I’m beginning to recognize the wisdom of shomer negia, a practice that mystified me when I first started teaching in a community where men and women must refrain from touching one another unless they are married to each other.
I come from a “touchy” culture where people of both sexes say “hello” by hugging and kissing on both cheeks.
My Uncle Jack, who sponsored our emigration from Romania in 1965, warned us, when he picked us up at San Francisco International Airport, that in America, man or woman is allowed to kiss woman or man once on one cheek; between men, however, kissing on either cheek is verboten. Like the British, he explained, Americans are friendly but inhibited. When you speak to them, make sure you maintain a distance of at least one arm’s length. A chemical engineer, Uncle Jack was very precise.
It was a relief to discover, when I started college at UC Berkeley in 1971, that everyone hugging everyone “hello” was not only appropriate but fashionable. Along with my accent, I lost my sense that I had been raised in an alien culture.
My notion of personal space was shaken up, however, when I started teaching English at an Orthodox Jewish high school in 2001 and at an Orthodox Jewish college in 2005; here, hugging a member of the opposite sex or even shaking hands with one is verboten.
I had trouble with this concept until recently. Listening to Nancy Pelosi struggle to explain that “in the world we’re in now, people’s space is important to them, and what’s important is how they receive it and not necessarily how you intended it,” I realized how much clarity shomer negia would bring to today’s confusing relationships.
The dissolution of personal boundaries that began with all those flower children freely exchanging hugs, saliva and other substances in the 1960s has now flowered into a state of total chaos between us all. Men and women can’t feel safe or comfortable with each other anymore.
A few months ago, for example, I met with a business associate of my mother’s in San Francisco whom I have known and greeted with a warm hug for the past 10 years, just as my mother did for the last 20 years of her life. He jumped back in fright. We were in the waiting room of his company’s office. I realized that he must have been subjected to one of those company training sessions that warned him that touching a female client might result in the loss of his job. “Why didn’t you follow the same rules of conduct at his workplace as you do at yours?” I reproached myself guiltily.
ABSTINENCE IS the best antidote to excess. And the vehemence of the #MeToo movement, the fury, the frustration, the finger-pointing at the opposite sex as the source of one’s problems and unhappiness, are not just reactions to the patriarchy and to the entitled behavior of men. They are also reactions to a commercialized culture of excess that has hurt an entire generation of women and prevented them from fully enjoying the benefits of the women’s liberation movement and its remarkable achievements.
To use the words of Fyodor Dostoevsky, who foresaw the Russian Revolution half a century before it occurred, “We are all guilty; we are all responsible.”
My millennial daughter and her friends grew up in an American culture that provided few boundaries and safety nets. In Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Lives of Adolescent Girls and The Shelter of Each Other, written in the 1990s, Mary Pipher exposed the damage inflicted on children in general and girls in particular by a larger culture that refuses to protect the innocence of its young. Pop culture has only intensified the exploitation and objectification of female sexuality. “Girls’ fashions urge body consciousness at the very youngest ages. Target offers bikinis for infants. The Gap hawks skinny jeans for toddlers,” writes Peggy Orenstein in Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape. The author describes “the pressure on young women to reduce their worth to their bodies as a collection of parts that exist for others’ pleasure.”
Most boomer parents I know surrendered to social pressure and allowed their children to go to parties as early as middle school where alcohol was served, sex performed, and adult supervision, absent. We sent our daughters off to colleges with coed dorms, coed floors, coed showers and campuses where the shrieks of ambulances picking up dangerously intoxicated youths were simply part of every weekend’s landscape.
The bright, articulate young women who, on every major American network news show, tried to explain why Joe Biden’s hugs were perceived as hurtful, invasive and traumatizing are entitled to clear codes of conduct and firm boundaries that will enable them to feel safe, respected and valued as human beings.
It made perfect sense in the 1960s for a generation rebelling against constraint and repression to invite everyone to hug everyone and much more. And it also makes perfect sense in the 2020s for a generation rebelling against excesses and overindulgences to forbid anyone from touching anyone without formal consent.
Shomer negia, my students tell me, along with modest dress, enables one, when going out on a date, to view the other not just as the possessor of body parts but as the possessor of a neshama, a soul. The point of the encounter is not to hook up, but to find one’s soul mate, one’s bashert, one’s life partner.
Yes, we should all practice shomer negia and restore clarity and dignity between the embattled sexes.
The writer is a Los Angeles writer and English department chairwoman at Touro College, Los Angeles.
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