The pasuk in this week’s parsha says that Yaakov kissed Rachel. An old post (2008) on the Hirhurim blog references a lecture of R. Hershel Schachter wherein R. Schachter discusses how Yaakov’s actions could have been permissible. He quotes R. Yeruchem Gorelick who said, essentially, that the kiss was not derech chiba and was therefore permissible.
Interestingly, R. Schachter contrasts Yaakov’s encounter with Lavan with the his aforementioned meeting with Rachel. While it states that Yaakov hugged and kissed Lavan, it only states that he kissed Rachel. “Maybe he kissed her on the hand, maybe he kissed her on the cheek…” which are less likely to be derech chiba than a full-body embrace.
The blog post then goes on to relate comments of R. Schachter on related issues. However, it leaves out what I thought was, perhaps, R. Schachter’s most interesting anecdote. Though this anecdote doesn’t technically relate to Yaakov (as I think there’s a difference between different kinds of physical contact), the story sheds light on the attitudes of certain rabbis toward shaking hands with members of the opposite gender.
R. Shimon Shkop had an orphaned granddaughter (who lost both her parents) who was a non-observant Communist and lived in his house for some time. On one Shabbos, R. Shimon came home from the yeshiva with some students and his granddaughter’s Communist friend was there. When he walked in, the girl (the friend) put out her hand and said “Shabbat Shalom. R. Shkop shook her hand and said “Shabbat Shalom.”
When the girlfriend left, R. Shkop’s granddaughter apologized for the actions of her friend. R. Shkop told his granddaughter “Your girlfriend didn’t realize how improper it is to shake the hand of a man other than her husband, but I did realize how improper it is to hurt someone’s feelings.”
R. Schachter explains:
“It clearly was not derech chiba, so strictly speaking it’s muttar. We have a middas chassidus not to do it, but if the middas chassidus will not be appreciated by the other people, we revert back to the ikkar hadin.”
I found this anecdote to be of great interest, and I think that it illuminates how one great Jewish scholar understood the inter-gender handshake in Jewish law.
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As an aside, I should point out a few things about the anecdote for the sake of accuracy and completion. First, I believe that the granddaughter was Fayge Ilanit. If my assumption and Wikipedia are correct, she was not forced into R. Shkop’s house by losing both her parents, having only lost her mother. But when her father remarried, she moved into her grandfather’s home.
The part about her Communism is likely correct. Ilanit was apparently quite active politically and was actually a member of Mapam, an extreme left-wing party, in the first Knesset.