Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Observing Touch

I was at a party a few weeks ago at a friend's house, sitting and talking to one of my best friends. A few people would approach us every so often to say hello, usually with a hug. When guys came up to us, she would hold her arms open for them to hug her, and I would just sit, smiling hello, and hugging them if they came towards me for a hug. After a few people had come and gone, she seemed to notice that I was only hugging some and not others.

"What's up with you? Is there a problem with some of the guys?" She asked.

This is where I had to come clean.

I explained to her that I was not initiating hugs, I would only accept them. Otherwise I would just greet people with a smile and wave. And of course, she asked why. 
"It's a Jewish thing"
"But you've never done this before"
"I'll explain later”.

Later that night I sat down with her, explaining this new thing in my life, and how it all started on the Jewish Summer camp I had gone to weeks earlier.

There is a concept in Jewish law, or Halacha, called Shomer Negiah, literally meaning observant of touch. Basically, it forbids contact with the opposite sex, except for immediate family members. This probably seems completely crazy for anyone who is not familiar with it. Even I used to think it was insane, although I respected people who followed this, people like my older brother. I knew I would never be capable of being able to be Shomer Negiah. 

When I went to my first ever summer camp in 2015, I became more familiar with Shomer Negiah, meeting many new people who were bli (another way of saying someone is Shomer Negiah). I didn't really learn much more about it though, because I wasn't so interested in the idea behind it as I still thought it could never apply to me, and I didn't realise how much there was to it. All I knew about it was that if you were bli, in theory you wouldn't touch the opposite sex till the day you were married. 

Things started to change a little when I was visiting my friends in South Africa, and I had made plans to go to a pizza night with my guy friends. Before I arrived at the designated house, one of the guys messaged me and told me that, by the way, one of the guys is now bli. I was fairly surprised by this, particularly because this friend of mine loved hugging and hi-fiving everyone. I was told that if I wanted to ask him more about it, he was very open to discussing and answering any questions. 

When I saw him, he hadn't known that I'd known about him being bli, so when he was met with my questions about the journey to his decision, and his influences and ideas, he was delighted. Our chat gave me insight, and I now understood the concept a little better, and I thought it very admirable, but I still wasn't on the path to becoming bli.

When I went on summer camp this last year, in 2016, I learnt that in 2015 only half the people who normally come had actually gone. So that time round, I got to meet many more people, and all of these people were from the same religious upbringing, families, and school. Most of them were bli. I had the opportunity to have lengthy conversations, discussions, and debates with them on the topic of Shomer Negiah. It just so happened that during our three week camp, there was a talk scheduled on Shomer Negiah by a Rabbi. Naturally, all of the bli kids went, but some of us more secular kids also went, probably in an attempt to broaden our horizons and see if this Rabbi could change our minds.

The ideas behind Shomer Negiah which I have learnt from my friends, camp councillors, and the Rabbi have all been food for thought for me. Touch is so desensitised in this world. If I were introduced to a guy right now in my hometown in Zimbabwe, it is just an accepted norm that I should hug him in a form of greeting him. When you really think about it, why is this unnecessary, irrelevant touching of this perfect stranger normal, and in some ways, required?

One of the Rabbi’s most memorable points was this:
In the room next door, right now, sits your future spouse — I have brought them here for you. I’ll let you go in there and meet them, and you can chat to them for about two minutes. But after that, you won’t see them again, until you are truly meant to meet them. 

We looked at the Rabbi incredulously — what was he talking about? 

“Well, obviously I don’t have such powers, but if I did, and you met the person you are going to marry, would you still kiss that guy you have been eyeing out in the tent next door later tonight? Would you still hug that girl, maybe even hold her hand? Would you do all of these things with knowledge that the person you are going to be marrying is here right now?”

The idea is this: don’t think of it any differently — that person may not be here now but they are alive, somewhere in this world right now. As we speak, they could be napping, eating a sandwich, or thinking about making a commitment to you. Being bli allows you to make a commitment to your spouse, without even knowing who they are. You are cultivating respect for them. And isn’t it incredible to think that your spouse could be honouring you in the same way? Even if you don't practice Shomer Negiah until you are 25, the thought behind it is incredible.

I’ve heard a couple speaking about being bli their whole lives — about how the first time they truly touched was at their wedding when the groom slipped the ring onto the bride’s finger, and inevitably, their fingers touched, and the true meaning and significance of touch and how incredibly special and unique it is became apparent to them. Being bli your entire life is not an easy feat. But still, there are many ways to go about being bli. 

I decided to start practicing Shomer Negiah some time after the Rabbi’s talk and after more discussions with friends who inspired me. The way in which I’ve decided to practice Shomer Negiah is to base my relationships purely on everything except physicality, and then once I’ve built a relationship I’m happy with I would gradually relax my practice of Shomer Negiah. This is common, and people sometimes call it ‘shomer until relationship’, or ‘SUR’. It has been difficult as people don’t know about this whole concept, and it is hard to reject people’s handshakes, hi-fives, and the like, but I’ve become acutely aware of touch, thus accomplishing one of my goals. It’s all a process, one that I’ve had to ensure I’m easing into. People will find out about this as my confidence grows in practicing it. The fear of telling too many people and not being able to keep this up is constant, but I’ve been told that it is easy to fall off the horse, the most important thing is to get right back up. 

Of course people won’t always understand Shomer Negiah, and there will always be skeptics, but learning so much about it, and gaining an appreciation for something we always take for granted has been inspiring. It has fuelled my passion for Judaism and its many facets, which in turn, has changed my day to day life, and this is something for which I am consciously grateful.

xx 

Jamie