I read with interest Viva Hammer’s article in the April 16 Jerusalem Post entitled “Every hour a kiss” in which she addresses issues of physical touch according to Jewish law.
In the course of the article, she describes an incident in which a manager at work, to illustrate a point, rubbed her shoulder, put an arm around her, and squeezed her hand. She found herself at a loss for what to do. “If I make a fuss, I risk my job. If I do nothing, I am being violated and demeaned.” She chose the latter.
I occasionally found myself in a similar situation when teaching in a Catholic high school. I have attended many church services, both Catholic and Protestant, and have always been irritated by an inexplicable part of the service where, like Jesus’s disciples, the congregation is enjoined to exchange the “sign of peace.” This usually results in bedlam as the congregation breaks frame in the service and turns to one another, hugging, shaking hands, chattering, and—gulp!—kissing. (Hey, wait! Wasn’t it a kiss that Judas supposedly gave Jesus as part of the Romans’ sting operation? How can that be the sign of “peace”? Oh, never mind.) On one particularly memorable occasion, the vice principal, a middle-aged man who visibly enjoyed working in a nearly all-female environment (what old-fashioned types might call a “hen-house”), turned from his seat in the pew in front of me to give me the “sign of peace.” I drew back immediately, shooting him a look that clearly warned him off trying to hug or kiss me. Clueless about what an Orthodox Jewish woman permits and is permitted for physical touch, and undaunted by my long sleeves, skirt, and snood (THOSE were the days!), he asked, “May I?” and without waiting for a response, reached forward, grabbed my shoulders, and planted a wet smacker firmly on my cheek.
I burned with rage, and felt utterly disgusted. Had I not made it clear that I didn’t want to be touched? Shouldn’t a respectful co-worker honor my refusal to be kissed? But this man was either so randy, or so stupid, he just didn’t get it. (Or didn’t WANT to get it.) The part that stung the most was that I’m a self-defense instructor; if I’d wanted to, I could have hopped over the pew and, with an elbow to the face, a knee to the groin, and a knee to the head, knocked him out cold in about 3 seconds. But that would have been an even greater disruption to the already chaotic service than the love fest sign of peace already was.
Viva Hammer outlines the strict interpretation of shmirat negiah, with which she is most comfortable. I am not always so consistent. There are men for whom I make exceptions to the rules. I kiss my uncle and close friends in my parents’ generation on the cheek. I hug my best friend’s husband, who is also a dear friend. I do not as a rule touch unmarried men or teenage boys. The one guiding principle for all of these situations is a sense of comfort and clear permission on both sides.
I once read a wonderful article on touch by Yael Resnick, creator of Natural Jewish Parenting (once a print magazine, now available online). In sum, her rules for touch among children are the following: Is the touch 1) modest? 2) gentle? and 3) wanted? If all three conditions are met, then the touch is permissible. If the answer to any of those questions is “no” then the touch should be forbidden. For those of us a little less strict about negiah, I think these rules apply very nicely.
Living in Israel where most people I know are familiar with the rules of touch makes it much easier to avoid unwanted contact. (It also doesn’t hurt that I’m a middle-aged married woman surrounded by shrieking children. There are more appealing objects to touch, to be sure.) No more church services, no more kissy-poo “signs of peace”, and no more overbearing administrators. And in my ornery old age, I think I have fewer inhibitions about doling out the old one-two to someone who doesn’t understand that killer looks mean business.
Not modest? Not gentle? Not wanted? POW! POW! POW!
Ahhh. Much better.