I won’t underestimate the courage and the intelligence of a Rebbetzin who suggests looking at an Injunction about touching between spouses maybe differently because intimate relationships have changed. That Rebbetzin Malka Piotrkowski just did. And she deserves every praise in the book.
However, I think that she is right and she is wrong. And I will tell you why.
The Halachah, Jewish Law, is that husband and wife cannot touch (not even between their pinkies) in the second half of the menstrual cycle, during and after childbirth, and during sitting in mourning, and the amount of details of this Injunction is staggering. Ashkenazic couples don’t even sleep in the same bed; Mizrachic couples do (without touching).
Now, the Rebbetzin suggests that the relationship between husband and wife is different than it used to be. Nowadays, people clearly distinguish between sexual and platonic emotional touch. The latter should be always allowed. She politely mentions that she doesn’t propose changing Jewish Law. She only implies that there might be a reason to do so.
As I sometimes argue, Jewish Law seems mainly given to men because men are the main source of trouble in the world–regrettably. That is still as true today as it was thousands of years ago. The life of most women can also improve by adhering to the Law but she should have a whole lot fewer obligations to adhere to–as the Halachah, Jewish Law, actually teaches.
Men too can identify emotional, non-sexual touch. I remember the men’s support group in my rebel days. One evening, the last of us eight admitted that he once wanted to put an arm around another man but didn’t do so for fear that it would be taken sexually. So, all of us, as different as we were, gay, straight, bi, we knew this kind of physicality that was unrelated to sex, and still, we were afraid that another man would not know that.
I think there is a real reason to fear physical closeness to be read wrongly by most men most of the time. Men are much more isolated than women, in general. We know that isolation breeds sexual fascination. For that reason, the main therapy for sex addiction is: build platonic friendships. Also, testosterone heightens libido. Ask trans-men. Also, at first, AIDS spread so fast among men having sex with men for a reason.
So, although men also are familiar with platonic touch, that’s not in the head of most men when they are touched. The girl says “I love you,” the guy thinks “Finally, some sex.” If he’s polite, he won’t say so. Many teenage girls find that hard to believe; many teenage boys not.
So, yes, touch can often be an ‘innocent’ and great gesture of support. But not for most men, most of the time. And Jewish Law legislates for most people, not for the exception that confirms the rule. If one is an exception, one goes to one’s rabbi and asks if there is an individual leeway.
Ach, it’s only for 20 to 30 years. After that, is menopause and can husband and wife always touch. I found comfort in, that most couples dislike the laws of family purity. I felt more connected to other guys suffering the same ‘fate.’ And in the separation days, one must rely on talking and not touch. That is something men often neglect in normal times. In the separation days, romantic talk is not allowed. But caring, loving speech is.
I know a rabbi whose wife dislikes going to the ritual bath–what is done to end the separation period. It makes her feel that she’s not OK and needs to be rectified. So, what did they decide? On the day she goes, he also goes.
There’s new proof of a deep deep value of the Jewish family purity laws, as they’re often euphemistically called. Listen to this. Women are known to be usually more sensitive than men. Less known are the scientific findings that generally, gays have more empathy than straights. (Just imagine then, how wonderful lesbians are!) So, by and large, queers+ are better at relationships than the normals. And in queer Jewish circles there is great interest to keep the family laws. They recognize their value and holiness.
This, while Modern-Orthodox Jews try to keep sex workable and enjoyable in straight couples, totally ignoring the gift of two weeks a month off!
Rules of thumb: Human sex is a way to connect deeply. One can only do that when emotionally close, good friends. One can only become good friends by listening and talking to each other. Un-intimate sex is not sex but only masturbation, self-serving sex. Sexual violence is only violence.
So, I feel the Rebbetzin’s pain, who feels the pain of so many. But I think she should ask a number of men if they’d think they can touch platonically.