Jun 9, 2010

Modesty, Shomer Negiah, and Me

Photo courtesy of Aunt Patty!

This is a post that could be said even to be outside my comfort zone, and, typically, nothing gets me all "ooo, what will the people say and think!?" So what's the topic that has me a feeling a little squishy?

Shomer negiah. Modesty (tzniut). Not touching your boyfriend, significant other, partner, spouse. Observing ta'arat ha'mishpacha (that's family purity). And all that good, no-touching stuff.

This is probably the most private post I'll ever write, and I'm okay with that because I think that what is known and understood about modesty and shomer negiah is misunderstood. So here I am, hopefully to serve as an example and provide the positive, necessary experience that these aspects of being observant and Jewish can offer for your neshama. Get it? Got it? Good.

I spent my entire teenage and adult life, up until this narrative begins, living as a normal girl with the normal urges and the normal actions. I was a product of secular America and I dated boys, kissed boys, and hugged boys. Then, Tuvia and I met in late August 2008, went on our first date Labor Day 2008, and were knee-deep in a serious relationship shortly thereafter. We were, for all intents and purposes, like every other "normal," American couple out there. We kissed, we hugged, we were in love. We held hands, we gave cozy snuggles. As time went on, however, I started to feel ... uncomfortable. My neshama was not happy with how I was carrying myself as an Orthodox Jewish woman, especially one going through the Orthodox conversion process. Tuvia and I discussed being shomer negiah a dozen times or more, with me spearheading the effort. I needed to be shomer negiah, I needed that modesty.

I needed to not kiss him, or hug him, or touch him.

So we started slow. There was no more physical intimacy and the kisses and hugs grew further and farther apart. Finally, at last, we reached a point where I declared no more. No more kisses, no more hugs, no more hand-holding. Nothing, nada, zilch. The intimacy that would exist, then, was a touch-less, emotional intimacy that had to translate into words. It was difficult at first, but as time wore on, it became life. We understood that it was necessary for our relationship and the success of our relationship in the long-run, to devote ourselves to modesty and thinking forward to family purity via the route of shomer negiah.

Many people assumed that after my official RCA conversion we'd skip out on shomer negiah, that it was just part of an act we put on for the committee of rabbis. It always bothered me that people thought that this aspect of respecting each other and our not being married yet was not who we were, but was just part of an act. It was never an act -- never. In fact, after the conversion, time officially could tick down to the wedding; the countdown made the observance of shomer negiah all the more easy (for me, anyhow).

So the wedding day came, we took pictures, we went to the chuppah, and the we went to the yichud room -- exhausted, tired, sweaty. Everyone assumes that people get down and dirty in the yichud room, but I can't imagine that it's like that for every couple. After all, for many couples, the marriage is quick, they know each other very little, and they've never touched before. If anything, I think the yichud room typically is calm, serene, and romantic.

It's funny how -- even after the several months we spent together kissing and hugging and holding hands -- it was so awkward at first kiss and first hug. It was, without a doubt, like feeling those physical emotions translated into pure emotion for the first time. I often wonder how couples make the wedding day special after having lived and experienced each other in the same way they will as a married couple all along. It seems to me that traditionally, among all cultures, a sense of modesty and separation was the norm for just about forever, up until maybe the past 100-200 years. The way we view and appreciate each other is incredibly key in how we grow to appreciate and view each other in marriage, I think. So why not start in modesty and respect to end in modesty and respect?

The times were tough, they were unbearable at times when my emotions were running rampant in a ridiculous roller coaster ride, and all I wanted was a hug. But I resisted. I knew that my neshama and HaShem were rocking something special, and I was prepared to wait for Tuvia's big arms to be wrapped around me. I can say, firmly, without a doubt that it was all worth it. The stress the months of not touching or kissing or hugging. Because now, I know how to appreciate Tuvia for who he is, how he speaks and thinks and acts, without having to touch him to feel him. It's a powerful feeling to feel so connected to someone without a need for physicality.

Now, I prepare myself for all that will come along with the new steps of modesty and family purity. I cover my hair (which, for me, so far, has been awesome -- I feel a lot more comfortable, I can walk freely in the rain without worrying about messing up my  hair even!), and I will begin going to the mikvah and observing the laws of niddah (you know, those days where Tuvia and I can't touch, again). These days of niddah, in truth, allow a couple to reboot. To relearn to love each other without touch. To talk, to listen, to laugh, and to have no expectation from the other. In my eyes, it's a beautiful, serene thing, issued by HaShem for the sake of shalom bayit (literally, peace in the house!).

