In June 2017, pop singer, Ke$ha, attempted to hug Jerry Seinfeld at an event, while he was being interviewed on TV. Seinfeld did not want her hug. Ke$ha asked him not once, not twice, but three times. Each time, Seinfeld (who had no idea who this overly aggressive woman was) continuously rebuffed her. He even physically retreated after her third request. It was one of the most awkward video clips I have ever watched. At the time, as I was cringing, I thought to myself people need to assume that everyone else is shomer negiah unless they are explicitly told otherwise.
Shomer negiah is a concept in Judaism which means that people don’t touch others of the opposite sex outside of their nuclear family. It is based on the Torah source “lo sikravu l’galos erva” which means that a man should not even approach the “erva” or “nakedness” of a woman who is not his wife (or even who is wife when she is in a state of niddah). The idea behind this prohibition is that there are many steps along the way that can lead to sex, and according to traditional Jewish thought, we stop before we get to any of them, lest we descend down the proverbial slippery slope.
In college, like Jerry, I too experienced unwanted touch. A classmate of mine, who wasn’t Jewish and not aware of my practices, was very handsy. Always hugging people and patting them on the back, this guy just had way too much physical contact for my liking. I was newly observant and less confident about explaining myself. So I tried to move out of the way whenever I could, but at a certain point, I had to just have it out with the guy and tell him what I practiced and how it meant that I didn’t appreciate how physical he was. Thankfully, I had a name for it, to be able to stop this guy. But what about all the other women who have wanted to avoid handsy men?
Which leads us to Vice-President Joe Biden: in the era of #MeToo, Biden is the latest to be accused of inappropriate touch (there are seven accusers as I write this). While we mentioned at first that shomer negiah is meant to prevent a descent towards licentiousness, there is another type of unwanted touch that is not overtly sexual in nature. The women accusing Biden don’t seem to be saying that they felt he had a sexual intent, I bet Seinfeld didn’t think Ke$ha’s desire to hug him was motivated from a place of lust, and my classmate never tried to get romantic with me. And yet boundaries were clearly crossed in each of these cases. So what was it? Where did Biden, Ke$ha, and my classmate go wrong?
I believe the answer can be found in “lo sikravu l’galos erva.” “Erva” can be translated as “nakedness” as we mentioned above, but it can also mean “private” which has a slightly different nuance to it. With this meaning of “erva,” the verse “lo sikravu l’galos erva” perhaps could be understood to mean “don’t approach another person’s privacy.” Or in other words, don’t encroach on someone else’s personal space.
Now I am well aware that the vast majority of the world is not Jewish, and the vast majority of Jews are not strictly observant of Jewish law. Therefore, there is no likelihood that strict shomer negiah will be universally accepted and practiced by the world at large any time soon. However, just as more and more people are seeing the wisdom in the concept of a weekly unplugging, that Orthodox Jews do every week on Shabbos, I would like to suggest that we consider popularizing the idea that touch – even casual touch – towards another person is something that we don’t engage in unless we know that the other party has explicitly consented in it. Yes, shomer negiah creates a certain awkwardness at times – there is the head-nod, non-touch shomer negiah greeting and the extra space between men and women when shomer negiah pictures are taken. But, as we’ve seen, there is all sorts of awkwardness and bad feelings that can come about from non-shomer negiah practices.