Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Social Kissing

Many people have the custom of social kissing as a form of greeting people of the opposite sex. Is this OK? Can religious Jews behave in this way - greeting each other with a social kiss? What about Issurei Arayos... Halachos forbidding physical contact between the sexes?

This issue was discussed a while back in an e-mail forum with which I am involved. It was suggested that even though platonic physical contact between the sexes is inherent in the culture and is generally not considered sexual in nature - kissing and Chiba (sexually oriented contact) are not so separable.

Sure - it was asserted - when it's your great Aunt Sadie. But what if it's her grandchild, your physically attractive second cousin?

Here is my view - which is based largely on common sense. What the masses are doing is in fact directly connected to the concept of Chiba. In cultures where this is common practice, it is far less likely that doing things like this are B'Derech Chiba (in the manner of sexual contact).Physical attraction is highly subjective. The concept of Derech Chiba is based on that. If someone is attracted to a member of the opposite sex then, in my view it would be problematic to claim that a social kiss is not B'Derech Chiba.

But if one is not attracted and it is just a social norm, then it is highly unlikely that it is B'Derech Chiba at all. So it doesn't matter how young or attractive a woman might be. It only matters how one perceives her.

I think this is what the Gemarah means by saying that it is forbidden to derive pleasure by even looking at the little finger of a woman. It is about the pleasure derived, not the actual looking at a little finger. It is about one's own subjective thought and/or purpose in looking at that finger and deriving some sort of sexual stimulus by looking at it.

If the act of looking at a little finger alone were forbidden, then certainly looking at a woman's face should be forbien. And we know that it is not! ...unless we derive 'pleasure' from it - pleasure in the sexual sense. This is how I understand the concept of Derech Chiba. It's all subjective and social norms play a big part in that.

In this vein I have been told by a reliable and knowledgeable source that those of German Jewish heritage (the Yekkeshe community) do indeed have a custom of social kissing which they consider SheLo B’Derech Chiba.

Obviously there are those who disagree. They accept the more stringent view that any contact at all is forbidden. Shelo B’Derech Chiba doesn't make any difference. Most Chasidim fall into this category.

A common practice in the Yeshiva world is somewhere in-between these two extremes. They generally avoid any physical contact with the opposite sex at all even if it is platonic - SheLo BeDerech Chiba. But in circumstances where it would embarrass others or lead to a possible Chilul HaShem they will engage in such contact.

A typical scenario is when a non Jew or non-religious Jew not knowing Halachos pertaining to physical contact will extend his hand to shake the hand of a religious woman in a public forum such as at a dais at a banquet. They respond by shaking it.

I like this option and this is my own custom. But one should never ridicule or disparage those who are lenient ala the German Jewish community. Their custom is as valid as the Chasidic one of total avoidance under any circumstances.