Each day, a hat or scarf. Each moment, anew. Each second, my neshama is growing and thriving because of it.

Without these observances of modesty, without creating these lines of peace, I'm not sure how some couples persist. We all need to reboot, we all need to respect and fall in love all over again with our spouses. It's a roadmap to shalom, if you ask me.

How do you do it if you don't have these observances? How does the relationship stay fresh? How do couples not drown under the weight of one another? <--- Those are serious questions, by the way, if any of you want to answer!

I never thought I'd be this person; I never thought I would have been able to go so long without the touch of a man I love, but I did. And I will. Because love is more than touch, it's more than the sensation of feeling -- it's love, emotion, the feelings traversing time and space to create an impression. HaShem has a roadmap for us, and it makes sense to me. Despite never thinking I'd be this person, I am, and I'm so proud to say that without shomer negiah, without modesty, without family purity, I'd be wandering.


Mottel said...

Very impressive post!
The laws of the taharas hamishpacha and all that go with them set up the spirit of the house . . . They prevent the relationship from being a self-serving and self-centered one that consumes itself from within.

Hatzlocha and continued blessings for many years of sholom bayis and revealed good!

Mark said...

Everyone assumes that people get down and dirty in the yichud room, but I can't imagine that it's like that for every couple.

Well, everyone jokes about it at least. But in reality, for most couples, they are tired, hungry, may even have a headache, and are generally famisht by the time they get to the yichud room, so I agree that a private moment of intimacy (rather than getting down and dirty) is more the rule than the exception. And eating something of course!

G-Girl! said...

Awesome post and very positive post, one day I will meet my bashert and then I hope it will be as awesome experience as you described.

Tzach M. P. said...

"How does the relationship stay fresh? How do couples not drown under the weight of one another?" - I don't think it does, and I don't think they do... I have only been in one serious relationship (in fact, only dated on girl ever) and because of the physical nature of the relationship, that made the breakup even harder. I'm happy to say that I haven't given anything away (ya know?!) but even so, at some point one needs to wake up and realize that if a relationship is founded on the physical, then there's not going to be room for the emotional and spiritual unless the couple works exceedingly hard to fit it in. And by that point it's like trying to cram a square peg in a round hole - impossible unless you get out the chisels and start chopping something away painfully..

Ah well, hindsight is 20/20.

Mazal tov on the start of this new phase of your life!

2cats said...

"How do you do it if you don't have these observances? How does the relationship stay fresh? How do couples not drown under the weight of one another?"

A little common sense and respect for the other person - that's all that is needed. No observances necessary.

And congratulations, by the way.

Nosson Gestetner said...

Wow - very inspiring C!

Hadassah said...

Awesome post - well written and so extremely "touching". So proud of you - this is a hard mitzvah to keep.

Sigalit Chana said...

What a wonderful testament. Thank you so much for sharing. You have exhorted and encouraged me. And you pose some very intense questions. I am thankful for your transparency, and I am encouraged for the shalom of my own house, and for that of my children, whom I am trying to train in the right way. Thank you again:D

Anonymous said...

Best. Post. Ever.

Ruth said...

That's so inspiring. As one who will convert, the idea of modesty is comforting and challenging to me at the same time. Reading this entry resonates with me because you've listed some of the things that I've pondered for a while. Thanks for this touching article!

Abandoning Eden said...

"How do you do it if you don't have these observances? How does the relationship stay fresh? How do couples not drown under the weight of one another?"

I don't know...we just do? Why do you assume the natural state if you don't do these observances is to start drowning under the weight of each other or something?

I guess we keep our relationship fresh by constantly talking to each other, by doing things together, by going out on dates with each other, by taking long road trips to my inlaws a few times a year and having nothing to do but talk to each other for a 13 hour drive each way...there are plenty of opportunities for non-physical intimacy in day to day life, it's not like we're being physically intimate every second of every day..

CDawnR said...

