Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Shomer Negiah

Izgad linked to an interesting article by Matthue Roth (author of the 'great but flawed Orthodox novel') discussing shomer negiah. Actually, the article simply described a phenomenon of which I think people are pretty generally aware: Modern Orthodox young people tend to view shomer negiah as optional, if not downright nerdy.

This is a fact that has always fascinated/annoyed me (according to context, mood, and audience.) For me, personally, it is less a religious issue at this point than a sociological one. (Also, not a personal one. I have had no personal experience on the subject, besides the awkward work-handshake situation, so I have no dog in this fight.) But here's my religious take off the bat, just to get it out of the way:

To the extent of my knowledge, shomer negiah (when the girl is a niddah, as most unmarried girls are these days) is possibly a Biblical level prohibition, possibly a Rabbinic one. (Based on the verse "To a woman in her niddah, you should not approach to bare her nakedness." Not, perhaps, a necessary reading by modern standards, but in Talmud homiletic terms, a pretty strong one.) Like most prohibitions found in the Talmud, you can discuss the legitimacy of the Biblical reading, the societal influences pushing the reading\prohibition, and the moral/psychological value of the prohibition from here until the cows come home, but there is little intra-halachic basis to write off the commandment. And, as is generally the case, there are various loopholes that the halachic system and the Jewish community has chosen not to go with. So, from a purely halachic standpoint, there isn't really any intra-system reason that it should be weaker than almost all the kashrut we currently keep, or 99.9% of shabbat.

But for some reason, it is considered a legitimate question in even observant circles to ask "Are you shomer?" And they don't mean shomer shabbat or shomer kashrut, or general shmirat mitzvot. And for that same inexplicable reason, answering 'no' gets you nothing worse than being thought at worst 'a little left-wing' and at best 'normal' in a way that admitting to not really keeping kashrut never would.

I am at a loss to explain these things. I can come up with a few general guesses, but they fail the basic test of explanations, which is that they could predict which things would be like this and which wouldn't. But here they are:

1) It's too hard. Unlike turning on lights and eating milk and meat together, shomer negiah offers too much temptation for hormone- or love- addled minds can overcome. The problem: this doesn't really explain why it's okay to state in general that you don't even attempt to be shomer; if the action is regarded as a irresistable sin, you'd think there'd be more shamefacedness about it. Also, Jews are pretty insane about the oddest stringencies in the most difficult situations. I doubt that shomer negiah presents any insurmountable obstacle to people who really, really believed that it was wrong.

2) It's too weird. Society, as a whole, has changed drastically from the Victorian mindset that would have regarded such a thing as even semi-normal. Society today, instead of stigmatizing love/sex, has nearly idolized it, so that the most ridiculous and immoral actions seem to gain validity if done in the name of love. As such, the official halachic stance is simply not tenable in the modern world and under modern sensibilities. To be modern, in effect, means to disobey the halacha in this case. The problem: there's plenty of weirder and/or more 'offensive' things that the modern orthodox will continue to do. Shomer negiah, actually, sounds pretty good when phrased in sweet, airy terms to the general world (Read, for example, Gila Manolson). Certainly better than shechitta or various other things that we keep.

3)It's not all that exceptional. Maybe Modern Orthodoxy, in general, is dropping prohibitions left and right, and this is simply the only one that occurs to me at the moment. If so, the shomer negiah phenomenon is symptomatic of a general trend in modern orthodoxy that is well beyond the scope of this suddenly-quite-long blogpost.

4) Who knows? Sometimes religion just evolves, working along its own path, weaving in and out of history. In a hundred years, perhaps this will just be one of those things. I think that what makes this trend different is the fact that halacha has never really caught up. Nobody's trying to reinterpret the law or challenge the validity of the prohibition. They just ignore it, in a manner that must be causing some pretty unhealthy cognitive dissonance out there.

Does my ever-wise blogging audience have any suggestions?


Halfnutcase said...

I don't understand at all.

e-kvetcher said...

(blogger ate my first reply)
I think your analysis is spot on, but I think the reason why this happens is because most MOs don't choose to be so rationally, but live that way due to a Goldy Locks type logic. Not too chareidi, not too reform, but 'just right'. So, their decisions about halacha are mostly social and that's why they don't care about it. It is my understanding that taharat hamishpacha is also very lax in the MO world.

