A Tough Question

A Tough Question

Being the only observant Jew in my immediate family, I get asked many questions about Orthodox Judaism. Some are very straightforward questions about keeping shabbat and kosher and other questions are more difficult to answer. The last time I visited my parents, my mom asked me why there are some observant Jews that are very strict about keeping shabbat and kosher but not so strict about keeping the laws of shomer negia.

My first reaction about hearing this question was “Do I really have to answer this?”, I don’t like being put into the position of spokesperson for Orthodox Judiasm, especially since I am very uncomfortable labeling how I practice Judaism.

After that initial thought, I decided to give it a shot. First I mentioned to my mom that people are putting off marriage for a variety of reasons, wanting to establish careers, live on their own before being married, etc. There is less of a stigma in society these days when it comes to premarital sex and living together before marriage, ie the popularity of “Sex and the City”.

When you get married young, you don’t have to struggle so much when it comes to shomer negia, although there are different struggles to be faced. In my neighborhood, I see people who are single well into their 30s and 40s and even though times have changed, the urges for physical contact have not changed. Everyone gets lonely, even in the city that never sleeps. It takes a herculean amount of self-discipline and self-confidence in order to remain shomer negia. When you live in a city with so many options at your door, it is a wonder that any adults are shomer negia today. I summed up the discussion by saying that some people are stronger at controlling these urges and are able to wait until they get married. Regardless, no one has the right to judge. We all have our own struggles to deal with and it is better to focus on yourself and how you can be a better person rather than tearing people down.

Has anyone ever had to answer these type of questions before? How would you have handled the situation?

36 comments on “A Tough Question

  1. JT–I get that. In my last post, I said that it’s a strong human drive. That doesn’t mean we’re not better off overcoming the drive and keeping Torah.

    No one likes sleeping alone, sure. But how could someone like sleeping with someone who isn’t willing to stick around?

    Also, I don’t think anyone would argue that real connection is vital. The question is what you’re going to call a real connection.

  2. Ora, everyone craves connection.Some crave real connection more than others.Àcutely real healthy connections like marriage are not always a readily available commodity for purchasing.

    Its hard balancing that spiritual inner equilibrium and maintaining religious values and esoteric laws when real connection is so vividly vital for hyper happiness and inner bliss.
    No one on earth likes sleeping alone.
    And it doesn’t matter if your in NYC the city that never sleeps or some quaint sleepy suburban town where the only thing open past 9 is a Quick Check.

  3. JT–If a guy and girl are willing to take the highly problematic master/concubine path, why not just get married? If they don’t like each other enough to get married, they have problems that go beyond negiah.

    Shomer negiah can’t “override” anything. The urges to sin in that particular area are among the strongest known to man. It can, however, help to prevent some of the more dysfunctional relationships in life.

    In that line of thinking, since all mitzvot are ultimately in our best interest, I believe that negiah is just as good for older singles as it is for younger ones. If anything, older singles looking for true love have less time to waste on deadend flings.

  4. Chaim G. wrote: “Maya – It sounds like you live in Manhattan. If I’m not mistaken so does Rebitsin Chaya Houpt.”

    Quite right.

    Maya (and other Manhattanites), please ask Mark and David for my email, you have an open Shabbat invitation at our apartment.

  5. Anonagirl,

    I guess what I mean is, if one wants to connect with Hashem in a sincere way, even if they are just starting, Hashem will help them. But they have to take the 1st step. If they don’t care for whatever reason, then I don’t think they will…until they care. It could be something that happens in their life that starts them on the road to spirituality. In my case, my mom-in-law made a comment to me. In Roy Neuberger’s case, it was a series of things. His book “From Central Park to Sinai” is excellent. I highly recommend it. In his case, his family was not observant in any way, shape or form. And now…well, read the book is all I can say.

    Good Shabbos,
    Marty

  6. While all Jews can grow to be true servants of HaShem, we need to deal with and overcome barriers to our growth. One such barrier is identification with any belief system that negates essential principles of Judaism.

    A Jew who thinks of himself/herself as non-Orthodox can grow Jewishly up to some limit, but further growth requires that Jew’s re-identification as Orthodox. This is not the only change needed, but it has to happen.

  7. Marty —

    OK, that makes a little more sense. Something in your phrasing still bothers me, but I’ll let it go.

  8. Anonagirl,

    I am NOT saying that at all! What I AM saying is, if they are not religious, and don’t care, then they don’t WANT to get close to Hashem. All of us are capable of getting close. If there is even a spark of caring in a person, then they can get close and start on the path to goodness.

    Please, please don’t misunderstand me.

    Thanks,
    Marty

  9. “And then there are opinions that hold that all contact is forbidden, all the time (except for saving someone’s life, of course).”

    And permitted for healthcare reasons as well- dentist, physician, etc.

  10. Is it really prohibited to shake a woman’s hand?? Or tap a person of the other gender on the shoulder??

    Marc

    Depends who you ask.

    There are halakhic opinions that define prohibited touching as that which is associated with love or lust.

    According to those opinions, shaking hands would be perfectly fine.

