The politics of ‘shomer negia’

Religious politicians who do not touch non-family members of the opposite sex, navigate the issue of the handshake.

Dov Lipman gets flowers from female MKs 370 (photo credit: Lahav Harkov)
Dov Lipman gets flowers from female MKs 370
(photo credit: Lahav Harkov)
While a handshake may be an everyday gesture or a simple courtesy to some, it’s a whole other ball game for religious politicians, as the first days of the 19th Knesset showed.
On Wednesday, MK Dov Lipman (Yesh Atid), the first American-born member of Knesset in almost 30 years, gave his inaugural speech in the plenum. Lipman referred to his upbringing in an ultra- Orthodox community in the US in an impassioned plea for haredi parties to support employment, IDF service and general education for their constituents.
As Lipman described his religious background and quoted Moses and medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides to strengthen his point, MK Ruth Calderon (Yesh Atid) weaved her way through the rows of lawmakers’ seats, handing out roses to all of her party’s female members.
No, it wasn’t an early Valentine’s Day gift.
Most of Yesh Atid’s MKs make a point of staying in the plenum the entire time it is active, especially when their fellow party members speak.
Invariably, the speeches are followed by party leader Yair Lapid and the rest of the faction rushing to the foot of the stage to give handshakes and hugs – Lapid’s bear hugs are already legendary – to the new lawmaker that spoke.
Since Lipman is what is known in Jewishly observant circles as “shomer negia,” meaning he does not touch non-family members of the opposite sex. Calderon, Yael German, Adi Kol and other female Yesh Atid MKs could not congratulate him according to party custom.
Instead, they found a creative alternative, presenting him, one by one, with flowers, until he held a full bouquet.
While the women of Yesh Atid were sensitive to Lipman’s lifestyle, if a female does put out her hand to Lipman to shake it, he would oblige rather than embarrass her, but he does not initiate handshakes.
Likud Beytenu MK Moshe Feiglin took a different tack, publicizing the fact that he shook the hands of female lawmakers who approached him after he made his plenum debut.
On Thursday, Feiglin posted on Facebook his response to a letter from a concerned supporter who asked him why he would be willing to shake women’s hands.
“In the past, I did not shake hands, until I learned that it is not forbidden. [A handshake] is touching out of politeness and not out of affection,” Feiglin wrote.
The Likud Beytenu MK added that “the walls built between different parts of the nation, the inability to listen and connect based on the things that unite us threaten us more than the danger in giving up on a religious stringency.”
Feiglin also wrote that he sought his rabbi’s advice, and behaves according to what he was told.
The issue of handshakes has come up in the past, with MK Tzipi Hotovely (Likud Beytenu) taking a path in between Lipman and Feiglin in the last Knesset, her first term as a lawmaker.
If a man puts out his hand for her to shake it, Hotovely usually won’t reject him in order to avoid making him uncomfortable – since, according to the Talmud, embarrassing someone is akin to murder – but she also makes sure to let him know that, in the future, she would prefer not to touch him.
Still, in 2010, when Petah Tikva Hesder Yeshiva Rabbi Yuval Cherlow released a halachic ruling that shaking hands with the opposite sex is permissible, Hotovely said, “It’s important to respect human sensitivities, but at the same time, it’s important to respect those who are strict and do not shake hands.”