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Sukkot 5782 - A time to embrace, a time to refrain from embracing

September 20, 5782

At the beginning of the pandemic, we thought a lot about touch. We watched viral YouTube videos about how to best disinfect our groceries, in case they had been touched by a store employee or another customer. As places began to open up, hotels and restaurants boasted advertisements by various bleach companies. Gradually, as viral spread on surfaces was seen as less of a threat, we began to focus on interpersonal touch. We began to ask before shaking hands, high fiving, or hugging. While I am glad our national obsession with bleach has waned, I sincerely hope that that request before touch stays in our etiquette. 

As Ecclesiastes teaches, Eit lahabok v’eit lirhok mehabek - there is a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing. In today’s pandemic culture, we show our respect for the other’s personal boundaries with regards to health by asking for consent before any interpersonal touch. Beyond this pandemic, we have the chance to communicate our respect in any relationship by asking for permission before we put a hand on a shoulder or give a kiss on the cheek.

Touch means something different to each person who offers or receives it. Each of our past experiences shape the way we think about touch. Some of us come from cultures in which a kiss is a universal greeting, and some of us come from backgrounds in which a simple stroke of a face could act as a warning. We all know stories of politicians, CEOs, and other individuals in which too-long hugs, brushes of a hand, or worse were either used or seen as shows of power. Instead of using touch as power, we can use a presence or absence of touch as a show of respect. We can ask that simple question, “May I hug you?” Or, “Would you feel comfortable if I shook your hand?” And we can show our respect by acknowledging that the answer might be, “No.”

We come from a religious tradition in which even the most patriarchal Talmudic model of marriage, in which the man acquires a woman through purchase - requires that woman’s consent (Kiddushin 2b). Without her approval, the Talmud teaches, the man may not begin a physical relationship with her. Many Jews even extend this idea of consent for touch by observing the practice of shomer negiah, avoiding any touch with a person of another gender, unless that person is a spouse or immediate relative. While such a practice may seem too extreme, or even disrespectful, to many Jews today, our tradition contains those roots of touch as sacred, as something to be reserved for moments of mutual consent.

By modeling that practice of asking before a fist pump or high five, we show our children a culture of respect for each other’s boundaries. We teach them that “No,” is sometimes the right answer, whether they are asking or answering. For when they grow older, we teach them to pause and ask before diving into intimacy. And we teach them to think about their own boundaries, about where and when they feel comfortable being touched. Ultimately, we strive for them to really learn, spiritually and practically, that their bodies are sacred, made in the image of God. This weekend, Cadence will teach us more about that lesson, with her passion for the work done by the Gingerbread House Children’s Advocacy Center.

Touching back on viral YouTube videos, I have enjoyed the trend of videos featuring classroom teachers who line their students up outside the classroom and greet them personally at the beginning of each day. In each of these videos, the teacher has a menu of greetings from which the students can choose - hug, high five, wave, handshake, or dance move, among others. Each day, each student has the opportunity to express her boundaries, knowing that her preferences do not always have to be the same. And each day, each student can feel safe with the knowledge not only that her teacher respects her needs, but also, that she is not alone in having individual needs. She is not alone in this generation being taught about boundaries and consent.

With this new normal of pause before touch, may we join this new generation in embracing the possibility of respect through lack of embrace. May we be choosy about to whom we allow access to our bodies, and may we acknowledge others’ choices, as well. With such discretion, may we enjoy the awe and comfort that comes when we embrace those whom we trust and cherish. Hag Sameah.

Thu, May 30 2024 22 Iyyar 5784