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 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.
Another scene: You have just finished dining at a restaurant. The service is exceedingly slow. Your waiter, David, finally brings the bill. Hope you enjoyed your meal, he says with a smile and a parting pat on the shoulder. Watching him return to the kitchen, you suddenly feel a surge of generosity and leave a far bigger tip than you had intended. On your way out, you comment to the manager about how little waiters earn for working so hard. “It all depends,” he replies. “Take this new guy, Dave. We don’t know how he does it, but he pulls in at least thirty percent more in tips than anyone else.”
In each of the above incidents, both based on true stories, you have fallen prey to one of the most subtle yet powerful forces in human relations: touch.
Notice, incidentally, that in neither case was the touch sensual or even affectionate. Still, it had an undeniable effect, opening up new feelings of warmth and receptivity. Even when not fueled by desire, touch can leave people feeling distinctly warmer and more connected to each other. Touch works like SuperGlue: take two people who aren’t opposed to connecting to each other, and touch will make them feel closer. And, like SuperGlue, it must be handled very carefully, or it will end up sticking things together that would be better off not stuck.
Touching another person (in Hebrew, negiah), as casually as its regarded in many circles, is far more powerful than most of us appreciate. Traditional Judaism, always an astute observer of the human scene, stipulates that men and women who are not close relatives should exercise extreme caution and sensitivity in expressing affection for one another through touch. In short, Judaism says, Unless you’re close relatives or married to each other, don’t.
Understandably, 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 (literally guarding or saving touch for the right person) makes eminent sense. Here’s why.
Touch is a powerful force in making people feel closer. And, like any force, it can be harnessed constructively or destructively. Touch can be used to comfort — or to manipulate. It can foster group friendship — or cult-like attachment. Touch can increase intimacy between two people who truly love each other. But it can also 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.
The first problem is with objectivity. Touch is powerful enough to blur reality to the point where it seems that the closeness you feel is real. Once this happens, that all-too-familiar rose-colored cloud descends, enveloping everything in warm and glowing feelings of intimacy. At this point, you can kiss much of your perspective on your partner and the relationship goodbye. Valuable time and emotions can be wasted on the wrong person, because you never developed an objective view of who your partner really is. Many marriages fail quickly because the match was wrong to begin with, but the couple had become too enraptured with each other to notice it. You certainly wouldn’t choose a business partner with blinders on, so why be less careful when it comes to a serious relationship?
Most people ultimately want one lifelong partner with whom they can feel, as much and as deeply as possible, the positive uniqueness and singularity that is called specialness. Physical intimacy, with all the feelings it engenders, is central to a successful marriage, and Judaism wants it to be special. By limiting this intimacy to your true partner, it becomes even more so. Each time you are physically involved with someone prior to your husband or wife, your sensitivity is dulled. While time brings about some resensitization, this most precious, intimate, and personal part of you has been shared with others before, and it can no longer be as special.
With each relationship before marriage, you open the door wider to innumerable comparisons between your future spouse and a past boyfriend or girlfriend. Since it is nearly impossible that your spouse will measure up in all areas — and since human beings have a strong tendency to focus on what they don’t have at any given time — such comparisons cant do you or your relationship any good.
A friend of mine was teaching about this concept when a man (whose wife I assume was not present) volunteered the following delightful comment: “I know what you mean. I’ve been married for two years and I really love my wife, but even in our most intimate moments, I can’t help thinking of my previous girlfriend.” Memories of previous relationships have an uncanny way of surfacing when you least want them to, even years after they occur.
Human relationships are central to our lives. When you succeed in a relationship, your positive feelings about life are strengthened. But every time you get hit over the head emotionally, feelings of negativity and futility develop. With each breakup, you pay a price your optimism and ability to trust are diminished. Time does heal, but scars remain. Your natural defense mechanisms have closed up parts of you that may be difficult to reopen, and the subconscious guards and blocks you’ve developed can profoundly interfere with the quality and depth of your future lifelong relationship. The best way to avoid getting hurt is to avoid getting physical before it is safe to do so. The most intimate, personal part of you is thus kept whole. Reserving physical closeness for the security of a permanent relationship helps safeguard your happiness — and your future.
