It’s one of those words you hear a lot in high school, as a sort of indication of either how self-righteous or lame you are, or on the other hand, how cool you are, how scandalous. Because while the word just means that you observe something in particular, and applies to Shabbat, Kashrut, or even Halakha in general, in this particular case, we all know, or knew, or maybe, rather, still know, that we’re talking about Hilkhot Negiah – the laws of contact.
I guess it makes sense to say that this is one of those things which defines High School. Those wonderful years of hormones and emotions and who the hell knows what. A trainwreck of feelings and desires for new experiences. Summers at camp, away from the folks who would judge.
In the chronicles of a religiously observant life, there is one observance which seems different than others. I won’t describe it as stringency. It is baseline Halakha. There are laws which dictate this behavior. And there are many of us who simply decided that these laws are not part of our standard observances. We wouldn’t do the same about other parts of Halakha, and if we did many would consider us to be outside the scope of observance. But with this set of Halakhot, there seems to almost be a consensus regarding non-observance. One can be considered fully observant without observing these Halakhot at all.
And why is that, and how have we talked about it? How do we talk about it still, and perhaps how should we talk about it going forward?
I’m just gonna say it: not all of us can handle it. And it depends on the individual how long some of us can handle it. Or handled it. Or in which circumstances and how we handle it. Some of us still manage it, and some of us never made it work. However long we kept up with it, or if we ever did, I don’t think anyone should judge.
Social realities change. Halakha is constantly in flux, but it has its limits, and a few parameters which may never change. Halakha will reconsider, rethink, and reassess specifics. But certain lines remain, and will not change. There is a general assumption that intimate touch between opposite sexes is forbidden without observance of Halakhot regarding Niddah. And the halakhic literature doesn’t really assess the possibility of something else. So we know it’s forbidden. And yet we do it. Have we given up on it? If we have, why? And how?
The gut reaction is clear. You can’t expect things to work the way they did in the times of the Talmud, when these laws were first codified. Things are not the same. But this is not a Halakhic argument. A Halakhic argument would say considerations must be brought forward which have not until now, not that things are different. We do not change Halakhic practice out of convenience, but out of need. But even when there is a need, sometimes there is not a Halakhic way, even with Rabbinic Will. Rabbinic thinking is bound by certain parameters. All things which are not God have their limits, and that means that Halakha does as well.
Halakha will not permit anything we want; it will not betray itself. As a great Jewish philosopher once said: This isn’t Nam, Smokey, there are rules. The whole structure of Halakha is dependent on the idea that something higher is at risk, something about the very structure is sacred, and that means that some things which are forbidden are important in their prohibition. Instead, we need to wonder. Where is God in a place of Halakhic impossibility?
We could argue maybe it’s not impossible, it is simply markedly improbable today. For the most part, early marriage would be the simple answer (a solution cited by Chazal in a few passages), along with isolation of the sexes. Except in a world of high divorce rates and a change in the nature of marriage, neither of these can be expected. We can aim for them, sure. People will still get married young. But not all people. And some of us won’t get married until later. I was sure I’d be married by age 23. It seemed like a good age and I was relatively sure of it. Well, I’m 25 and am still single, and I’m not the only one of my friends who feels this way. Moreover, I am the “Kal”, and my friends are the Chomer. So instead of giving up and throwing this tradition away, we need to see if there is another way.
Is there a path of violation, when the struggle becomes too great, which is not rebellious? Can we make the struggle conscious, and something about which we care, the uphill battle which may be lost, but not without an effort? I believe the key here belongs to the mentality with which we approach this matter. I don’t want us to absolve ourselves: that removes the authority of Halakha. And I don’t want us to torture ourselves: that removes the beauty of religion and ritual.
So instead, what do we teach? Perhaps a new way of looking at the story. This is not a test of man’s loyalty to God. It is an exercise in healthy, value-based choices, and should only be taught after thorough sex ed courses. Only once we know our kids are safe in making their decisions can we propose the Halakhic framework. We must be honest: we can’t cut corners or deny the presence of prior source work. But we also must be sensitive and have an open ear, and talk more openly.
We must get rid of the “don’t tell, even if they ask” policy which seems to exist in our community. It has become commonplace to not touch one’s significant other in public even though for the most part this does not remain the same in private, which creates a standard of falsehood. Madrichim in Bnei Akiva and other youth movements must uphold the standard in front of their students, but they must not lie when asked, and they must be free to speak honestly, so that their campers and students might learn. Otherwise, we create a society based on the most snow-white lies we can find, but lies all the same. Do I think people should flaunt lack of observance of a Halakhic practice? No. But I don’t believe most people who hug or kiss someone think of this action as a rebellion against God or Halakha, and I do believe that we need to stop lying, stop fooling ourselves and others. Because when we realize that others struggle as well, maybe more than convincing us we’re not alone, we can also try to fix some matters.
Every step a person takes to uphold the old tradition is commendable, but lack of observance cannot be shamed. We cannot risk an all-or-nothing approach to this. If we can still uphold laws of Yichud, we must. If we can refrain from certain contact, excellent. And for those who can, keeping all the parameters is certainly the Halakhic ideal. But for those who can’t, or don’t, must not be shamed.
I believe in the strange dichotomy, in this confusing place, because I don’t believe in Halakha as a pick-and-choose system, but I also don’t believe in it as an all-or-nothing deal. We try. We succeed, we fail. It happens. Such is the journey. But the honest discussion must be there. We can’t have sex ed or halakhic education simply be classes of what not to do. We need to acknowledge reality, while not using it as an excuse. And what does the Yom Kippur prayer of someone who knows they can’t keep this up, or that they won’t, look like? It depends, but all sincere prayer is beautiful. As long as we create an honest culture about this, I greatly prefer it to the lies and falsehood, or unfair standards, and I believe we can teach people to pray maybe that they will improve, be more mindful, even without being able to uphold everything. And being on a journey does not mean we might ever get to a destination, but having it in mind means we haven’t forgotten it.
Written having been in this space many times. Still uncertain I’ve got it right. Who knows.
(The period between the beginning of Sefer Shemot, the book of Exodus, and the giving of the covenant with the people, in Mishpatim, is known as Shovavim, the initials of the first six Sedrot of the book. It means “wayward ones” and is considered auspicious for learning about the sanctity of sexuality, and the importance of the preservation of various customs regarding this sanctity. I figured I might as well voice some thoughts on the matter, not from a Halakhic perspective, as I am not a Rabbi or an authority by any other means, but rather from a perspective based on experiences and reflections. What express here is non-Halakhic in nature. All should consult relevant authorities if this is important to them. I can provide direction or opinions, but not rulings.)