Thursday, June 10, 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.