dec 20 '11 at 18:09

5 Answers 5

This is awkward, particularly if you have behaved differently in the past (so people who knew you then will be confused by the change).

I would not send pre-emptive email; I don't think it will reduce the face-to-face confusion and it risks seeming to make a mountain out of a mole-hill. You're also going to be leaving early on Fridays, not eating the random food that shows up in the kitchen, not joining the company's co-ed swim team (ok, I'm reaching), and so on, but you wouldn't alert all your coworkers to the reasons for those, probably. (You would discuss the Friday thing with your management, of course.)

Instead, I would deal with it, once per person as needed, face-to-face, starting with "sorry, I can't", and if that's questioned, "for religious reasons I avoid physical contact with women other than my wife", and only going farther if specifically asked. Your co-workers want a good working relationship too; probably they won't ask, and if they do you can explain it to whatever degree seems to match the exhibited curiosity. But you don't need to share too much up front, which could actually make people more rather than less uncomfortable.

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I haven't worked with them in the past, and I'm only out there for 2 weeks. They know about Shabbos, but yeah. –  Naftuli Tzvi Kay Dec 20 '11 at 17:59
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+1. The last paragraph matches my own experience. –  Alex Dec 21 '11 at 1:07
    
Beautifully put, Monica! –  Lee May 1 '13 at 2:26

Keep it very simple: "I don't shake hands with women for religious reasons"

I don't think an email is necessary.

Most people only shake hands for one of two reasons:

  • to introduce
  • to seal a deal/agreement

If you're making a deal with these people, then they will need to know when you meet them that cross-gender handshaking is not on the agenda.

If you're simply working with them, it might be better just to avoid the initial handshake entirely. (Book / folder in hands, head nod) That way, you don't have to say anything at all, and after that first introduction, it won't come up again.

Finally, you could just shake the women's hands.
[see (Igros Moshe, Even Haezer, Vol. I, 56) - and Rambam Hilchos Issurei Biah 16 21:1]

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+1 for pointing out that it is allowed by some poskim. –  avi Dec 22 '11 at 9:59
    
Rav Moshe writes, "ובדבר שראית שיש מקילין אף מיראי ה' ליתן יד לאשה כשהיא מושיטה אולי סוברין דאין זה דרך חבה והאוה אבל למעשה קשה לסמוך ע"ז." "...in practice it is difficult to rely on this."! –  Yirmeyahu Dec 23 '11 at 7:08
    
@Yirmeyahu Which is why he said "finally". –  Double AA Mar 11 at 7:09

I would read the following research paper regarding the effects of touching people.

If you feel awkward about saying that it's a religious requirement and leave it at that, then you might want to try to use the findings of the research to explain to people that you do not wish to bias their opinions of you by giving subconscious feelings of connection, which aren't relayed by your words alone.

If fear of sexism is the main problem, then in a work environment you might want to avoid touching people all together.

You can always use the research paper as a means to tell people that you respect them too much to try to persuade them via touching.

There are other research papers which talk about the effects of touching people and how it influences both attitudes and behavior.

It's a good era to keep halachot, where they can be explained without using religious language if need be.

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+1, great answer! –  Naftuli Tzvi Kay Dec 20 '11 at 20:01
    
I don't think that avoiding the real issue is a good way to solve any problem (especially if it requires one to "avoid touching people all together")....I think user1095's answer is the best –  Shokhet May 30 at 5:00

In my mind, I frame the issue as follows: There's a lot of bad information out there about why the Orthodox won't shake a woman's hand, e.g., they're "unclean", they're not good enough, etc. So the main 2 issues I try to address are, 1) Don't make the woman feel inferior, and 2) Don't make the woman become embarrassed. I have done things like have my hands in my pockets, given a preemptive bow & open smile in the woman's direction while making sure not to look down at her extended hand. I've also (rarely) shaken a woman's hand when not avoidable, using Rabbi Dovid Cohen of Cong. Gvul Yaavetz's guideline of, "If you must, shake her hand, but do it as if it's a hot potato!" Since it's a business setting, it's a business-like handshake, so shortening it by a second isn't saying "You're contaminated!" but "Let's get down to business!" In personal settings, or casual business settings, I will generally say, "I have a religious and personal boundary against touching any woman other than my wife!" In that way, I'm laying the blame on me; I find that I need to set boundaries in MY life, and it's not a problem with YOU. (Parenthetically, while Chazal "leaned" their prohibition against physical contact with women on a verse said regarding a Niddah [Lev. 18:19], the point was "not approaching" for illicit reasons, and applies even to a woman who you know has gone to the mikvah, but with whom sexual contact would be inappropriate.)

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I often discover that when you tell people it's for religious reasons they don't mind, and sometimes they are even interested to hear what the reason, or the where it came from etc. That is most of the time, but not always- so make sure you don't make a Hilul Hashem. And if you do send that email go through a thorough explaination, because that will decrease the level of awkwardness.

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