Rabbi Yoni Rosensweig of Beit Shemesh recently shared on Facebook a series of long, public posts (in Hebrew) about older Orthodox singles and negiah, the halacha (Jewish law) that forbids any affectionate physical contact between men and women who are not married or close relatives. The first post contained a copy of a well-written, heartbreaking letter from an anonymous-to-us single woman about the debilitating toll it takes on a person to be “shomer negiah” throughout their 20s, 30s, even older.
The second post had a long discussion about Rabbi Rosensweig’s views about halacha generally and the laws of negiah in particular, and suggested that in extremely rare and limited circumstances, perhaps halacha can allow for a certain amount of “negiah.”
This post gave me hope. But not because of the possibility of any heter (rabbinical permission for leniency). It was because of something else.
As you can imagine, Rabbi Rosensweig got a lot of flak for the implications (whether correctly or incorrectly inferred by readers) of his second post, and in the next two, he responded to critics at length. In short, his idea about situations that might warrant a heter is, by his own clarification, so narrow and limited as to be completely irrelevant for most people in most situations.
So, in practice, his answer was the same one we hear all the time: “the halacha is no, you can’t do this, I’m sorry, I know that’s hard, but what can you do?” The practical effect of what he said was essentially business-as-usual. But the way he said it was profoundly comforting.
In all my lifelong “travels” in the Orthodox community, online and in real life, and in all my discussions in the community about negiah, I’ve seen the same response to people’s pain many times: “You don’t understand, Judaism isn’t meant to guarantee you’ll be happy. Halacha is meant to be kept whether it makes you happy or not. It’s a system that is meant to work for most people. It appears that you are outside the margins of those people, someone this halacha doesn’t really address. But you have to keep it anyway, because that’s Orthodox Judaism.” And I can’t argue with that. Keeping halachot is the essence of Orthodoxy. You can’t just pretend that a halacha doesn’t exist, or decide for yourself that it doesn’t apply to you, and still claim to be Orthodox.
But I’ve noticed a pattern. The only people who ever write that answer about Orthodoxy on social media are people who are married. And it’s almost always a man. And it’s always about sex, directed to singles and members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Other mainstream Orthodox people aren’t denying the nature of the halacha. But what they write on social media doesn’t focus on the halacha. They focus on showing sympathy (and in rare cases, succeed in getting to empathy). They say “I don’t know why this is happening to you. I’m sorry.” They say “I wish I had an answer for you. You are amazing and deserve better.”
What too many (Orthodox, married, usually men) seem not to understand is the difference between telling someone “no, you can’t eat lobster, ever, no matter how much you love seafood” versus telling them “no, you can’t have sex, ever, or even touch someone you are attracted to, ever, no matter how destructive that law is, in your situation, to your mental and even physiological health.”
The halacha is its own sticky issue, and individual “older singles” will find different ways of dealing with the reality of it, whether it’s to keep the halacha despite the costs, or to break it, to one extent or another, despite the costs. It is what it is.
The chillul Hashem (desecration of God’s name) here is the cluelessness. I can accept intellectually that being Orthodox does not guarantee happiness. But it’s a lot harder to swallow that someone can be devoted to Torah their entire lives and never have learned the basics of how to feel or express true sympathy. Someone claiming to teach about halacha should at least know the difference between talking about eating non-kosher food and talking about painful personal issues about human connection. People do not want only information from their rabbis or teachers; they want to know that someone representing Judaism – and through Judaism, presumably God – truly hears them and understands their extraordinary struggles.
If you are explaining to a person that according to our traditions they must, if necessary, remain a virgin until they die, and you are not crying with them when you say that, then you are not a good person, nor a good Jew, no matter how Orthodox you think you are.
That should be our rule of thumb: if your answer about negiah or sex is “that’s the halacha. I’m sorry,” at least have the grace to shed actual tears while you type that out.
I can hear the tears behind Rabbi Rosensweig’s words. He hears. He understands. That’s what makes his posts on this topic so powerful. Not the idea of a dispensation.