Can’t Touch This

Since I work at a Jewish organization, I get put in situations like this on almost a daily basis. These were hilarious, and I couldn’t help but want to share it on this forum.

As I explained in Un-Orthodox, my husband and I are both Orthodox Jews. This in and of itself lends itself to hilarious situations (see: why I won’t eat that lettuce and “the bob-and-weave” at an engagement party), working at a Jewish org where I am the only orthodox person means that I get asked questions. Those uncomfortable questions that don’t always have a simple answer.

For example, a friend of mine came to visit me during lunch last week, and our 80-year-old intern (I’m not kidding. Trust me, I wish I was) came into the office and I introduced him. She has dark skin and is very exotic looking, so when he offered his hand and she told him that she didn’t shake hands with men, he looked at me like we both had 4 heads and they were all growing tentacles.

“She’s Orthodox,” I explained, “She doesn’t shake hands with men.”
“What language?” the 80-year-old intern asked.
“English. She’s Jewish. Orthodox,” I repeated.
“OH! Orthodox. Did you know that I’m related to the Ba’al Shem Tov?”

Today, one of my colleagues had a meeting today with a group of Jewish people, one of whom just celebrated her orthodox son’s engagement. She went on and on in the kitchen (where else?) about the relationship, the short engagement, and wait — the fact that her son has never, ever TOUCHED his bride-to-be.

Everyone gasped collectively and the volume went through the roof–

“Like they’ve never held hands?”
“He didn’t kiss her when she said yes?!”
“They’ve never even high-fived!?”

I could go on for hours, really. Since my office is right next to the kitchen, I got to hear the entire discourse, and as soon as it was over, I knew exactly what was coming.

My co-worker sauntered into my office and started with a caveat, “I hope this isn’t too much of a personal question, but –”
“I know exactly what you are going to ask,” I replied, my cheeks probably red enough to give away my answer.

As I convinced her that yes, there are people who really ONLY touch their husbands/wives/immediate family members in the Orthodox Community, and shunned her previous thought that that was such an “Ultra-Orthodox” thing to do, I told her that there were really normal, living, eating, breathing people who waited until they were married to touch for the first time. And yes, their marriages are normal. Yes, they have sex, and yes, they really do love each other. And they know they love each other before their wedding day.

My co-worker didn’t ask me why, but since I experience situations like this more-and-more freqently, maybe I should articulate why I won’t shake your hand/hug you/kiss you/square dance with you even if you are one of my closest friends.

Similar to Islam, Orthodox Jews do not touch members of the opposite sex they are not related to. Not because men or women have cooties, and not because we’re afraid that we might get automatically “turned-on” from a high-five. The reason is simple – that physical relations are holy – and holy things need to be kept separate. This concept plays a huge role in many of the facets of Orthodox Judaism; but shomer negiah is one that is often downplayed, ignored, and looked-down upon.

In today’s world, so much of what we do is public. We all have Facebook (except me!), we all update our twitter feeds and linkedin profiles, and we are all online, all the time. Even my diary is public and you’re allowed to read it, and I don’t even know who you are! Judaism, in general, is a religion that says that’s okay — great, even, as long as there’s an amount of self-respect that is preserved.

Keeping touch private makes it feel special, knowing that my husband won’t hug my friends or even shake hands with the women he works with (who I will never meet) makes me feel like I am more important than them. Which is allowed, because I am his wife. It keeps our most personal relationships private, adding a layer to our love that wouldn’t exist otherwise.

And it makes our relationship feel holy, for sure.


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