However, from a purely personal perspective, I don't know how a healthy young person can deal with it. maybe if you are chareidi and you marry young (17-19), it is not a very long time, but if you are MO and you marry in your early 20's that's waiting twice as long. And to top it off, not only can you not touch others, you can't touch yourself!

But even forgetting the sexual aspect of it, what is truly cruel is the fact that humans need to be touched. Have you ever seen the 1950's experiments with the baby monkeys rocking in the corner? People who are deprived of physical contact are just like that.
You cannot have any kind of intimacy without touch. I used to read a blog by a 35 year old SN woman and it was heartbreaking.

Izgad said...

I am Shomer mainly because it fits very neatly into my worldview. I believe in creating a society in which sexuality has been dropped a few pegs from what it is today. By taking such an extreme stance I am doing my little bit to redraw the lines of what is morally acceptable today.

e-kvetcher said...


According to my classification system, you would be in the minority of the hashkafically aware MOs. Do you agree with my assessment of the majority of MO young people.

Interestingly enough, the Roth article talks about loose Chassidic girls. What's that all about?

Izgad said...

Yes I am in the minority in being Shomer, but I am used to the role. In general I live my life as the eccentric loner.
As to the issue of "loose Chasidic girls" it is important to recognize that the Haredi world is not all cleanliness and purity. They are just better at covering up or, if things get really bad, to throw people out. Modern Orthodoxy has no communal mechanism to get rid of social undesirables.

Tobie said...

Yoni: What exactly don't you understand?

E-kvetcher: Yes. but what really interests me is how this particular thing got chosen as the thing that we drop. Why is it before so many things that are clearly on lower levels of halachic importance (minhagim, et al)?

Also, once upon a time giving up sex for religion was regarded as perfectly normal- not just for a limited time but forever and always. Agreed, it's pretty hard, and that's why I'd understand people not being able to withstand the temptation, but why is it a valid societal choice not to even try?

Plus, people touch other people just fine. Just not members of the opposite gender who aren't family members. People who don't have sex don't curl up into catatonic unloved balls. Sorry.

Izgad: Don't you think it's odd that you need to have a complicated sociological reason for keeping the basic halacha? Do you have a similar one for every mitzva?

e-kvetcher said...

Actually, I was classifying you in the minority not because you are shomer, but because you seem to be doing it for halachic/hashkafic rather than social reasons.

Halfnutcase said...

maybe tobie because its never been easier to keep the rest of the halachot, but to keep negia is getting harder because of longer wait times?

e-kvetcher said...

>People who don't have sex don't curl up into catatonic unloved balls.

Not sex, but cuddling, snuggling, hugging, holding hands, kissing is really what I was going after.

e-kvetcher said...

>Yes. but what really interests me is how this particular thing got chosen as the thing that we drop.

Maybe it's because you start thinking about kashrut and shabbat from early childhood and so it is more ingrained, but I am guessing most kids don't think about shmirat negiah until they have a reason to think about it so it is pretty sudden?

e-kvetcher said...

Also, once upon a time giving up sex for religion was regarded as perfectly normal- not just for a limited time but forever and always.

Somewhat unrelated, but marginally interesting...

The Shakers, a Protestant religious denomination officially called The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, originated in Manchester, England in 1772 under the leadership of Mother Ann Lee, who moved the nine-person group to New York in 1774.

The Shakers built 19 communal settlements that attracted some 200,000 converts over the next century. Strict believers in celibacy, Shakers maintained their numbers through conversion and adoption of orphans. Turnover was very high; the group reached maximum size of about 6,000 full members in 1840, but now has only four members left.(wp)

Halfnutcase said...

tobie, the point is that people who do not get touched (and touch by the opposite sex is an important part of it) and also have stresses, do tend to curl up in to semi catatonic balls and simply cry, or otherwise hurt themselves.

why do you think that the first thing most at risk kids do (and for many the only thing) is to touch the opposite sex? (not necessarily sleep with them.)

some people can live without it. SOME people.

But not most.

