Before we get to our regular column, we want to congratulate Yael Halpern on winning our hot summer date contest! Yael takes home $100, plus bragging rights. Thank you to everyone who voted for your favorite date!
Today we hear from Sarah Epstein about her new project addressing traditional Jewish law and personal sexual boundaries. Sarah got her start as a sex educator when she was an undergraduate at Brandeis University, where she created workshops for observant Jewish women who wanted to learn more about sexuality and their bodies.
Growing up, I did not receive sex education. Not really. I attended Orthodox day schools, and the extent of my sex education was a single class in sixth grade, in which I was told that my period is my body practicing for childbirth. The girls in my high school also received one week of classes on the laws of neidah (ritual purity, which includes laws regarding menstruation), while the boys had study hall.
When I became a sex educator in college, I realized that many other members of the Orthodox community also never had the opportunity to learn about and discuss human sexuality. When they found out I taught sex-ed workshops, they began approaching me one by one with questions about anatomy, reproduction and sex. It became my goal to extend sex education to the Jewish community, with specific attention to the needs of Jews who observe halacha, traditional Jewish law.
One particular set of laws and practices came up over and over again: shomer negiah, which literally means “guarding touch.” It refers to the practice of refraining from physical contact with members of the “opposite sex” outside of marriage. (Note from Mimi: This practice is based on a gender binary, assumes heterosexuality and claims marriage as the ideal context for sexual expression.) The practice manifests itself in different ways for different people. For some, it means avoiding physical contact altogether with people considered opposite sex. Others allow contact with family members, platonic friends or long-term romantic partners. Some people struggle with whether to shake the hand of a professor or give a friendly hug to an acquaintance at a party. (Another note: Other interpretations of this practice include a set of values regarding observing touch or guarding touch; in other words, developing a sense of responsibility regarding how we use our bodies and how we do or do not share our bodies with others.)
These varying practices bring up lots of questions: How do I reconcile my romantic and sexual desires with halacha? How can I create and maintain intimacy with my significant other while being shomer negiah? What does “intimacy” even mean?
These questions, like so many other questions about sex and relationships, can be confusing and frustrating to discuss. And the shame only makes it harder. Community members judge one another’s boundaries and gossip about who is and is not shomer negiah, which feels a lot like gossiping about who is and is not having sex. Many people then feel reticent to talk openly about the complexity of their own shomer negiah practices for fear of judgment from others. I decided to do what I can to open up these conversations.
I started a project called The Shomer Chronicles, an online story-collecting initiative that invites people to send in their stories, thoughts and experiences surrounding shomer negiah.
The Shomer Chronicles explore emotions and experiences that are fundamentally human, regardless of Jewish observance, learning or religious identification. The website blog serves as an anonymous forum for people to express their feelings and tell stories without fear of judgment from their peers. So far the responses have been fantastic! I receive a steady stream of stories that together create a community of voices that, until now, remained silent. I hope The Shomer Chronicles will empower people to express themselves openly and start talking more about how touch, boundaries, desire, beliefs and values shape their lives.
My advice for Jewish adults today is to communicate. We all have different needs and boundaries in our relationships and sex lives. Express your needs to yourself and to those close to you, and know that it’s OK if your needs are different from somebody else’s.