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Maintaining Closeness Despite Social Distancing

November 1, 2020 | by Emuna Braverman

Oddly enough, Judaism's family purity laws provides some insights.

Social distancing and masks are making our relationships more complicated. Prior to this strange new experience, we could connect with others and express our feelings towards them through hugs and other forms of physical affection. While this was sometimes overused, it was definitely a way, particularly for women, to affirm their female friendships, to make each other feel warm and cared for, to assert the connection and understanding that comes through close relationships.

Social distancing has upended all that. Add to that challenge the fact that masks often impede the ability of others to hear the speaker and our social world is thrown into turmoil. Gatherings (even small, CDC and state-government approved ones) become cause for frustration and awkwardness as opposed to friendship and unity.

How do we navigate these potentially stormy waters? We don’t really have a manual that addresses our new reality.

Or do we? I think we could take a page from Judaism's family purity laws. For almost two weeks a month, a Torah-observant married couple is required to maintain their relationship without any physical contact. Actually, it’s more than maintain; the relationship should thrive. How is this accomplished?

It requires the couple to be committed and creative. We have to think of new ways to communicate that don’t involve touching. We have to think of actions and words that convey the depth of our caring without resorting to a quick embrace. We have to be resourceful – we have to find words, cards, poems, games, cups of coffee to share, books to read together, Torah learning to delve into – all manner of ways to connect when the physical is off the table.

A hug, a kiss, a quick squeeze are definitely wonderful. But sometimes they can be the easy way out. I don’t have to think of the words to describe exactly what this relationship means to me; I’ll just give a hug. I don’t have to find a way to convey how important this human being I to me because I’ll just hold her tight. I don’t have to find other way to connect because it’s so easy to sink into the physical but my relationship is the poorer for it. It’s less broad, less expansive, less developed, less interesting.

I recently ventured out for the first time since March to a social/spiritual event. It was definitely awkward and confusing. How close to sit? Do I go inside for food? Mask on or off? Do I ask everyone to speak louder since the mask is blocking them? Where do I eat since obviously my mask will be off then? It required some thought and negotiating and a whole new volume of Miss Manners. It definitely wasn’t easy and it made me long for those carefree pre-COVID days.

But it was easier the second time. And I discovered a new intimacy achieved in our conversations because we all to work hard to hear; we all had to pay attention to understand. People chose their words more carefully, using words they would feel comfortable repeating aloud and conscious of the impermanence of our lives and relationships. Every aspect of a social gathering – from food to decor to guest list – was more carefully curated – not to get the A-list attendees but to minimize risk and maximize experience.

I certainly hope and pray that a vaccine is found and this plague is lifted soon. But this is an opportunity for us to grow in our relationships, for us to develop new and deeper sides to them and I hope that long after the virus disappears, the newer ways of communication and being will remain.

Photo credit: Forest Simon,

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