We’ve seen how saving touch for the right person avoids many pitfalls in relationships. Its main advantage, though, is not what it avoids but what it offers. 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. However, 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.
Judaism says: Stop. Wait. Before you let the physical side enter, develop a relationship that stands on its own two feet — a true soul-to-soul connection. Once that relationship is truly solid — after marriage — the physical side will be a beautiful and powerful expression of what you have. There’s a big difference between letting sexuality determine an illusory connection and letting it express a real one. Before you give someone the opportunity to appreciate your body, let him or her have the chance to appreciate you for who you truly are. That’s the kind of bond that lasts.
By this point in the discussion, most people I discuss shomer negiah with can see its benefits. Yet they often point to what they see as the down sides. Lets briefly look at the most common questions that arise.
The idea makes sense passing up on physicality now in order to enhance it later. But what about experience? After all, how else can a person become broad-minded and worldly?
Obviously, to live is to experience. Yet Judaism urges that experiencing not take place indiscriminately and for its own sake. Most intelligent women don’t try being a prostitute just to see what it is like, because we realize that any experience must be sized up for its individual advantages and disadvantages. Experiencing should be a means to an important end: becoming a better and happier person. Some experiences, like the ones in question, simply won’t take you where you want to go.
Maybe it won’t work on a physical level, and you’ll be stuck in a passionless, boring relationship.
People used to fall in love and get married without checking out compatibility. They had happy, long-lasting marriages this way. It can still work for us.
Maybe they were sexually bored their whole lives and didn’t divorce because of the social stigma attached to divorce at that time.
What you’re really asking is, How can you know if the sex will be good without trying it out first? This whole question rests on a faulty premise. Modern society has made a fatal error in relating to the body independently of the spirit that animates it. This body-soul division has led to sexuality being viewed as a kind of physical skill divorced from the spirit, like tennis. And, after all, would you commit to being someone’s lifelong tennis partner if you’ve never once played with him or her?
The crucial mistake in this approach lies in the very comparison. Sexuality is neither a sport nor a skill — it is a deep and wonderful expression of feelings. People are whole human beings — the body and soul are interconnected and cannot so coldly be separated from each other. I’d say that the emotional connection counts for at least ninety percent of the pleasure and satisfaction you’ll experience in your physical relationship. Even if not there initially, the ten percent of technique (the how-to’s) can be quickly learned, much like you can tell a close friend where and how hard to scratch your back when it itches. But no matter how good the physical side is, you can’t change the person’s personality to become someone you mistakenly thought they already were. In essence, when you have a healthy attitude toward sexual expression, love each other, are committed to each other, and want to bring each other pleasure, you have nothing to worry about.
People have to live in the real world. We grow from failures and mistakes- they are part of growing up. Why live in a bubble?
Failures can be powerful learning experiences. But life deals us enough challenges to deal with and mistakes to grow from that we don’t need to go looking for more. Considering the toll they take on a persons psyche and the unfortunate memories and comparisons that will harm the ultimate relationship that everyone wants, much of this pain is simply not worth it.
Judaism encourages us to set up a solid foundation for the ultimate relationship each of us wants to develop. It is crucial to maintain your objectivity, avoid emotional scarring, and build a genuine spiritual bond with your partner. Refraining from getting physical accomplishes this. It helps you find the right person and leaves you whole and able to create a deep, trusting, and loving relationship that will last a lifetime. It creates the space for something real to develop and for you to recognize and appreciate the real person you are with.
AUTHORS NOTE: You may admire the beauty behind the idea of being shomer negiah but feel that (a) it is too late — you’ve been physical with others before, and (b) you’re not ready for such a major life change. You may then conclude that the concept has little to do with you. Don’t. Any step in this direction offers tremendous benefits, whether more objectivity, more sensitization, or just the confidence to make changes that will serve your higher interests in the end.
Reprinted from “JEWISH WOMEN SPEAK ABOUT JEWISH MATTERS”
Published by: Targum Press, Inc.