Beautifully expressed. I am so impressed. I have been silently watching these wonderful changes in your life (since I dropped out of Twitter) via Susanne and Hadassah and I think you guys are awesome and amazing. I have always been amazed at people who could transform from a more secular relationhip to shomer negiah!

Yasher koach and my you continue to find tahara umishpacha inspiring. If you ever want to visit Montreal, i'd love to meet you (Now that Hadassah has left us :( )

BTW: we gave each other simple kiss in the Yichud room and it was an incredibly wonderful moment...and then we ate.

Vicki said...

Mazal tov again and very brave of you to post something so personal.

"Without these observances of modesty, without creating these lines of peace, I'm not sure how some couples persist."

I understand what you mean about needing a separation from expectations from time to time and it does make sense. But the opposite is true, as well. I couldn't ever not hug or kiss my husband and feel that everything is fine in our marriage. For me, the fact that we constantly want to hug or cuddle is a sign that our marriage is healthy and otherwise would be a warning sign.

How does anyone keep a relationship fresh? Shomer negiah isn't the only way. In general, one of the easiest ways is to constantly have new adventures together, new experiences, meeting new people. You guys have a lot of that ahead in your future. :)

Mrs. Mottel said...

Vicki: I agree that a lack of desire for physical affection would be a warning sign in a husband/wife relationship. The Jewish way, however, imposes a forced separation. Many couples miss affection tremendously during this time - as Chaviva expressed in the post.

Nevertheless, the physical separation - many people feel - results in an elevated emotional intimacy. Then the mikvah inaugurates another time of physical togetherness, which many find more meaningful after A) the physical separation and longing, and B) the period of emotional intimacy.

SusQHB said...

This is, by far, my favorite post of yours. I think you spoke today for a lot of us who weren't comfortable putting these feelings on paper or on our blogs.

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

Wow! I was so surprised at the number of comments when I woke up today. Thank you so much for responding so quickly and generally so positively.

I'm by no means suggesting shomer negiah works for everyone, because our modern, Western, secular world most certainly doesn't train our brains to accept such sentiments or actions. I get that. I hold no fault against those who understand a norm as always having the option for kisses and hugs :)

That being said, shomer negiah doesn't mean you can NEVER touch during periods of niddah. For example, if there's a crisis, say a family member dies while the girlfriend or wife is observing shomer negiah/niddah/family purity ... if she needs a hug, halakah says give it to her. The halakot are not meant to be hindering or hurtful or harmful. It's not as scary as some might make it out to be.

I think that it has a lot of merits, and I think it allows couples their own space and time as delegated by the law, as opposed to by the individual, which easily can be retracted. Couples who can make time and space for themselves, I admire that. But most couples can't or don't.

Hadass Eviatar said...

Good post, Chavi.

Just from my personal perspective, mikvah was wonderful for me when I was in the baby-making phase of my life. There is nothing more fabulous than coming up and being told "kasher" and then going home ... in the hopes that your union will be blessed with a new soul in the family.

Once I could no longer have more children for medical reasons, the sweetness became unbearable. You come up, you go home, and you *know* that there will be no more new souls.

I guess I need to bring it back to the couples part and see what I can do with it. Just sharing a perspective that you have probably not considered yet (although I hope you and Tuvia will be blessed with as many souls as you wish!).

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad you are finding this so meaningful and hope you continue to feel this way. It will be interesting to hear how you feel about haircovering and taharas hamishpacha 1 year and 3 years down the road. For a lot of women it shifts frequently over time. You haven't yet dealt with some of the real difficulties that come up in both of these practices for some women/couples as time goes on, and I hope that if/when when you do, you can remember the way you felt about these mitzvos as a newlywed and get strength from that remembrance.

You know one way you can tell that some separation and boundaries are really badly needed by so many people in this modern western culture we live in? Because even religious Jewish lesbians sometimes even decide to take this on (in a modified way) for themselves! I'm not kidding. I know more than one Orthodox same-sex (women) couple have chosen to have boundaries around touch and sexuality during the time they are having their period. It's not the same as what straight people do, and doesn't usually involve being fully shomer negiah, but it's interesting nonetheless. And I know even more people in same-sex relationships who would use the mikveh to delineate time and space in their personal lives if it weren't off-limits to them. So what does it say that even gay people are so interested in keeping some of these observances? IMO, it certainly supports the idea that having limits surrounding an intimate relationship is something so many people people hunger for, and not just the burden that some Orthodox and non-Orthodox people view taharas hasmishpacha as. While some Orthodox women find mikveh and niddah so difficult, other people yearn to be able to keep some semblance of these laws to bring order and space and sanctity to their lives. Interesting, eh?

