March 18, 2008

Culture and Halacha

Hakirah vol. 4 had a wonderful little essay called "Is handshaking a Torah violation?" by R' Yehuda Henkin. I'm not going to get into the details of it all, but he sums it by saying that anyone that wants to be stringent in the manner, basically has something to rely upon, as long as they do not say it is halacha. He also, very clearly, makes a point to say that hand shaking does not fall under the category of k'mo metashmish.

A couple of weeks ago, I was reading a different essay in that Hakirah during davening, when a friend of mine asked to see it. He started reading R' Henkins essay and he made an interesting observation that I would like to share with you. Both of us are Ashkenazi and both of us married Persian women. In Persian culture, as many in the middle-east, when people greet one another, they kiss each other on both sides of the cheek. To them, it is no different than a handshake. It is simply a greeting.

R' Yehuda Henkin makes it a point that handshaking is permissible because there is no sexual desire to it. He brings attention to a Rambam where he forbides kissing and hugging because it is considered a "pre- and proto-sexual behaivor" (which he says is an infraction of a negative commandment based on Vayikra 18:6). but continued by saying:
This proviso precludes social handshakes from being subsumed under the lo ta'aseh, since a handshake is not a preliminary to relations. This is so even if the handshake includes an element of affection or pleasure [emphasis mine]; affection alone without the feature of desire is not a Torah violation. The Shach already wrote this when he stipulated "the way of desire and affection of intercourse" (derech taavah v'chibat biah) rather than simply "affection."
The problem with all this is that, like I said, in the Persian culture, greeting one with a kiss, is no different than the westernized handshake. It is a sign of respect and showing of affection, especially to your elders, whether they are male or female. It seems to me that when halchot are paskened, cultural differences are sometimes neglected in order for this all to be one cohesive unit of all of us doing the same thing. But why should one cultural norm decide for another?

Another final and important point he made was this: If it ever came to a point where this question was actually brought up for halachic consideration, sitting down in front of books and halachic sources would most likely be difficult or even hopeless. One has to LIVE and breathe this culture to understand it, in order to properly pasken such things. Could a Rav from Europe understand the cultural nuances of Persians by reading halachic books and trying to pasken? Probably as much a Persian rabbi trying to understand French Jews by opening up one of his Tshuvot.