    There are other opinions that hold that all contact is forbidden, but allow shaking hands in order not to embarrass someone who doesn’t know about negi‘a.

    And then there are opinions that hold that all contact is forbidden, all the time (except for saving someone’s life, of course).

  11. The obvious question that is begging to be asked is the how far fetched is the notion of shomer negia once an individual hits a certain àge bracket like say mid twenties.Did Gd intend for concepts like quaint nunneries to be flourishing for profit orgs in 2007 ? Or did he want us checking out loopholes like mikvah ór maybe pondering stuff like concubine connections.Is there an expiration date to this shomer negia promoting ? Or is it just some lofty goal designed to override (but clearly not doing that good a job ) lust and related sinning activities. And incorporate more guilt into our daily living schedule for variety and headaches.Or is it just mussar musing time.

  12. Anonagirl, I’m sure you know that it doesn’t matter mostly what color of Judaism a given end user has chosen to paint splatter,graffiti,glitter dust or color his existence with when connecting to Gd , whether he chooses an esoteric orthodox onyx,vivid conservative viola or a fabulous reform fuschia. I think Its the global objectives in life that are most important and so easily forgotten when tripping over local subdivisions subtexts and subtle and not so subtle connotations.Its hard keepin the focus and everyone insists théir set of rules and linear and lateral equations and logic make the most sense.

  13. Sorry,

    I must have hit the send button too fast. What I meant to say is that I was discussing Jews who are not observant at all, and don’t care to be at this point in their lives. If one is Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, or non-denominational, and wants to get close to Hashem, then, of course, I am not including them in my comment. Please, don’t misunderstand me. I do not mean to hurt anyone’s feelings at all. Perhaps those non-observant Jews will want to connect to Hashem at one point..it’s not too late, ever!

  14. Well, what I think Marty may be saying, anonagirl, and what I think is the response to Maya’s mom is, is that orthodox Jews who fall short of meeting their halachic responsibilities must — if they are indeed orthodox Jews — acknowledge that they are doing so, i.e., falling short. “Picking and choosing” does not mean establishing their own Shulchan Aruch. Our goal is clear, and we are responsible not only to acknowledge what our responsibilities as Jews are (as the siddur says, “Let a person acknowledge the truth every day, [at least] privately”) but — critically, I think — to acknowledge a religious obligation to continually strive to meet that goal, and to admit that failing to do so to the full extent of our abilities is indeed a shortcoming.

    And that shortcoming has various names, but they may indeed include words such as transgression or, yes, “sin.”

    And that when an orthodox Jew moves, hopefully, up to the next step, and discards habits that are classified as transgressions, regardless of his growth curb or his situation or his neurological predispositions, he is responsible to repent for his failings — which is what they are, howsoever they may be cast in the light of growth and no matter how reluctant we must be to judge others this way — and to feel regret for having done them and to undertake never to do them again.

    A very big deal! We all aspire to this. This is what makes us “orthodox” Jews. If your friends, anonagirl, are on this path, too, it doesn’t matter where they pay shul dues or what they want to call themselves — they are doing it right. And if people you think you are orthodox because of how they dress or where they go to shul think “the whole thing is a game” or a “joke,” then they are, it would seem, probably doing it wrong.

    That’s my shot at it.

  15. Marty,

    That’s pretty insulting to those non-Orthodox Jews who ARE on a growth path. I know Conservative Jews who are more observant than a lot of Orthodox Jews. And where’s the dividing line between non-Orthodox and Orthodox?

  16. Maya,

    I think that non-observant Jews, at this point in their lives, are not on a “growth track”, whereas Orthodox Jews ARE, and hopefully, while I doubt we can be perfect, are really striving to be.

    btw, great post!

    Marty

  17. “I think their underlying discomfort was this perception: if orthodox Jews differ in what they allow for themselves, aren’t they just making up rules as they go, each to their own comfort?”

    Chana

    You took the words out of my mouth! I think that was my mom’s ultimate question. If there are so many variations within Orthodox Judaism and it seems that even Orthodox Jews pick and choose within halacha, then what is so different about non-observant Jews? They pick and choose as well. That could be the subject of another post.

  18. Your post reminds me of questions on other topics of observance that I heard from my family. I think their underlying discomfort was this perception: if orthodox Jews differ in what they allow for themselves, aren’t they just making up rules as they go, each to their own comfort? My relatives had trouble perceiving the Ultimate Source of the law by viewing all of the inconsistencies.

  19. Maya-

    It sounds like you live in Manhattan. If I’m not mistaken so does Rebitsin Chaya Haupt.

    One of the great things about the virtual community of this blog is that it makes real life contacts possible (Shabbatonim et al). Go for it!

  20. David has an excellent point, there are some on the path to observance but are still on lower rungs of the ladder. It is a problem to explain it to secular individuals though (e.g., there was a time when I didn’t eat pork or shellfish but still would go to restaurants that served such.) To a casual observer it seems like hypocracy but for me it was part of the journey.

