When Ivanka Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio met at a government meeting about paid family leave on June 21, 2017, their awkward greeting was captured in a picture that quickly went viral, viewed millions of times by the end of the day.
Sen. Rubio’s went to hug Ms. Trump, but something went awry: she remained ramrod straight, he seemed to fumble, and the entire graceless gesture was captured on film. Both the Senator and the first daughter laughed off the incident later; Sen. Rubio even joked on Twitter about his “hailed hug” being investigated.
Amid the laughter, though, one question persists. How have we got to a point where intensely personal gestures such as hugs and kisses have become a standard way to greet virtual strangers? After all, not so long ago that a handshake was the common greeting. These days, that seems hopelessly quaint: hugs, embraces, arm squeezes, and kisses - behaviors that once were reserved for close friendships - are now frequently employed as greetings.
Sometimes, a high-profile case of hugs or other sort of physical contact seems especially jarring, and reminds us that intimate physical gestures weren’t always used as a way to say hello. In 2006, when Pres. George W. Bush spontaneously started massaging the shoulders of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, she reacted with a shocked grimace. In 2009, Michelle Obama seemed to put her arm around Queen Elizabeth II in a half-hug embrace; the British press castigated her for this unwarranted personal caress of their monarch. And last month, there was the possibly the worst-judged high-five in political history. Britain’s Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s attempt to high-five Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry: with the press corps’ camera’s clicking, he wound up somehow grabbing her breast instead.
The truth is, many of us feel uncomfortable when our personal space is invaded. Employing hugs and other intimate gestures as greetings creates an impression of familiarity and friendliness that isn’t always wanted or appropriate.
Judaism has long recognized this dilemma. Yearning to connect physically is a powerful, basic human desire. It is an essential part of intimacy. And as such, the Torah teaches, it’s to be used sparingly, and with purpose.
Removing physical touch from the ways we can connect with others frees us to find new ways to relate. When international fashion designer Joyce Azria began returning to her Jewish roots and started adhering to the Jewish practice of reserving physical contact for family members only, she found that her ability to relate to others increased. Business partners, colleagues and friends began paying more attention to her eyes, her face, and her words, she recalled. Without the crutch of physical gestures, what we have to say suddenly becomes more important.
It’s not easy to avoid the ubiquitous hugs, pecks, kisses, embraces and other forms of physical greetings that have become the norm. I’ve tried a number of strategies through the years, from sticking out my hand for a handshake (a gesture that many, though not all, Modern Orthodox Jews will engage in in professional settings) to pre-empt hugs, to declaring “I’m not much of a hugger” as acquaintances start to zone in for the embrace. I think many of the potential huggers I’ve deflected this way have been secretly relieved. After all, how many of us truly want to get to so close to near strangers? Many of us would much rather get to know each other through conversation instead.