Does Shomer Negiah Have Allowances for Work or Medical Reasons?

Dear JITC-

I work at a school and a nurse there needed to perform a medical procedure and refused to because it meant touching a woman. Does halacha require someone to avoid touching the opposite sex even for work or medical procedures?


Dear Bassie-

I am so confused by this question. The nurse refused to perform a medical procedure because it meant touching a woman? So the nurse was a man? That’s certainly possible – one of my closest friends is a male nurse – but it’s such a woman-dominated field, I don’t see how anyone with such strong objections could enter the profession and go through nursing school while accommodating his self-imposed limitations. (And student nurses have to deal with patients, too, and they don’t get to pick them.) In any event, a nurse has to be prepared to deal with patients of both genders – and by “prepared,” I mean both professionally and halachically.

The laws of kiruv basar (“nearness of flesh” – colloquially referred to as “negiah,” though the term grates on my ear) prohibit affectionate touch. The Rambam (Hilchos Issurei Biah 21:1) writes that one who engages in acts of physical intimacy with a prohibited person deserves lashes for violating a Biblical prohibition. He gives the examples of hugging and kissing and extrapolates from Leviticus 18:6 (“Do not draw near…”) that the prohibition applies to any kind of affectionate physical contact. (Even Ha’Ezer 20:1 says pretty much the same thing as the Rambam; I’m not going to quote both but interested parties can look it up.)

What this prohibition doesn’t include is professional contact, though what that means can vary.

Going to a doctor or a dentist is certainly professional because it’s a health necessity. There’s nothing affectionate about a dental hygienist sticking his or her fingers in your mouth or a nurse cutting off your circulation with a sphygmomanometer (that inflatable cuff thing).

What about getting a haircut from a member of the opposite sex? To me, that’s a gray area – I think that it might seem like nothing to some people but it might feel a little too affectionate for others.

I think all authorities would agree that a massage from a masseuse or a masseur (as opposed to from, say, a physical therapist) is certainly too intimate despite the professional nature of the relationship.

My basis to make such a distinction in the latter two cases is from Rav Moshe Feinstein, ztz”l. In Iggros Moshe (Even Ha’Ezer II:14), Rav Moshe addressed the question of taking public transportation during rush hour, when all the commuters are smooshed together like human sardines. Rav Moshe said that being pressed up against other commuters, even of the opposite gender, does not qualify as affectionate contact. (As a New York City commuter, I can verify that there’s nothing remotely provocative about it.) However, Rav Moshe cautioned, if one is sexually stimulated by such contact, then one must avoid it.

Along these lines, I think it’s safe to say that if the opposite-sex barber cutting your hair gives you sexual thoughts, then such a haircut is just not for you.

But the medical profession? That’s the very definition of permitted cross-gender contact. Obviously, if a woman isn’t comfortable with a massage from a male physical therapist, she can go to a female physical therapist. (And there’s a reason that women OB-GYNs now outnumber the men.) But practitioners may not have that luxury. According to the AMA Code of Medical Ethics Opinions on Patient-Physician Relationships (1.1.2 Prospective Patients), “Physicians must also uphold ethical responsibilities not to discriminate against a prospective patient on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity, or other personal or social characteristics that are not clinically relevant to the individual’s care.”

So, bottom line, I don’t believe there’s a “religious exemption” for medical practitioners not to treat patients of the opposite gender, nor does halacha require such a thing.

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent

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