Since time immemorial, the relation between the genders has been a central topic in human society. Judaism, as opposed to other religions and doctrines, considers the connection between man and wife to be holy. As a result of this view, the purpose of the laws of modesty, and the distancing between the genders that developed over the generations, reflected the undertaking of the sages to channel the human sexual urge toward building deep marital ties, to guarantee the continuance of the generations, and prevent harm to the intimate ties between man and wife.
In recent generations, social structures have drastically changed. If in the past the duties of women and men were absolutely different, and most women were confined to their home, as it says: “a princess’ honor is internal”, the drastic changes in the status of women have created the current state that women are found outside their home no less than men, and are involved in all walks of human endeavor (social, economic, cultural, scientific and educational). The total equality of opportunity that today’s society offers attained many achievements. All types of work are now open to women as they are to men; and Woman has become a partner not only in the cultivation of the home, but also in its economic sustenance. This creates unity of purpose and allows women to express themselves in a wide range of areas that were previously beyond their realm.
Together with the advantages of the upheaval we have described, society has faced testing spiritual challenges. Progress in the sphere of the status of Woman in society, has not necessarily brought with it parallel moral progress with regard to family life. The constant intermingling of men and women in the public domain, together with the lack of restraint in modern Western society, often results in damage to the institution of marriage, the turning of women into a sex object, sexual harassment, and more. The social structure we have portrayed challenges Jewish law, which has always succeeded to guide and set its limits upon the Jewish people of each generation, to present a new map before its followers, so that they can find the proper way to navigate through its labyrinth.
The workplace today is the primary meeting place of men and women on a permanent and long-term basis. The workplace is not only the place where a worker implements his tasks, but it is also the arena where an entire social culture develops among the workers, a phenomenon that is considered by current wisdom to be a vital ingredient of the success of an organization. Proper and normative human relations are a basic expectation of general society. An observant Jew, who is integrated in the outside world, and works in the open market, finds himself subject to a constant tension between the need to integrate in society and the limits of Jewish law.
In the following responsum, we shall attempt to mark out a straight path that will guide working men and women as to how they should conduct themselves in a mixed workplace, in order to be totally faithful to Jewish law, while retaining the ability to make Judaism attractive to one’s colleagues, to blend into society, and to maintain efficient, pleasant and constructive work relations between men and women. The details of Jewish law are designed to help us attain a fine balance, to create a path that will allow mutual respect, while preventing and protecting a person from sliding toward problematic territory. Following the guidelines will assist to prevent situations in which there is a danger of slipping into intimate interactions between the genders, interactions which are morally tainted and are forbidden by Jewish law.
Nevertheless, every rule has an exception. The guidelines that are outlined in the responsum are the rule. A worker, who feels that a certain situation is adversely affecting him, should seek counsel with a rabbi or rabbanit, in order to create harmony between his situation and Jewish law. It goes without saying that it is vital that any significant decision in this field, should be made in conjunction with one’s spouse.
Manner of Discourse: It is permissible and polite to ask after a work colleague’s well-being, whether it is a man or a woman. A neutral conversation between a man and a woman is permissible, even if does not pertain directly to work issues. Nevertheless, one should not engage in deep, personal conversations, which contain an element of intimacy, such as a heart-to-heart. One must be very careful that friendships on the basis of shared work, do not slide over the border, and reach intimate regions. Such a relationship, particularly for a married person, may lead to violating barriers of modesty and Jewish law. Each individual must be sensitive to the feelings of his own heart and sincere and honest with himself, so as to ensure that a relationship does not cross into forbidden territory.
Physical contact: Jewish law forbids physical contact between the genders. In our times, when many barriers of modesty and intimacy have been broken open, it is necessary to emphasize the importance Jewish law attaches to preserving physical distance. Sensitivity to sexual harassment has developed in general society, and the conventional assumption is that physical contact is likely to lead to an intimate connection. Despite this, isolated instances of shaking hands, as an act of courtesy, and not as part of a long-term, permanent relationship, is permitted in situations, in which refraining from holding out one’s hand in return to an outstretched hand, is likely to be considered offensive.
Social activities: There is no prohibition to share a meal in mixed company in the framework of one’s work. Nevertheless, one must be careful to keep the discussion appropriate, and not allow it to become frivolous.
Sometimes, as part of their work, colleagues will go to joint meals or other shared activities outside the usual work premises, in order to promote social integration amongst the team members, and to create a more efficient working atmosphere. It is permissible to participate in these outings, which are no more than innocent activities with no questionable context, on condition that one takes care to avoid frivolousness between the genders.
Lifts and travelling: It is permissible, and even desirable to offer a lift to or from work, and there is no prohibition, even if the colleague sits in the front seat. As has already been noted, one should stay within suitable borders of discussion. During long work trips, involving a man and woman travelling together, to conventions, etc., trips in which the line between work and private life becomes blurred, one must be extra careful to stay within decent boundaries of discourse, especially while spending time together when away from home.
“Yihud” (the prohibition to be totally alone): During working hours, while there are other workers at the office, it is permissible for a man and woman to be alone in a room for work reasons, and it is also permissible to close the door, but not to lock it; and it is correct to tell other workers at the office that they should not hesitate to enter the room without knocking or requesting permission. A man and a woman should not stay alone in an office, however, when there are no other workers at the office.