Q. Doesn’t being shomer negiah (abstaining from physical contact with the opposite sex before marriage) conflict with human nature? And even if not, doesn’t our society make it virtually impossible?
Every human being experiences a lifelong, internal battle between two great drives: the urge for immediate gratification, and the desire for far greater pleasure in the long run. Embarrassing as the admission may be, which side wins — and the depth of happiness we consequently experience — usually boils down to one thing: maturity.
After I’d presented all the practical reasons for being shomer negiah to a Discovery class, a 21-year-old guy raised his hand.
“Okay, everything you’ve said makes sense,” he conceded, a challenging grin on his face. “But, I mean, like — hey, come on, isn’t it just too hard?”
“ ‘Just too hard’?” I countered. “What’s going to happen when you’re in law school and have to choose between partying every night or passing the bar? Are you going to shrug off studying with ‘it’s just too hard’? Being shomer negiah isn’t an isolated test. Life is full of instances in which you have to delay gratification — and yes, it’s hard. But if you don’t learn how to do it, you’re going to be a big-time loser.”
His smile faded. “There is, of course,” I added, “someone I wouldn’t call a loser for wanting something and having to have it now.” I turned to the class. “Does anyone know who that is?”
No one had a clue.
I turned back to my questioner, who wore a hopeful expression. Looking at him good and hard, I said, “MY 2-YEAR-OLD!” Whether this guy ever got up the guts to change, I don’t know, but he got the message.
No, being shomer negiah isn’t easy. Many things in life aren’t. But if it’s worth it, you do it.
This axiom applies no matter when and where you’re living. Every era and society poses spiritual challenges. For poor, observant, immigrant Jews in New York around the turn of the last century, the test was keeping Shabbat while still putting food on the table. Every Sunday meant finding new employment after being fired for not showing up on Saturday. If you’re not religious, you may not relate. But because some of these people had the inner strength to meet the test, many of their great-great-grandchildren are still Jewish. You may be one of them.
Today, our spiritual challenges are largely moral — and particularly sexual. In the secular world, male-female relationships are going down the tubes, and if we want ours to succeed, we’re going to have to conduct our lives differently.
Sadly, many people succumb to helplessness. “It all made so much sense sitting in your class in Jerusalem,” a woman wrote me from the States. “But back here, it’s another world. I know the system’s not working, and most people aren’t happy. But being shomer negiah just isn’t feasible in this society.”
I had just finished reading an interesting and very disturbing book about traditional Chinese women.
“Imagine this,” I wrote back. “You are traveling through China and come across a small village where life is essentially the same as it was a century ago. There you meet an illiterate 15-year-old girl. In a year, she’ll be forced to marry a man whom her parents selected long ago and in whom she has no interest. She’ll be expected to serve him like a slave. And that, basically, will be her life.
“She listens wide-eyed as you describe your world. You tell her that women in your society are fully educated and can pursue any field, and despite problems in dating, they choose when and whom they’ll marry, and aspire to a relationship based upon mutual respect and love.
“ ‘It all makes so much sense,’ she says with a sigh. ‘But over here, it’s another world. I know the system is unjust, and I’m unlikely to end up happy. But getting an education and having the kind of marriage you describe just isn’t feasible in this society.’
“I think you’d reply, ‘Listen to me! We’re talking about your life! If you can’t get what you want here, then get out!’ ”
Tragically, such a young woman may find it practically impossible to pick up and leave, and even if she did, the social consequences might be unbearable. Unlike her, however, most of us have considerable freedom. The question is whether we exercise it. When “the system isn’t working,” we can “go with the flow” — or gravitate, at our own pace, toward a community of people leading more intelligent and rewarding lives. Like our great-great-grandparents, we can assimilate into the surrounding culture — or dare to be different, with all the benefits of that difficult choice. It’s up to us.
Reprinted from “THE MAGIC TOUCH” A Jewish Approach to Relationships by Gila Manolson. Available at www.gila-manolson.com