  21. This contradiction can be seen as hypocrisy or as a reflection of personal weakness (possibly in the face of serious challenges) or as a result of imperfect understanding.-B. Miller

    I have friends that follow the laws of shomer negia 100% and friends that don’t follow the laws of shomer negia but admire the principle in theory. If I had to categorize myself in this case, I fall in the 2nd category.-Maya

    “Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.” -Francois de La Rochefoucauld

  22. David Linn said, “I think there is (at least) one other reason: the person is on a growth trajectory but has not yet reached the point of ‘total compliance'”.

    This can fall under imperfect understanding. As a committed person’s’s understanding grows (with effort), his/her practice ought to improve.

    Also, personal weakness is correctable up to a point, and the person can try to find an environment that is less challenging.

    Total compliance is a goal to strive for as best we can, but we’re in a process. There is no absolutely perfect BT or FFB.

  23. Is it really prohibited to shake a woman’s hand?? Or tap a person of the other gender on the shoulder??

    If it were a prohibition wouldn’t it be phrased in the negative ‘lo tigah’ rather than the voluntary sounding shomer negiah i.e. I watch what I touch??

    Marc

  24. “Those who comply in many ways but not totally may still accept total compliance in principle. This contradiction can be seen as hypocrisy or as a reflection of personal weakness (possibly in the face of serious challenges) or as a result of imperfect understanding.”

    I think there is (at least) one other reason: the person is on a growth trajectory but has not yet reached the point of “total compliance”.

  25. This was a great answer to a very tough question. However, even if a husband and wife were not Shomer Negiah but had mixed seating and separate dancing at their chasunah, a not unheard of phenomeon back in the 1970s,, if they raise their kids in a way in which their kids are Shomer Negiah and avoid mixed swimming, etc., your parents may very understand that you are living a different life and not even raise the issue.

  26. I used to get questions like that a lot. I think by now, though, my parents have come to understand my observance. They’re not part of the world, but since I’ve become observant theyve become friendly with all the families I stay with in Providence. And they used to think that some things were only rules for ultra-orthodox jews while others were things that everyone (including modern orthodox) had to keep. Now they realize that there’s a range of observance to the same set of rules…

    As for the shomer nagiah thing- there’s also a range for keeping and not keeping it. Just because a person is not shomer nagiah, it doesn’t mean that they are necessarily having pre-marital sex.

  27. I love reading all your comments, and will try to address each one.

    Chaim G. – I do not think my mom was attacking my determination to be shomer negia. In her job, my mom works with Jews who span the gamut from non-observant to observant. She sees a variety of behaviors and is curious about why some people follow certain halachas and others don’t.

    Jon – Thanks for your insightful comment. I think her questions had elements of the religious and societal.

    B. Miller – Your comment was very interesting. I have friends that follow the laws of shomer negia 100% and friends that don’t follow the laws of shomer negia but admire the principle in theory. If I had to categorize myself in this case, I fall in the 2nd category. This is an area that I struggle with, even though I fall time and time again, I do get back up and try again. I think that’s the most important thing.

    Rabbi Simenowitz – Going to sleep would solve most problems, that’s for sure : )

    Chaya H. – Thank you so much for your kind words. I feel that you are several steps ahead of me on the same path and I can learn so much from you.

  28. You gave your mom a good answer–honest, compassionate, and nonapologetic.

    My mother is also a bloodhound for inconsistancy in Orthodox practice. Just recently it was, “Why does so-and-so sing professionally if she’s observant?”

    These are hard questions because I don’t want to condemn other people’s choices when I don’t have the details, but I also don’t want to present an overly pluralistic view of Orthodoxy. If everything is up to me to decide, I will eventually have to answer for those decisions when they conflict with the values of my family of origin. The workings of halacha and minhag are a lot more complex than a well-stocked salad bar.

    On the best days, these questions lead to important discussions about hashkafa. Now that I am several years past my original teshuva and my mom and I have both calmed down a bit, we can talk about the details.

    For example, my mom once asked why our Lubavitch friend will never shake hands with women, but my husband sometimes will. That was a halachic question, but it became an opportunity to talk about Modern Orthodoxy and the differences between groups in traditional Judaism.

    Now my mom understands more about where I am coming from haskafically, and she takes pride in being able to speak in an informed way to others about what exactly her daughter believes and practices.

  29. “Everyone gets lonely, even in the city that never sleeps.”

    If they went to sleep wouldn’t it solve 80% of the problem?

  30. For any set of requirements on people, their responses cover the whole range from total compliance to total noncompliance.

    Those who comply in many ways but not totally may still accept total compliance in principle. This contradiction can be seen as hypocrisy or as a reflection of personal weakness (possibly in the face of serious challenges) or as a result of imperfect understanding.

    Someone who sees the big city as presenting insurmountable challenges should seriously try to move elsewhere.

  31. Was she asking a sociatal or religious question…
    Religiously, virtually all religious leadership would say that what those people do is incorrect.
    Emotionally / Socially, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. People are human beings with needs. When they postpone mariage, those physical and emotial needs still exist so they find other methods for fulfilling them.

  32. Was Mom’s question an attack on a perceived hypocrisy or a request to fill in the blanks on how to prioritize prohibitions?

    How the question is posed will often determine how it ought to be answered.

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