I recently received a Facebook message from a meidel in Los Angeles who asked me to write about the topic of Shomer Negiah. Shomer negiah, the concept in Jewish law that restricts physical contact with a member of the opposite gender, is a frequently discussed topic amongst shidduch daters. However, despite all the discussion that revolves around being shomer, there is really nothing to debate on the subject. The bottom line is it’s a halacha (Sources: Bible: Leviticus 18:6 , Babylonian Talmud: Sabbath 13a , Mishneh Torah: Kedushah (Holiness), Issurei Biah (forbidden sexual relations), 21:1-7, Shulchan Aruch: Even HaEzer 20-21). One can choose to either abide by this halacha or not. That’s the end of discussion. However, the interesting thing about Shomer Negiah compared to other areas of halacha, is the level of discipline that is required in order to not transgress this particular law. While eating traif and violating the Sabbath are both big time aveyras, I can’t honestly say that eating a cheese burger or igniting a fire on the Sabbath have the same appeal for the large majority of us, as does physical contact with the opposite gender. I think my friend, Mike, described this challenge best when he quoted his Rebbe from Netiv Aryeh, as saying “Oz anybody who says they are Shomer Negiah after dating someone for 30 days is either a liar or gay!” While I may not agree with every word of that statement or other things that this Rav has to say, I think this statement has some validity to it. For any straight bachur or meidel who interacts with the opposite gender on a regular basis, abiding by this halacha can be very challenging. Over the years I have noticed that there are 5 general approaches in the Modern Orthodox community when it comes to the observance of the laws of Shomer Negiah: The Ignorant Approach, the Indifferent Approach, the Shtark Approach, the Humanistic Approach, and the Shomer Negiah by Default Approach.
1) The Ignorant Approach: This is an extremely popular approach amongst most teenagers who grew up in a frum home, but are simply not aware that the concept of Shomer Negiah exists. With some Modern Orthodox Yeshiva High School’s priced at the same level as four year Universities, you would think that the Rabbanim would do a better job educating their students on practical halacha instead of focusing on the best way to raise tuition. Teens often act as if there are no restrictions on how bachrim and meidels should interact with eachother, primarily because they weren’t taught anything on the subject. After growing up with this ignorant attitude towards halacha, it is a common practice for bachurim and meidels to go to Israel for a year where they become more in tune with what Hashem expects of us regarding our relationships with the opposite gender. Once informed of God’s point of view, bachrim/meidels typically choose one of two paths: 1) The Indifferent Approach or 2) The Shtark Approach.
2) The Indifferent Approach: After studying for a year or two in either Seminary or Yeshiva you will almost definitely meet someone who just isn’t interested in what the Rabbis’ are trying to “sell” or is just too lazy to care. These people tend to adopt the Indifferent Approach towards Shomer Negiah. Some possibilities of what turned this group off from the halacha may include (but are not limited to) the reading of the book “The Magic Touch”, Rabbis who are not in touch with reality, or somewhere down the line they managed to convince themselves that this concept is a new and silly invention by the Yeshivaish community (who they abhor) and refuse to buy into such nonsense.
3) The Shtark Approach: On the other side of the coin, you will find people that come back from Yeshiva or Seminary, took what the Rabbanim taught to heart, completely stopped associating with the opposite gender, and surrounded themselves with like minded people who will help keep them shtark, or strong, in their spiritual commitment. This path takes a tremendous amount of discipline and passion for halacha in order to maintain this approach. It’s quite challenging, but doable if you put your mind and soul into it. Typically, a career as a kollenic, with limited interaction with anyone other than yeshivaish men who wear black and white can help you (but not guarantee) that you maintain your shomer negiah status. While there are mainstream people, that are not kollelnics, who do adopt this approach, it is extremely challenging.
4) The Humanistic Approach: This is the broad category of individuals that fall somewhere in the middle of the indifferent approach and the shtark approach. They are aware of the halacha and want to observe it, but tend to mess up from time to time. Typically, this group contains people who say they are Shomer to their friends and shaddchanim, but once they have a serious boyfriend/girlfriend they push this halacha aside because it is no longer convenient. This category also might include people who remained shomer for a long period of time, but caved due to the frustration with the shidduch scene, yet they still feel guilty about their change of heart. The overall theme of this category is people that understand the halacha, but stumble from time to time as humans tend to do.
5) The Shomer Negiah by Default Approach: A common approach taken by people who would love to have physical contact with the opposite gender, but either don’t have the social skills to make things happen, or can’t find anyone that they think is worthy of them breaking their “Shomer Negiah” status. Saying you are Shomer Negiah will often increase your value in the shiduch market, so despite being Shomer Negiah due to certain character flaws or being extremely selective, these individuals might find themselves with the most dates if they play their cards right.
Regardless of what category you fall into, I’m sure everyone can agree that abstaining from physical contact with the opposite gender is quite challenging. Although most of us are aware of the halachot by the time we reach our 20s, this isn’t always enough to deter us from engaging in non-shomer activities. I think the best way to help us control our natural human desire is by putting things into perspective. When you get married you are entering into a binding partnership for the rest of your life. This can be a very scary thought and putting yourself into a physical relationship can often blind us from other more important factors that will serve as a better indicator of long term compatibility.
Too illustrate my point I’d like to look at an example from Hollywood. Generally, I view anything that goes on in Hollywood as a good example of what NOT to do when it comes to relationships, but sometimes you find a diamond in the rough that can teach you a profound lesson. When legendary actor, Paul Newman, and his wife of 50 years, Joanne Woodward, were asked how they managed to stay together for so long, Paul responded: “Joanne has always given me unconditional support in all my choices and endeavors, and that includes my race car driving, which she deplores. To me, that’s love.” While Joanne responded “Sexiness wears thin after a while and beauty fades, but to be married to a man who makes you laugh every day, ah, now that’s a real treat.” Although I’m pretty sure that Paul and Joanne were not Shomer Negiah while they were courting, after looking back on many years of marriage, the things that kept them together were not the touching or even attraction. What made them spend 50 years of their lives together were the attributes and characteristics that can’t be touched. A good personality, a supportive attitude, and being flexible are what kept them going all those years. Looking for these characteristics can often be overlooked while engaged in a relationship that revolves around physicality. I am not a Rav, marriage counsler, or any type of poseik on long term relationships, nor am I in the business of judging fellow Jews (I leave that to the Netiv guys) but Shomer Negiah may be something worth considering as we try to maintain a clear mind on our search for someone that we can tolerate spending the next half century with!