Thursday, April 3, 2014
RE-POSTED: getting the leaven out: BEDROOM/shomer negiah
Note: this post in part of a series. Please scroll down for other posts and introduction.
"Imagine yourself at a checkout counter. You have never liked shopping at this store because of its less-than-wonderful service. Today is no exception-- you have been waiting to pay for what seems like an eternity. Finally your turn comes. You hand the slow-moving cashier your money. Usually you have to pick up your change off the counter, but today the cashier places it in your hand, and for a brief moment you can feel the warmth of his or her hand on yours. Outside, afterward, you sense something strange. For some reason, you're feeling more warmly toward this store than before. .."
The above quote was taken from "Jewish Women Speak About Jewish Matters," a composition of short articles by Jewish (but not messianic) women. This essay was about the power of touch, the topic of this post. Although there is no direct correlation between this subject and Passover, this series will be concerning topics that I have been pondering in my preparations for this Feast of renewal.
In Judaism, to be cautious with this powerful form of affection is known as "Shomer Negiah," or "guardian of touching." As the book states, "this strikes some people as extreme. But the truth is that for anyone who's serious about getting the most out of a relationship-- and avoiding the pain of failed ones-- being shomer negiah makes eminent sense" for the fact that the power of human touch "can be harnessed constructively or destructively. Touch can be used to comfort-- or to manipulate... and can create illusory feelings of intimacy and make you feel close to a person even when you are not really so close after all, creating many serious problems." (pp.60-61)
The best metaphor to use concerning the power of touch that I have found is electricity. I came to this understanding on an El Al plane returning from one of my trips to Israel. If you've ever made this flight, you know that the plane is scattered with orthodox Jewish people. The men will often make their way to the back of the plane during prayer times, and it is an incredible experience to be a part of. Something that I had been pondering while in Israel was (what I thought to be) a lack of affection between orthodox Jewish couples. Now I understand it much more. On that plane, I begin to think that if the couple in front of me did happen to touch, even unknowingly, I would see sparks fly or something! why? Because this couple did not treat touch as something common or to be shared with just anyone, anywhere, at anytime. To them, touch was sacred. There's an electricity that exists between husband and wife, whether they choose to make sparks fly in public or not. Honestly, most people are uncomfortable in the presence of a couple that shows too much affection in public, right? Well, that day I decided that my husband and I (I was yet to be married at this point) would be shomer negiah, guardians of touch. This can be applied to your life, whether you are married or single.
During our courtship, my husband and I did not kiss, but we did hold hands and hug one another (but if I could go back, perhaps I would change that). There is appropriate touch for an engaged couple. In fact, during our pre-marital coaching, we learned that affirmation is very important for a man, while affection is very important for a woman. While meaningful, non-sexual touch is one way to show affection, there are many other ways as well. This is why in orthodox Judaism, married men and women do not even touch each other during the woman's menstrual cycle (and the seven days following it. I will be writing more about this later). They do this not only so that there is less temptation for sexual contact, but also to learn how to communicate and show affection to one another without touching. They also do not touch people of the opposite sex who are not their spouse or relatives. I think we have much to learn from this principle.
Since I have become a married woman, shomer negiah has become much more important to me. In applying it to my own life, I rarely hug men other than my husband or my relatives. If a man (who is a dear friend of course) approaches me to hug, I don't deny him but i don't get close to him either. I also don't offer my hand to a man to shake, but if he holds out his hand, then I will shake it. Of course, I take into account that there are many cultures who are more openly affectionate than others, and I have never rejected a hug or kiss on the cheek from them, and it's not a huge deal for me in those cases. I am just mindful (cautious) of who, why, and how I am touching, because my body belongs to G-d first and my husband second. Without being rude or making people uncomfortable, I feel that being shomer negiah is healthy... for single people and married couples. Why? Because it is a meaningful way to show G-d that we respect and revere this powerful force that he created, touch. It also shows our spouse (or future spouse) that we honor them enough to preserve even our sense of touch for them and them only. Think about it: the fact that we cannot touch G-d proves that other (perhaps deeper, soul connecting) ways exist to show affection. Let's search our own hearts to learn what those ways are so that we can extend them to those who are made in His image.