Boundaries are something we could use a lot more of in our society.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, why do you expect her feelings to change, for some reason I sense in a negative tone? I've been covering my hair and keeping taharas hamishpacha for over 10 years now. And I didn't grow up frum, my parents and inlaws have only one bed and my mother and MIL do not cover their hair. If anything, I've grown in my tznius and have not encountered ANY difficulties other than non-growth oriented people who don't understand why someone whould want to observe these mitzvos to begin with. And this is through 5 children as well, bli ayin hara.

Anonymous said...

Mazal Tov to you both - I've been away a bit, so just catching up.

That was a great post, Chavi, really very interesting to hear your thoughts 'from the inside'. I don't have any criticisms or dark thoughts about the path your neshama has taken you on, as I know it's something that undoubtedly feels right for (both of) you. I wish both of you every success and happiness in your marriage.

Shabbat Shalom!

Terri said...

I am one of those people who intensely feels tactile withdrawal. If I am not getting hugged regularly, my stress level jumps. I have close female friends, as well as close male friends (boy hugs are definitively different from girl hugs, at least when all the girls you know are skinny like you). I need both of those kinds of hugs, as well as boyfriend hugs. If my boyfriend had to deputize that form of comfort, it would damage our relationship.

Please understand that this is coming from a person who plans to use the mikvah and cover her hair after marriage. But the comfort of touch is a human need, and I can't live without it.

aml said...

Lovely post. Very idealistic and I can tell you must be in your first year of marriage. Such a fun time!

I hope it remains this sweet for you as the years bring with them blessings and challenges.

And if things shift in your head, as they often do, just try to be true to your ever-evolving self.

Unknown said...

Terri: I completely understand what you mean! Sort of the opposite from you, I am not a huggy person, except with my fiance. We progressed (yes, progressed) from touching completely, to slowly taking out certain parts, to not touching. I'm not saying everyone should do this, but I think recognizing that it is there for a reason and imagining what it could be like not touching for a while (and how you both might grow from this temporary experience) could open your mind to the possibility, which, to me, is the first step in taking on any mitzvah. Imagine what could be, and then it might one day be that way.

Thank you Chaviva for such a wonderful and inspirational post. My finance and I, only 2 months before our wedding, have decided to be shomer negia. We are taking classes to learn about the laws of family purity which sounds both intimidating and wonderful. I'm glad you find these experiences powerful and positive!

As for the social modesty issue(s), I think it is true and sad of current society. We have fallen so far. Nothing is private (I don't mean because of blogs, I mean the half-naked pictures of people on facebook), and to get "thrills" I think many married couples are looking for kinkier methods to get that high. Also, unfortunately, we are so constantly bombarded with the lack of tznius that I think the boundaries between what is shown and what is not has become very blurred. Reality television, therapist talk shows, etc., etc., = a loss of privacy and modesty. Though we tried, it was so hard to _not_ touch in public, yet only a few years ago a couple would never have thought to do that, Jewish or not!

I don't think a marriage can't work without family purity and modesty, but I think, as you have described, it is incredibly enhanced by these laws.

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

Inspired by some of the comments ... I'm going to do a "several months later" post about observing family purity and all of that good stuff. The ups, the downs, the mikvah, and more. So stay tuned.

@Sara Kol ha'kvod for taking on shomer negiah. I hope you find it to bring something special to the marriage, and mazal tov on the impending wedding :)

TirtsQ said...

My nephew shared this Blog with me and I'm really impressed by your candor and sincerity.

As a married Orthodox woman (11 years and counting!) I must say that I actually appreciate the laws more as time goes on. I feel that with maturity comes greater clarity and connectivity to these beautiful mitzvot.

Dr. Eviatar: I heard from a very reliable source that every time a couple is intimate in kedusha they create a soul. Sometimes that soul comes into a body. The other souls will be waiting to greet us after 120 years.

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

@TirtsQ Thank you for the kind words -- and thank you to your nephew for pointing you in my direction! I love what you have to say about the creation of souls, and I believe it.

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