By Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner
As a people, Jews are pretty hands-on—literally. Some of us greet each other with kisses; some hug to offer condolences or support; many of us gesticulate when we talk. The hands-on approach extends to our sacred objects, such as touching the Torah’s mantle on Shabbat or kissing our fingers after touching a mezuzah.
In our congregation, touch is woven into the fabric of our community. On Friday nights we invite everyone to “touch the challah or touch someone who’s touching the challah.” At the conclusion of Friday night services, we put our arms around one another and bless our family and friends. During Havdalah, we sway together in a circle. Even in passing, some of us hug hello and goodbye.
Touch has the power to nourish and comfort, to stabilize, and to share strength. We know that touch is vital to our emotional and even physical wellbeing. Yet it is equally important to acknowledge that touch is not always welcomed, even in congregations that experience connection and holiness in embodied ways.
The value of being welcoming is at the core of our congregation. So how do we make sure that everyone feels safe when we reach out (literally and metaphorically) to one another?
This can look like asking, “Can I put my hand on your shoulder?” and then acting on the reply. But it’s not just that: it won’t work unless we can hear a “no” without experiencing it as judgment or rejection. It also requires us to name our boundaries. We need to get comfortable saying things like, “Thank you for asking; I’d rather not be touched,” or “I’m not comfortable with your hand on my waist; please touch my shoulder instead.”
This is challenging work. Reacting to a “no” with grace and acceptance requires both gentleness and a leaning into our Chesed side. Saying “no” requires a lot of Gevurah, as well as trust that we’ll be heard. It’s challenging, but it’s vital for creating holy community together.
In thinking about values around welcoming and welcomed touch, I was inspired by an unlikely source: the ultra-Orthodox custom of shomer negiah. This phrase literally translates as “being watchful” (shomer) in matters of touch (negiah), but the phrase has come to refer to the custom of avoiding direct physical contact with members of the opposite sex.
I feel some discomfort with Orthodoxy’s ideology and praxis of shomer negiah, not least because it tends to turn women into objects of desire and reinforces a binaried view of gender. But there is also something beautiful in the root concept of shomer negiah: taking a moment to think about the person we’re about to reach out to.
A commitment to shomer negiah Recon-style would mean a commitment to forethought, imagination, honesty, and respect. In taking care with our touch, we are better able to take care of ourselves and each other.
Moving forward, I want to commit to asking you before I hug you or touch your shoulder. If I forget, or I touch you in a way that causes unease, I hope you will feel comfortable reminding me.
This is the opening of a discussion, rather than the definitive word. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how we can be transparent and caring as we navigate being embodied and in community together. May we be blessed to continue cocreating trust, affection, and welcoming for all.