Project Genesis

Family and Relationships

Modesty & Sexuality

Casual Contact Between Men and Women

Question: Is there a law that a Rabbi cannot touch a woman at any time, excluding his wife, of course?

Answer: Thank you for your question. Before I answer your question though, I would first like to give a brief introduction to the concepts of Jewish Law.

Jewish law has been practiced for the past 3500 years and is based on a few different precepts. There is the Biblical law which consists of both the written law found in the five books of Moses, and within that work known as the Torah there are 613 commandments: 248 positive and 365 negative. Our tradition (and the simplest exploration of the text) informs us that there is an oral tradition that explains these commandments and accompanies the biblical law. Our tradition and the basis for these laws is that they were revealed by God to the Jewish people on Mt. Sinai—an unprecedented and un-replicated claim of mass revelation to the entire nation (which probably numbered around 3 million Jews at that time).

There is also a portion of Jewish law that is known as Rabbinic Law. The Torah authorizes and mandates the Rabbis and Jewish court system, known as the Sanhedrin, when the Holy Temple is standing, to build a fence around the laws of Torah by creating a body of law of their own. One of the biblical laws, in fact, is that we observe the laws instituted by the Rabbis and the court system.

Addressing your question of contact with a woman, the Torah in its Written Law writes (Leviticus 18:6) “No person shall approach a prohibited woman and act immodestly”. Our Oral Tradition explains this prohibition as a unique Torah law that draws a line, not at the act of intimate relations itself, but also at the engaging in any form of intimate contact with a woman one is not permitted to have relations with.

As the only woman one would be able to have relations with is one’s own wife, all other women would be prohibited from any form of intimate contact because of this biblical prohibition.

Our Sages (and the world-at-large until recent times as well) have certainly defined kissing, hugging and all contact of such nature as an intimate encounter and are included in this biblical prohibition. Today many find it quite common to perhaps engage in this behavior as a part of social etiquette. Yet, the Sages viewed acts that contain this degree of physical contact to contain an element of intimacy. The exception though would be with one’s parents, grandparents, siblings or one’s own children where there is not even a notion of sexual intimacy and is just a natural display of healthy affection. It is interesting to note that the Torah does not discriminate between older or younger women or more attractive or less attractive or even relatives outside of immediate family listed. It assumes that a healthy man and woman who engage in such forms of contact has the potential for ill results or thoughts and therefore it biblically forbids all intimate forms of contact.

Seeing the potential for loopholes and ambiguity, the Sages exercised their legal ability and forbade contact of even a non-intimate nature. Of course if one is in need of medical assistance or makes contact while one is working, e.g. a barber or a cashier, that is considered unintentional periphery contact and is not included in this prohibition.

In conclusion, yes, any observant male is prohibited from the contact described above, even though it is common today for people to view a peck on the cheek and a warm hug as simply a form of greeting. The beauty of a Jewish lifestyle has been to take what to many has become a meaningless act, charge it with its rightful sensual capability and treat it as a precious gift and act cherished and shared by two married adults in a holy relationship. In terms of modesty and sexuality, there is so little left today to create a unique bond between a husband and wife; most forms of connection have already been experienced with other people, through the media, boyfriends, acquaintances and colleagues. Judaism contains a fresh breath of Divine beauty and intimacy thus insuring that its married relationships always remain the special, sensual, committed, and exclusive love that they are.

Rabbi Schwartz

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