When word got out, I braced myself for some interesting reactions (and lots of questions). They ranged from “Wait, are you serious?” to “That’s weird, but cool I guess” to one of my personal favorites from a guy pal, “Ah, so you think my hugs are too intense, huh? Too shmexy?” As I tried articulating an explanation for my newly-adopted change, my grandma listened intently and then said something along the lines of prosta ne normalniya, the Russian equivalent of “simply crazy.”
All this crazy talk is about shomer negiah (observance of touch), which, in short, stipulates that guys and girls don’t touch unless they’re close family or married (there are exceptions for medical purposes and emergency situations as well). Traditional Judaism — an astute observer of human interpersonal relationships — puts a far more powerful emphasis on physical touch than many of us do in a more secular lifestyle. At the end of the day, it is all about perspective. This is one of them.
In a lecture at Neve Yerushalayim, a school for women in Jerusalem, Rabbi Gallendauer addressed the topic of shomer negiah by saying, “In Judaism, we guard that which is sacred. Where you see the most protection is where there is potential for the greatest holiness. We guard our speech, we guard our usage of G-d’s name. We guard our bodies not because they are dirty or sinful, but because they are channels for holiness. Of course we guard the Torah with coverings. And we even guard our touch. Because touch brings great power.”
The idea may seem crazy, at worst, or extreme, at best. But sometimes crazy can be relative. It is natural for everyone to think that their current perspective is the normal one and that anyone slightly to the right or left is an extremist. Bree Marlin, a UCLA English Studies graduate, shares, “To me, the university ‘hook-up’ culture seems crazy. Or the fact that sensuality is used to sell things like soda. And yet in today’s society it seems perfectly normal.”
Research has long shown that skin-to-skin contact triggers surges of oxytocin release in the brain, promoting feelings of love, trust and connection. “Just a friendly touch buffers the physiological consequences of the stress response,” says Matt Hertenstein, an experimental psychologist at DePauw University in Indiana. Aptly nicknamed the “cuddle hormone,” oxytocin gives touch the power to alleviate stress and foster love and bonding.
The latest research, however, has not come as much of a surprise to traditional Jewish thought. The laws regarding shomer negiah suggest that like any powerful force, touch can be used either constructively or destructively. It can bring comfort and love, or it can blur reality, thereby creating illusory feelings of intimacy and closeness where it is not warranted. It is no wonder people often look back at past relationships, thinking, “Why did I ever go out with that guy (or girl)?” In Judaism, relationships are about bringing out the best in one another, about establishing a true soul-to-soul connection that reflects an appreciation for who the person is, rather than just the way they make you feel. But often, touching prematurely can prevent genuine objectivity on prospective partners.
“I never heard about shomer negiah until I got to UCLA,” shares Mark Solovey, a third-year Psychobiology student. “My initial thoughts were that it’s crazy! But truth be told it makes sense. Sure, it requires a lot of restraint, but nowadays we always hear about all this infidelity in marriages. Shomer Negiah may be a major reason why Orthodox Jews have such successful marriages.”
That is not to say that shomer negiah guarantees a successful marriage. Nor does it say that those who are not Shomer Negiah are inevitably doomed to broken relationships (G-d forbid). But “there must be something to it,” as Solovey points out, since often we lose sight of objectivity under the influence of physical desire. When we say love is blind, we are probably thinking of infatuation.
Solovey did share some concerns, however, asking, “How can a boyfriend and girlfriend not show their affection for one another?” Addressing this universal concern, Gila Manolson, author of The Magic Touch, explains, “Two people truly become one by first bringing down the walls not between their bodies, but between their minds and hearts. This requires a lot of intellectual and emotional sharing. In other words, talking. You’re less likely to invest hours of your relationship in deep conversation, hoping to feel close when, at the back of your mind, you know there’s a foolproof shortcut: getting physical.” Affection comes in many forms. Judaism is definitely all-for physical connection, but only after a genuine spiritual and emotional connection has been made first.
All this talk of “no-touchy” begs a discussion on the role that touch does play. Rabbi Lawrence (Leib) Keleman, author of Permission to Believe, explains, “Intimacy, when channeled correctly, is one of the most beautiful things in this world. The intimacy between a husband and wife is sacred. Not dirty, not taboo. It brings G-dliness into the world.” Bereishit Rabbah, a rabbinical commentary on the Book of Genesis, compares the bedroom of a husband and wife to Kadosh HaKadoshim, the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem. It is for this reason that shomer negiah aims to protect the energy of touch from desensitization. Physical intimacy is meant to be an expression of the soul-to-soul connection two committed individuals have already established.
When I first heard about the concept of guarding one’s touch, my initial thought was, “But it’s just a handshake. What’s the big deal?” I soon realized where exactly I was missing the point. It is the word “just,” with all its casual implications, that bothered me. When dealing with something as delicate as human emotions and as meaningful as human relationships, tacking on the word “just” simply seems misplaced. It’s not supposed to be just a handshake or just a kiss or just a one-night fling. Because then we are watering down one of the most powerful expressions of human bonding. And leaving it open for misuse and manipulation. After all, intimacy builds connection that can either lift you up or tear you down, depending on with whom you share it.
Of course, I quickly found that shomer negiah can have its awkward moments as well, especially since many people have never heard of the concept before. After all, we go to school, we have jobs, and we interact with all kinds of people. Josh Weinreb, a fourth-year student majoring in Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology, points out, “Shomer negiah beautifies marriage eventually, but if you won’t shake someone’s hand because they’re the opposite sex, it can potentially cast a bad light on Jews who interact with non-Jews.”
The issue of handshaking in secular environments has been addressed by many leading rabbis. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the prominent seventh Rebbe of the Chabad movement, had acknowledged the issue of polite formalities, but insisted that remaining firm in one’s convictions (such as shomer negiah) can actually engender the respect of the interacting party. Lauren Price, a student at the LA Academy of Beauty, comments, “Sure, it’s very bizarre to people like me who didn’t grow up with it or haven’t learned about it. But now that I have, I really do see that it’s an amazing opportunity to connect on a whole new level.”
Chances are, if you find something beautiful or inspiring, others will too. And then again, maybe not! But saying “no” can often be uncomfortable in many contexts, Jewish-related or not. It often comes down to what we are willing to do to stick to our values.
Judaism says, don’t be apologetic for what you believe. Throughout various aspects of our lives, we make this mistake far too often. We worry about how we will look, about what others will think. We attempt to modify our opinions as we gauge the reactions of our peers. Education is about learning, not brain-washing. So when we learn about something that isn’t the norm, if we are to be intellectually honest with ourselves, we should investigate. Maybe it is time to reconsider the norm — or at least reflect on its authority. Maybe we are not the first ones to have said, “That’s crazy!” And maybe there are insights beyond our current understanding if only we dig a little deeper. But we will not know until we ask.