Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Jewish Approach to Dating (Shomer Negiah) [NOW COMPLETE]

Secular society encourages men and women who are not married to each other to go ahead and enjoy physical intimacy, promising that this is the path to wisdom and happiness.

But is that really true?

Reality seems to paint a different picture:  

  • the growing epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases;
  • the sky-rocketing divorce rate, the number of women who have been emotionally blinded to the fact that they are in abusive relationships;
  • the number of people who remain married but carry so many emotional scars that they no longer experience the full specialness of physical intimacy;
  • and the many women who have resorted to antidepressants as they struggle with deep insecurities brought on by an unending parade of failed relationships.

In short, it looks like the secular approach, rather than offering wisdom and happiness, has brought nothing but confusion and misery.

So for those of you who have been disappointed by the secular approach, take a few moments to at least consider the Jewish approach to dating.  What have you got to lose?


You've probably heard of the beauty bias.  When we see someone beautiful we tend to think that they not only possess beauty but also a host of other desirable traits (e.g. honesty, intelligence, compassion, kindness, etc).  But there is also a touch bias.  All things being equal, you tend to feel closer to the person who has just touched your hand or patted you on the back.  And if it happens to be a member of the opposite gender who is doing the touching, well, then you can kiss all objectivity goodbye.

But when you're dating you need to have a clear head.  You need to find out whether the prospect mate has bad values or irreparable bad habits.  I don't know how it is for women but when a guy gets physical with a girl the last thing he cares about is whether she has good values and good habits.  When things get physical, male instinct kicks into overdrive.  

Of course, women are susceptible to the emotional bonding of touch just as much (if not more so) than men.  I've already mentioned the example of the girl in an abusive relationship.  We've all seen this:  such a girl overlooks her boyfriend's (or husband's) faults and is completely blind to reality.  Everyone tells her "Hey, you've got to get out of that relationship!" But does she listen?

So the best approach is to delay bonding until it's safe to do so.  And that's precisely what shomer negiah is about.  Literally, the phrase is about being a "guardian of touch" or "one who respects and is sensitive to the power of touch".  In Jewish practice, shomer negiah refers to the belief that men and women who are not married to each other and who are not close relatives should not touch (if at all possible).  


Human beings are emotionally fragile.  We need constant love and encouragement from the moment we're born.  And so when we are physically intimate with someone and the relationship doesn't work out, we feel completed rejected and miserable.  

Secular society downplays this sort of psychological damage.  Emotional pain from broken relationships is treated in the same way as a headache:  pop a pill and you'll feel better in the morning.  This "solution" may ease the pain of a broken heart but it does nothing to alleviate the problem of increased feelings of worthlessness and insecurity.

One of the most important character traits is perseverance, the ability to confidently pursue a goal even when faced with extreme difficulties.  In the area of relationships, perseverance means that you are confident in your ability to differentiate between helpful situations and harmful situations and that you will persevere to make sure you wait for a person with whom you are truly compatible.  But people who experience a series of relational failures lose confidence in their ability to make good choices.  Without this confidence, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to persevere and make the tough choices that need to be made in order to be happy. 


There's a difference between something actually being special and feeling special.  For example, marital intimacy is inherently special…but for many people it may not feel as special as it should.  Why is that?

One of the reasons is that we take our memories with us wherever we go and these memories affect our perceptions, expectations, and ultimately happiness.  We are sensitive to new-ness.  But if we are overexposed to something then we are less sensitive to it.


When a shomer neigh couple are alone together for the first time on their wedding day they often just sit and hold hands, relishing the specialness of a simple touch.  This is what Judaism is all about:  making the seemingly mundane experiences into something special…and making special experiences reach their full potential.

And even into the marriage relationship, Judaism tries to constantly renew the marital relationship by requiring monthly times of separation.  There are times for embracing and times for refraining from embracing.  And in those spaces of time in which touching is forbidden, there is room for a spiritual relationship to grow.  A man is forced to get to know his wife, to talk to her.  And there may be frustrations at times but ultimately it's more romantic.  In fact, the very essence of romance is forbidden-ness (is that a word?).  

Okay, so that's the overview of shomer negiah.  Now to address the objections to it.


Objection #1:  "But I don't want to miss out!"

It's not missing out.  If you wait till you're married then that relationship will be new and special.  If you experience all those new and exciting feelings now then you won't have them in the future--at least not to the degree as before.  

Objection #2:   "But then you won't know if you're compatible!"

This is code for the underlying concern:  Doesn't being shomer negiah prevent me from finding out if the person I'm dating will be able to please me?

Answer:  all those things can be learned during marriage by a patient and playful couple.  

Objection #3:  "But how will I ever learn about relationships!"

Both the secular viewpoint and the Jewish viewpoint agree that the secular approach to relationships has the potential to teach something about relationships.  The difference is that Judaism says the secular approach is both harmful and totally unnecessary.  

Objection #4:  "But it's too difficult!"

If the secular approach involves potentially harming someone then it is, by definition, immoral.  And the difficulty of taking the moral path should never be an excuse to take the immoral path.  

Objection #5:  "But we're just friends!"

Answer:  Then you don't understand men.


Real love is not about doing what gratifies your immediate urges;  Real love is about showing the other person that you really care about them.  Real love respects the fact that we have needs for both physical and emotional connection.  

One last thing.  Orthodox couples don't date for years.  You spend a short period of time getting to know the other person, his or her family and friends.  Find out about values and character traits.  Is the person even marriage-oriented?  Do they have a realistic understanding of what marriage is about?  Or are they just being impulsive or immature?

Oh, I just thought of one last objection that guys might have:

Objection #6:  "But she'll lose interest if we don't get physical soon!"

It is certainly true that physical intimacy is a way to build comfort and rapport with a woman.  The down-side with that strategy is that it puts both you and her at risk.  You'll have bonded before you know if you're compatible.  

The truth is that men who try shomer negiah alone are likely to fail.  The real enforcers here should be the fathers of the daughters.  


  1. this is excellent! We are a family who practise a very modest lifestyle and I have found this article to be of great support and encouragement.

    1. Baruch HaShem! And I am encouraged that you find it so. G-d bless you and your family!