Question. Is my rabbi right in not shaking hands with women?
Answer. Physical contact with women is a halachic problem, even with one’s own wife when she is “niddah”. Many authorities rule against shaking hands with women if there could be any sexual or erotic interest involved. It could be different in a business context where a commercial transaction is being sealed (Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer 21:5; R’ma’s glosses).
The Bach, commenting on the halachic issue, says that
“In our country people are lenient in these matters and we do not forbid it”,
provided the handshake is perfunctory and “L’shem shamayim” (“for the sake of Heaven”). An illustration is given from Talmud Yerushalmi Sotah 3:1 that a kohen was allowed a brief contact with a woman’s hand when she brought a meal offering. Since the touching of her hand was brief and utilitarian there was no thought of sexual desire.
Those rabbis who shake hands with women do so because it is a mere social convention without any deeper implications. Other rabbis avoid any physical contact, though some will shake a woman’s hand if she puts out her hand first.
Question. Is the 2nd Commandment still relevant, with its ban on idolatry? Are there still any idols?
Answer. Dozens of them. People worship false gods such as money, status, power and success. They also worship the true God in an idolatrous fashion, e.g. by disdaining and demonising others in the name of God, or targeting, injuring and murdering others, ostensibly on His behalf.
SYNAGOGUES OR CEMETERIES?
Question. Which is more important for a new community to establish – a synagogue or a cemetery?
Answer. Which is more important? Both.
Let me quote myself. I have consecrated a number of synagogues in my time, and also a number of cemeteries.
When it was a cemetery I was consecrating, I always congratulated the community and said it was a sign of life when a group needed a cemetery. It showed that they regarded themselves as so firmly established in a place that they expected to do there all the normal things that are part of life, including dying and being laid to rest in a location which relatives and friends would visit in time to come.
There are many kinds of Jews, A Jews, B Jews, C Jews, D Jews and E Jews. The B Jew is concerned with burial as a Jew. We need A Jews too, alert to Jewish thinking, C Jews, committed to Jewish living, D Jews, dedicated to Jewish causes, E Jews, enlightened and educated about Judaism and the Jewish heritage.
Worry about dying as a Jew, but don’t forget to live as a Jew too.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. Now retired and lives in Jerusalem.