Friends, just

Friendship is a funny thing. Or not so funny. They once had a funny TV show called “Friends.” It was about a group of attractive young men and women who were all “friends,” neighbors, roommates. To no one’s surprise, pretty much everyone ended being “more than friends” with everyone else of the opposite sex, at least briefly, by the time the show’s run was over.

But that was fiction. How do we know? Because despite their beyond-friendship interactions, why, they really were still all great friends again right through the end!

Yeah, right.

One of the changes BT’s have to adjust to is that frum men and women really can’t be friends. Like so many things, the extent of sensitivity, or compliance (depending how you look at it) with this principle may depend on your community’s standards. The terminology, too, is rife with vagueness. There’s friendship, and there’s friendship. It shouldn’t be too controversial to assert that an unmarried couple of opposite sexes who are not dating have no business socializing together outside the company of other people, even if they can do so without actually breaching the requirements of yichud, the prohibitions against seclusion with a member of the opposite sex. But if you’re a man, for example, and you’re on a first-name basis with a rebbetzin close to your age whom you’ve known for 25 years, aren’t you, after all, “friends,” even if you never go bowling together? If not, what are you — acquaintances?

Really, however, that case is not our concern; it’s not a change from the previous way of life that presents some people with a challenge, it’s merely a nomenclature problem. The change I originally referred to is that status of “just friends” between males and females. In observant Jewish life, it is not really an option.

The fact is, however, that by the time we hit adulthood, we recognize that mixed friendships are really, mainly, a myth, no matter your religious persuasion — which is just how halacha views it. Men are always men. Women are always women. Men vis-à-vis women is always something that is usually not limited to the non-romantic, non-physical relationship properly described as friendship.

In fact, last fall (October 2012), Scientific American published an article called “Men and Women Can’t be Just Friends.” Unsurprisingly, researchers concluded that it’s pretty much the men who can’t just be friends with women:

New research suggests that there may be some truth to this possibility—that we may think we’re capable of being “just friends” with members of the opposite sex, but the opportunity (or perceived opportunity) for “romance” is often lurking just around the corner, waiting to pounce at the most inopportune moment. . .

The results suggest large gender differences in how men and women experience opposite-sex friendships. Men were much more attracted to their female friends than vice versa. Men were also more likely than women to think that their opposite-sex friends were attracted to them — a clearly misguided belief. In fact, men’s estimates of how attractive they were to their female friends had virtually nothing to do with how these women actually felt, and almost everything to do with how the men themselves felt — basically, males assumed that any romantic attraction they experienced was mutual, and were blind to the actual level of romantic interest felt by their female friends. Women, too, were blind to the mindset of their opposite-sex friends; because females generally were not attracted to their male friends, they assumed that this lack of attraction was mutual. As a result, men consistently overestimated the level of attraction felt by their female friends and women consistently underestimated the level of attraction felt by their male friends.

Men were also more willing to act on this mistakenly perceived mutual attraction.

Some comments on the website question the methodology, but most people — and here, I suppose, I really mean most men, who are the ones who know about the “problematic” side of this equation — will admit that, yes, this is about right.

You can interact with a member of the opposite sex and be helpful, compassionate and even… friendly. But most contexts in can do so inevitably result in what halacha calls k’rivas ha-daas — literally, “convergence of the mind,” or what we would call an emotional bond.

That process, that attraction, is there for a reason, a good one: So that men and women, in the right context, can grow close. Which they will, given half a chance. Given half a chance, too, other things will happen. Interestingly, it appears that “just friends” could work if men and women thought the same way where — as you’d like to think — at least the man was attached to another woman, and she knew this. Women see a man’s “taken” status as meaning, well, “taken.” Men, however, not so much:

Although men were equally as likely to desire “romantic dates” with “taken” friends as with single ones, women were sensitive to their male friends’ relationship status and uninterested in pursuing those who were already involved with someone else.

These results suggest that men, relative to women, have a particularly hard time being “just friends.” . . . This is not just a bit of confirmation for stereotypes about sex-hungry males and naïve females; it is direct proof that two people can experience the exact same relationship in radically different ways. Men seem to see myriad opportunities for romance in their supposedly platonic opposite-sex friendships. The women in these friendships, however, seem to have a completely different orientation — one that is actually platonic.

That’s what I meant by “half a chance” — the male half, mainly.

Orthodox Jewish life, in fact, is pretty much set up to recognize this reality. Some people have trouble understanding levels of sensitivity to the separation of the sexes than they are used to — either before they became religious, or in communities that are more vigilant on this issue than they are. Can’t people just control themselves?, they ask.

People can. They do, mostly. But traditional Judaism says, given the values, and at some point the lives, at stake, why make it harder for people to do so?

“Just friends,” in fact, is a phrase that most of us remember from our dating days as what the girl you like says she wants to be when she doesn’t “like you” in “that way.” And we guys remember what “just friends” meant, and felt like, when we heard those words, don’t we? Did we really want to or expect to be “just friends” with that girl after that?

Did we ever?

Some Approaches to Judging Others Favorably

We’re in the midst of the Three Week period leading up to Tisha B’Av and the Avodah (work) of this period is on Bein Adam L’Chaveiro (improving relations between man and his fellow). Here are some short thoughts on how to judge other people favorably. If you have any thoughts or ideas that have worked for you, please share them in the comments.

Focus on the Overall Good

Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz in Sichos Mussar points out that the Pasuk in Koheles says “There is no Tzaddik who only does good and doesn’t sin”. He takes this a step further and points out that even a positive act has some bad in it, yet nonetheless we can judge the overall act as good. We should try to identify and focus on the positive aspects of the actions people perform and judge there overall acts as positive.

There’s a Part of You in Every Jew

Rabbi Moshe Cordervo in the Tomer Devora describes the level of soul conceptualized as the collective Jewish soul. Every person has a piece of that soul so in reality there is a spiritual piece of every Jew in every other Jew. The mitzvah to love your fellow Jew is really self-love, for one’s fellow Jew is oneself on the collective soul level. As each of us contains a piece of each other’s soul, when my fellow Jew is better off so am I. This framework can help us love our fellow Jew.

Other Peoples Mistakes are More Accidental

In his Iggeres, the Ramban writes “Consider everyone as greater than yourself. If he is wise or rich, you should give him respect. If he is poor and you are richer — or wiser — than he, consider yourself to be more guilty than he, and that he is more worthy than you, since when he sins it is through error, while yours is deliberate and you should know better!” Less observant Jews don’t understand the obligations of the Torah to the degree we do, so relatively, their sins/mistakes are by accident, while ours are done on purpose. Knowing this should help us humble ourselves and judge others more favorably.

The Essence of All People is Good

In the third Bilvavi sefer, the author book points out that our souls are pure and our bodies are just garments. Identifying with our pure souls as opposed to our stained garments is at the root of true self-esteem and enables us to work on removing our stains from a healthy perspective. In the same way we can view ourselves from this aspect of purity, so to we can view our fellow Jews from this perspective. At their root, every Jew has a pure good soul and that is their essence, even when their acts or personalities are negative.