Rav Yoni Rosensweig will be writing twice a week for Israelk:

For the next few weeks I plan on discussing issue which have to do with relationships between men and women. The first one I would like to discuss is Shomer Negia.

The Yeshiva world, and the world outside it, work in two very different ways when it comes to Halacha. While in the Yeshiva world Halacha is defined by a very strict hierarchy, so that there are Torah commandments and Rabbinic commandments, Minhagim and Takanot, and it is clear which one is more important or more significant than the other – the world outside of the Yeshiva does not recognize this hierarchy almost at all. There is, of course, an awareness of these distinctions, but they play little part in our day-to-day lives, for two main reasons.

The first reason is that most people are not aware of all the ins and out of Halacha, and therefore are generally unable to keep track of each and every action, if it is a Torah or a Rabbinic prohibition, or if it is merely a custom, etc. This lack of knowledge naturally leads to a blurring of the lines.

The second reason is more essential: Religious society is not built around that hierarchy, but rather has its own internal rhythm, one which is affected by history, psychology and social norms. For example, if I were to remove my kipa I would not be viewed as religious, due to the fact that sociologically if one is to be considered religious he must wear one – regardless of the fact that a kipa is merely a custom, and not much more. On the other hand, if one does not bother to send his suit jackets to be checked for Shaatnez, we might frown or try and explain the importance of the issue, but I doubt we would consider the person not religious. Why? Because in our society that’s the norm. People don’t check their clothes, and truthfully, no one cares if they do.

Shabbos and Kashrut are still staples of our religious societal structure. One who does not keep those is not considered religious. Here we have a correlation between the severity of the law and the importance given to it by religious society. But slowly but surely, over several decades, there has been consistent erosion in terms of the importance of the laws governing physical contact between men and women. Today, one can be “Shomer” or “not Shomer”, and his choice will reflect only whether he is considered more or less religious, but not whether he is “out of bounds” completely. The term “Shomer negia”, meaning: the fact that such a term was made up (it doesn’t exist in Halacha, and is not used by Halachists), testifies to this new state of affairs.

Most people who I ask, believe that girls and boys refraining from touch is a Rabbinic prohibition (at most!). They believe the Torah prohibits sexual relations, but everything else is a fence to that. This perception is part of the erosion which has occurred with regards to this body of law, as it is largely false. Indeed, according to the Ramban affectionate touch is only a Rabbinic prohibition, but Rashi, Rambam and Rivash disagree, and the Shulchan Aruch follows their opinion. According to the majority opinion, affectionate touch is a Torah prohibition. Yet it is considered optional for a religious individual.

This state of affairs is concerning, as I can see it spreading to other areas in the same field, as well: the movement to abrogate some of the laws of nidda, the increasing mixed dancing trend, and more. I’m not an alarmist, and I don’t think “Judiasm is in grave danger”, or anything of the sort. However, I do feel that there is a general apathy toward this body of law, and I think we need to stem the tide. I wrote that the Yeshiva world and the world outside it are two very different places indeed, but it would not hurt us to take a page out of the Yeshiva world’s book once in a while, and remember that the hierarchy still exists, and there are binding laws in the Torah which we need to follow, even if it’s difficult.


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