I’m Sorry, But I Don’t Touch Men

My love language has always been touch. Always.

The warmth of my mother’s arms as she shielded me from the evils of the world. The safety of my father’s hand as he guided me across busy streets.

Touch meant more than just affection.

It meant safety. It meant belonging. It meant that I was home.

It still does.

The brush of fingers against skin could be such a small thing; it could mean Nothing. It could be professional, helpful, or platonic.

The brush of fingers against skin could be such a huge thing; it could mean Everything. It could be comforting, therapeutic, or sensual.

And for most women, it’s instinctual. When a male sticks out his hand to shake yours, you look him in the eyes and extend your own. After all, that’s how well-mannered children are raised. Handshakes are not only the polite thing to do, they’re the foundation upon which all relationships are built.

Handshakes are normally proffered without deliberation. They’re accepted without a second thought. But for me, there’s that slight hesitation:

Because I don’t touch men.

So, for a split second, I stand there awkwardly. Do I just stick out my hand and get it over with? Do I tell him that I’m allergic to those of the opposite gender? Or do I grab my skirt, dip into a half curtsy and reply with an, “it’s an absolute pleasure to meet you but, for religious reasons, I don’t touch guys”?

If I have the time and the confidence, I explain that I’m shomer negiah (lit. observant of touch). And that touch between the sexes is limited to family members or professional purposes. If I have the time and the confidence, I explain that physical contact is something that I have built an incredible sensitivity towards.

That, yes, I’m even conscious of something as small as a handshake.

But sometimes, I don’t have the time. And sometimes, I don’t have the confidence.

And honestly? Sometimes I just want to indulge in that feeling of safety and belonging.

In that feeling of home.

Because being shomer is just one of those things that just gets harder with age. It’s a part of being human. We live in a physical world where touch is a huge component of both communication and connection. We live in a physical world where touch is a huge component of affection.

Whether with coworkers, romantic interests, or friendships – touch (or the absence thereof) has an impact on all relationships.

And back in the day (when I was young and sprightly) it used to be easy.

When I first decided to be shomer, I was in the 10th grade. Like many high school girls, I used to have trouble with boys. But in my case, the issue was with the lack thereof. Because in my all-girls Yeshiva, there were none to be found.

I lived my life in blissful ignorance of what it meant to try to impress members of the opposite sex. I went to school with messy ponytails. With stained white shirts. With horrendous knee socks that fell down time after time. And I didn’t care.

I sang at the top of my lungs. I danced like a freak in the halls. And I was happy. Because there was absolutely no one I was trying to impress or seduce.

But the lack of boys and regulations regarding fraternization bothered me.

A lot.

Because, let’s be honest – I was an adolescent girl.

But I kept the rules. I didn’t touch boys. I didn’t sneak out at night to hang out with them. Because I wanted to do what those I respected were doing.

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But I wanted to do it all because I believed in it. To do it because it was beautiful to me. To do it because I loved it.

Because Judaism is not only the Judaism of my Forefathers, it is Mine.

So I did what I did best; I asked questions.

I went from Rabbi to Rebbetzin, Teacher to Mentor and asked the same questions time and time again, “Why should I be shomer? What in the world is so bad about boys and girls touching?”

And one day, one of my Rabbi’s emitted a rabbinical sigh and responded,

“The reason for shomer is not because touch is so bad. The reason for shomer is because touch is so good.

“Because touch is sacred.”

And that was it. I took on shomer.

I took on shomer because touch is magic. Because with every skin to skin contact, a flood of oxytocin cascades through the brain to cause a drug-like induced sense of trust and devotion.

And I wanted to feel that. I wanted to sensitize myself to that. I wanted my brain to release those hormones with the slightest flutter of air caused by proximity.

I didn’t want to have to hug to have that feel good feeling. I wanted to save that.

I took on shomer because with shomer, you don’t even need to touch to feel sparks. Because there’s something delicious about holding back when you want to be closer than ‘close’.

I took on shomer because I’m a romantic. Because I love Jane Austen, Edmond Dantes, and The Little Prince. Romances filled with curiosity and boundaries and bowing and witty remarks and slow escalation.

I took on shomer because I wanted my first time holding hands, my first kiss, to be with someone worthy.

I took on shomer because touch is sacred. Because my body is sacred. And sacred things should be saved for sacred moments.

Because sacred things should be safeguarded.

I’ve sensitized myself to the point where I apologize if my arm brushes against someone. Where, if I reach for a water bottle at the same time as another human being, I’m cognizant of the warmth of his hand.

And you know what? It used to be easy. But as I go through life, it get’s harder. It gets a little more awkward. Professionally. Emotionally. Socially.

I hesitate a little more when someone sticks out his hand.

Because let’s be honest – I’m a nearly-25 year old girl.

But, I remind myself, touch is sacred. And I do this because I believe in it. I do this because it’s beautiful to me.

A few months ago, I met a young woman who described the intense feelings caused by a continuous flow from one lover to the next. And I wondered what that would be like. And I sat with her and described the intense feeling of someone’s finger almost touching mine. And she wondered what that would be like.

A few weeks later, we spoke on the phone.

“I was thinking about what you said, about sensitizing yourself to touch. And last night, I went on a date and I didn’t go home with him. It was wonderful. It was… sweet. And real.”

And maybe she touched the guy. Who knows? But I bet it felt… different.