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In which ways do I have to be concerned about modesty in the workplace?

by Rabbi Lazer Gurkow

  

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Moral Integrity

Let me begin by applauding you for following your conscience in a matter which is so pressure laden. It is very difficult to be a lone voice in an un-supportive environment; it takes a lot of moral courage. I applaud you for taking on this daunting task despite the fact that you were not brought up this way or educated to this effect.

As I understand your situation, there are two primary concerns that you need to be aware of as far as Torah law is concerned in your work environment. The first is the prohibition against physical contact between unrelated men and women. The second is the prohibition against being alone in a private room with an unrelated man.

This may manifest itself in a number of sensitive scenarios. You will need to find a sensitive way to ask your male colleagues to avoid shaking your hand in greeting, and certainly hugging and kissing, as is customary in secular societies. You will also need to find a way to avoid being in a room alone with an unrelated man.

Gestures of friendship and certainly those of affection should be reserved for those towards whom we feel affectionate.
It's Too Touchy

My advice on this first concern is to explain gently but firmly to all the men in your immediate environment that you have decided to adhere to a stricter religious code and that you ask to be greeted with a smile instead of a handshake. Upon meeting men who are unaware of your recent decision you may want to utilize one of any creative method to avoid hand shaking. I, for one, respond to an offered hand with a smile, assuring them that I am unable to accept but that I feel certain that (and here I turn to another woman in the vicinity) this person would be wiling to accept your hand on my behalf. You can only say that if you feel comfortable with the words and the idea and if you are prepared to explain in a little more detail when questions are curiously asked.

Most people accept this response but it is still a sensitive issue and some do take offense. I find that a warm demeanor, a reassuring smile, and a quick change of topic will usually suffice to assuage such concerns. There are many "techniques" but we must each choose what feels right to us. You may choose to walk around at a party with your hands full, (such as holding a glass) I know one person who smiles sweetly and says, "My mother taught me never to take what doesn't belong to me." I tried that once and it fell flat because it was not a line I was comfortable with since accepting a handshake is not a claim of ownership. (Though a handshake held for a moment too long causes discomfort, indicating that it is more than a casual gesture).

In summation of the first concern, it is the position of normative Jewish law that a handshake in greeting is more than casual contact, it is a gesture of friendship, and therefore restricted between unrelated members of the opposite sex.


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