5 min read
Being religious as a teenager in today’s world.
I enjoyed reading the recent article on aish.com “Why I Don’t Touch Men” and thought it would be worthwhile to share my experiences on the topic from the perspective of a 19-year-old guy.
I grew up in South Africa in a religious home and I'm currently learning in a pre-military Yeshiva in Israel. I went to a wonderful co-ed school where being religious wasn’t exactly “the norm,” but everyone got along. I love sports, physics, chemistry, computer science, economics, movies, and Xbox – in short, I'm a normal guy.
And I am also shomer negiah – I don't touch girls, and girls don't touch me. Yet I'm still normal. Allow me to explain.
Yossi [R] with friends
When I was in seventh grade my friends and I were attending a Bar Mitzvah course on Sundays. One Sunday I didn’t show up and they happened to discuss the issue of shomer negiah, the prohibition of touching the opposite sex. The next day at school sure was interesting; many of the boys had decided that they were bli (short for the Hebrew phrase "bli yadayim" – without hands – another term for shomer negiah). I thought they were absolutely crazy but I admit my interest was piqued.
I felt that I was tapping into God’s romantic side.
I learned a bit more about the topic, exploring the meaning of physical contact, marriage, and relationships. One book that I found to be particularly good was The Magic Touch by Gila Manolson. Shomer Negiah turned out not to just be random Jewish laws that were designed to keep me from having a good time; it was a wise system for ensuring the sanctity of relationships and knowing how to have a good time without infringing upon that sanctity. It went against the allure of temporary and reinforced the eternal. I felt that I was tapping into God’s romantic side. There is someone out there who I am made for and who is made for me. We are destined for each other. Everything else in the meantime was just playing around. It felt trivial compared to the more purposeful, committed relationship I yearn to have in the future. I told myself that if God has a present just for me then I won’t go window shopping.
Yossi [second left] with friends
So I decided at that ripe old age of 12 that I was going to give it a try and that I would start slowly. I explained to the girls in my school that from now on I was only going to ‘high-five’ them hello because I wanted to try to stop hugging. They laughed but respected my decision. Slowly but surely I upped my observance of being shomer negiah and by the day of my Bar Mitzvah I was totally bli.
My six-year journey has had its ups and downs but it was from the downs that I learned my most valuable lessons. From the times of weakness I found the most strength.
I was sticking out like a sore thumb, standing next to girls with my arms behind my back in every photo.
I attended a terrific religious school until the 9th grade and my interactions with girls were limited which made being shomer a lot easier. In seventh grade, still new to the world of shomer negiah, I went to summer camp and there were tons of girls. Being shomer suddenly became really hard. It was as if the choice only presented itself now and I was confronted with temptation. Everyone was taking their pre-shabbos photos, looking great and with their arms around each other, and there I was sticking out like a sore thumb, standing next to girls with my arms behind my back in every photo.
What’s so bad about taking a decent photo? I’m not kissing anyone. It’s probably totally fine, I told myself. And that's what I did – I took all the “normal” photos I could take before Shabbat started. I ignored the fact that inside my gut it felt weird. At the start of Shabbat a very pretty girl who I just met came to give me a ‘good-shabbos-hug’ (she didn’t know I was shomer). With minimal time to react my first thought was, You’ve been taking the photos anyway. Just hug her. What’s the difference? By the end of Shabbat my observance of being shomer was out the window.
What happened to me with the photos and that Shabbat gave me an important lesson. The crucial moment was when I told myself: what’s the difference. That simple phrase uprooted clear lines that I had set for myself. And when it comes to the seductive reality of physicality and touch it is so easy to become desensitized and move on to more and more exciting things, creating a downward spiral. Being shomer lays down very clear lines, lines that eliminate the “what’s the difference” moments. Lines that keep one thing from leading to another. It maintains the sanctity and dignity that I want to define me.
I got back on track but my challenges were far from over. I moved to a co-ed school that made things a bit harder but I was older and more mature and had a greater clarity than when I first started. It also made things more meaningful for me. I wasn’t just shomer by default anymore. I was making a proactive decision all the time and was conscious of the results. I realised how my friendships grew, how I got to know people a lot better, that I was comfortable to just sit and talk to people as they were comfortable to sit with me. I had no ulterior motives – I am here to be your friend.
These results were minor compared to the changes in my mind-set: I developed a greater respect for people and a greater respect for myself. It felt good to control this part of me. School breaks and weekends were not a game of cat and mouse with girls; I had no one to try “catch” or impress. I felt confident and I felt real.
I was freed from high school’s relationship stressors. Girls were not objects to conquer.
And I'm grateful that people around me respected my religious choices and allowed me to fit in. For me, being religious is not only what you do but how you do it. I didn’t feel limited at all, I felt freed. I was freed from high school’s relationship stressors. I didn’t have to have my first kiss yet, I didn’t have to get the girl, I didn’t have to prove myself, I didn’t have to see how far I could get. Girls were not objects to conquer.
Sure, there are times when I feel like I'm missing out - it’s only natural. “Get with the times brother. It doesn’t matter – just have fun!” was a common comment I got, but I've learned that relationships are not about just having fun. I felt that wasn't really a relationship at all. It was just a selfish act of taking and I didn’t want any of that.
In my later teens I no longer felt that I stuck out like a sore thumb. I was comfortable with being shomer and I think my classmates grew to respect it more and more. I realised that being shomer is one of those things that you have to try before you can really appreciate it. Sure my photos and weekend stories were different but I loved that because I realised that they were supposed to be different. I still have a long way to go but with God's help I'm trying to grow each day.