Larry Lennhoff said...

I'm not sure if this is all that special, or if it is just that everyone likes talking about sex.

How many MOs (of whatever age) do you know who will refuse to take an aspirin for a headache on Shabbat?

This is one of the sillier gezerot in modern times. The prohibition on taking medicine for casual use was because it might lead to grinding herbs etc for your pills. Obviously this isn't much of a concern today.

As a BT, I was very forward about asking people (in private) "do you REALLY do " this, that, or the other. Most people really washed their hands every time they ate bread, not just on Shabbat. But few MOs really refrained from using medicine on Shabbat.

Halfnutcase said...

please strike the word "necesserily"

most specificaly don't want to sleep with the people they touch.

or at least the girls don't.

Izgad said...

"Izgad: Don't you think it's odd that you need to have a complicated sociological reason for keeping the basic halacha? Do you have a similar one for every mitzva?"

The answer to your question is both yes and no. Ultimately, while I was born into Orthodox Judaism, the reason why I have not left, as many do, is that I found that Judaism, particularly the Judaism of R' Samson Raphael Hirsch, provided a framework with which one could hope to build a more moral and intellectually open world.
Ultimately one is buying into the system as a whole, but understand the reasons for the details within this framework.
(I'll probably do a post on Izgad about this at some point.)

Miri said...

I have to agree with Tobie on the curling up in balls thing. Those monkeys had never EVER touched another living thing. Most people have hugged parents, siblings, friends of the same gender. I'm not sying that sexual deprivation doesn't necessarily lead to negative long-term effects. But I don't think they're quite that severe.

Also, as to the Chassidish girls; it is possible that they were loose chassidish girls. It is also possible that Matthue Roth was calling them chassidish and they weren't necessarily. He's not exactly great on getting accurate details on the frum community.

e-kvetcher said...

Oh, forget about those monkeys! I was just trying to illustrate a point. And I wasn't focusing on the sexual aspect of it either. And clearly, there are priests, monks and nuns that probably add up to the same number as orthodox jews in the world, so it's not that it can't be done. I was just trying to make my points a little more salient. See my first comment to this post.

Tobie said...

1. Okay, I am not a scientist and if one could conclusively prove that shomer negiah harms more than it helps in a reasonable number of cases, that would a) be a really cool study and b) be a decent reason for people to stop keeping shomer negiah. But again, I don't see people trying to be shomer and giving it up when they are getting older or stressed or whatever. They freely and cheerily admit right off the bat that they are not even going to try. And I don't think it got accepted by society because a lot of people in trouble were secretly allowing themselves to be hugged by members of the opposite gender.

2) The childhood/adulthood argument is interesting. It could well be part of the puzzle- that people encounter the mitzva in that period of time when they no longer take things for granted. (I know, that's not what you said, but that formulation interests me.)

3)Larry: true that many people are secretly lax on a lot of things, but shomer has stopped being secret. I don't think that an ordinary MO teen would ask another one "Are you an everyday davener?" and the other cheerily reply "no!" even if that's absolutely true.

4)"Oh forget about those monkeys!" is totally my new catchphrase. ;)

Gabriel said...

I'm not shomer negiah. I realize I probably should be, and I realize I'm doing something wrong by not being it.

I blame it on the downfall of society and the Jewish education system: I went to a "pluralistic" (Conservative) Jewish day school, so they had no interest in getting us to perform the mitzvot appropriately. So I guess to fit in and because everybody else was seeking physical stuff with the opposite sex, I just joined the crowd. Now, it's such an intrinsic part of my psyche that it's hard to give up. Or something.

Now, about these loose Chassidish girls: where might I find some of those?

-Gabe C.

Tobie said...

Quick! Look behind you!

Oh...too late... you missed them.

Financial Artist said...

I agree with Miri - I think roth is stretching the notion of "chasidic" girls. It's so much more titilating to the reader to talk of that long "chassidic tounge" than that long "modern orthodox tounge."

He says that one girl was fluent in Yiddish, and also learned gemara. Hmmm... don't know to many people like that. Do you know any chassidishe girls who learn gemara? Do you know any Modern Orthodox girls who are fluent in yiddish?