As with many great revelations, the benefits of practicing Shomer Negiah did not occur to me until I was on my couch in my pajamas, Facebook-stalking a guy I had dated. The moment I clicked on his profile, I suddenly noticed that he had listed himself as “in a relationship” less than one month after he stopped contacting me. I was angry — throw random assorted cutlery across the kitchen angry — but more than anything, I felt deceived. I replayed mental snapshots of our courtship, wondering how the texts, hand-holding and date-by-date physical progression didn’t translate into the relationship I thought it was headed toward. That’s when I recalled my interviews with college students who practice Shomer Negiah, the set of halacha that prohibits romantic physical contact between the sexes.
I have always had the utmost respect for those who keep Shomer Negiah. But I personally did not find it relevant for my life. Physical chemistry seemed to me like a critical layer in building a relationship and determining compatibility, if not the foundation itself. Now, though, I was wondering if the feelings of frustration from my last relationship would have been avoided, or at least the problems recognized sooner, if it had been Shomer Negiah dating.
One of the first things I learned from my interviews was that dating means something different within the Shomer Negiah community. Specifically, it means your future. And more specifically, it means marriage and children. Many of the female and male students I interviewed decided not to date even in a Shomer Negiah-acceptable way in college because they knew they weren’t ready for marriage, which is the explicit end-goal and purpose of dating within their community. One girl discussed how even though she and a former boyfriend “loved our time together and had an emotional connection,” they broke up when she realized “we weren’t going to get married.” Shomer Negiah dating isn’t just about physical standards for a relationship, but emotional ones, as well.
One can certainly argue the downsides of putting so much pressure and so many expectations on the earliest stages of courtship. In fact, I think it misses the point of dating. What happens to the thrill of getting to know a new person romantically when you’re so focused on a single goal? At the very least, though, intentions are clear from the get-go. When modern courtship involves analyzing a variety of emoticon-filled texts to figure out the health and future of a relationship, the value of clarity can’t be discounted. Within Shomer Negiah dating, there’s no need to have a DTR (define the relationship) conversation, because the parameters, rigid as they may be, are already established. The focus can be on determining compatibility rather than wondering when (or if) to discuss the future.
I recognize that part of that compatibility is physical chemistry. I’ve long believed in the sage words of the “Shoop Shoop Song”: “If you wanna know if he loves you so, it’s in his kiss.” Passion is an indicator of the health of a relationship, and it’s no secret that traditional Judaism values fulfilling sex as an important part of matrimony. Moreover, there’s nothing more exciting than waiting for the first kiss at the end (or the middle) of a really good date.
At the same time, the benefits of Shomer Negiah dating are further evident when I consider the issue of physical expectations. Each token of affection can mean different things to different parties. When you begin dating someone, there are a headache-inducing number of contradictory rules regarding physical contact. When to kiss, have sex, hold each other’s hands on the subway — these issues are debated and deduced with algorithms that would make Rene Descartes’ head spin.
Moreover, girls (not exclusively, but certainly more so than guys) exert so much mental energy wondering if a promising date never called or texted because he lost your number or because he thought you were a slut or a prude. By no means does Shomer Negiah dating solve the problems of navigating mutual physical desires and sexual double standards during dating. Rather, it circumvents these problems. However, it does recognize that the physical component of romance plays with our own insecurities, a fact that often only comes to light when we’re furiously checking our phones and praying for a text.
There is no perfect path to romance, and I don’t think Shomer Negiah makes people immune to heartbreak. Mainstream society is quick to recognize the ways that physical expression heightens and enriches a romance, and I truly believe it does. But juxtaposing Shomer Negiah against my own dating experiences has helped me recognize the confusion that physical contact brings to a relationship. Shomer Negiah serves a protective role by providing a clarity that cuts through the heady buzz of a strong physical connection. And even though I don’t plan to take on Shomer Negiah at this point in my life, I now see the appeal of some extra armor.