Full integration of queer people into observant Jewish life will require unique restrictions as well as unique leniencies. The presence of one without the other doesn’t seem to align with Jewish thought. In every area where Jews set ourselves apart, privilege comes with restriction. Shabbat is reserved for princely rest, but controlled with a long list of prohibited activities. Observing kashrut while traveling is costly and sometimes difficult, but rewards those who do with community wherever they may find themselves. Heterosexual sex has the potential for holiness, but only if the biological restrictions of niddah are followed.
The idea of fighting for unique leniencies for queer people (loosening restrictions on same-sex sexual contact) without also fighting for special restrictions also opens up queer people to the criticism that we’re just ignoring or denying certain parts of halacha. I can’t think of what I’m doing in that way, and if the most satisfying answer that can be given for the parts of halacha that conflict with a queer identity is to ignore them, then I don’t understand how anyone can claim that it is now possible to live as observant and actively queer. I don’t want to ignore halacha; I want to figure out how halacha applies to this category of people who aren’t addressed in the Hebrew Bible: men who are predominantly attracted to men and women who are predominantly attracted to women.
One set of rules which I find problematic are those of shomer negiah. This is the prohibition of affectionate touching between men and women outside of family relationships. No one seems to know what to do with this prohibition in relation to queer Jews, other than to turn it into a punchline. One idea is that gay people shouldn’t touch members of the same sex, which gets complicated, because human contact is an important part of human health. My friend Naomi writes beautifully about the relation between the rules of shomer negiah and the oxytocin boost that comes from human touch here. If queer Jews weren’t to touch the same sex for our own purposes, and weren’t to touch the opposite sex out of respect for others, then there wouldn’t be a lot of people left to touch.
From the straight community member’s perspective, I’ve heard it offered that out of respect for the needs of others, a straight man would stop touching a gay man if the gay man came out of the closet. I can’t think of a more traumatic element to add to the coming-out experience than friends suddenly changing the way that they touch you. It does, however, seem like there should be a difference in the way that queer people interact with shomer negiah.
The original intent of the shomer negiah rules deals with ritual purity. Male affectionate contact with a woman in niddah could lead to sexual relations between men and ritually impure women, which is to be avoided. The fence has been expanded to limit affectionate touching between men and women at-large, and these touch restrictions in turn create a unique culture of same-sex affectionate touching within observant Jewish communities. (When I say “affectionate touching,” I’m considering hugs and shoulder rubs. I have a hard time seeing anything remotely sexualized in a handshake.) The touch restrictions also eroticize the eventual affectionate touching that happens between men and women. Where the paradigm is that you have the potential to be attracted to any member of the opposite sex and therefore minimize physical contact, the physical contact you do have means more. This set of rules instituted for one reason therefore manifests itself completely differently in the modern world.
When I was first getting involved in observant Judaism, still socially outside of the culture of male affectionate touching and still figuring out my sexuality, I never really “got” shomer negiah. It just seemed like one of those things that people were doing because, well, that’s the halacha and we don’t go against it–at least in public. In retrospect, I see the reason I didn’t get it is that I’m gay, and most of the observant Jews I was affectionately touching at that time were girls. Six months later, out of the closet and much more socially integrated in the observant Jewish community, I had the most distracting Jewish experience of my life on Simchat Torah.
Most Jewish institutions get more strict on joyous holidays when people’s inhibitions are lowered. At Penn, our cloth mechitza is replaced with a solid wall. In this instance, this had the odd consequence of making me think more about being gay, about how this space I was choosing to inhabit was not ideally structured to guard me from the same distractions from which it guards the majority. Adding to this distraction, with the dancing on Simchat Torah came more same-sex hand-holding and shoulder-clasping than the rest of the year in total. Orthodoxy has accepted the idea that all touch between heterosexual members of the opposite sex has the potential to be erotic — after all, that’s one reason why we were dancing separately. At the time, applying this logic to my own orientation seemed to suggest that in order to minimize my distraction I should have just left the room or stood off to the side.
I don’t like that answer though, and I don’t think that it’s a necessary answer if communities are able to have frank discussions about sexual orientation and sexuality. As a personal practice, what I’ve settled on instead is to avoid affectionate touching with people in observant Jewish contexts where there exists the potential for mutual attraction. This means that I refrain from affectionately touching other gay male observant Jews with whom I am not romantically involved. (The separate discussion of what to do within relationships is not unique to queer Jews). I make it a point to figure out the touch preferences of straight females before I even shake their hands, and based on the principle of letting others determine their own restrictions and leniencies, let those female friends control the extent of our affectionate contact. With self-professed straight men, the closet complicates matters. Truly applying these touch restrictions would require that people were very upfront about their sexuality. Despite the noted emotionally troubling aspect of this, I do think that as a gay man, I would stop affectionately touching other gay men when they came out.
George Chauncey, a history professor at Yale University, gives a presentation in which he analyzes the changes in affectionate touch visible in Yale football team photos over the past century. In the early 1900’s almost every man has his hand on another man’s knee or shoulder, and by 2000 everyone’s hands are clasped in their laps. An oversimplified explanation for this phenomenon would be the recognition over the past century that the heterosexual paradigm may not apply for everyone on such a team, and that affectionate touching between men might therefore mean more than one party intended it to. I think there’s a fear that queer people being actively out in observant Jewish settings could disrupt the unique affection found within them that managed to survive this shift in American cultural norms. Truthfully, applying touch restrictions like I’ve outlined probably would disrupt this culture — but it would recover. The arguably logical touch restrictions in place for heterosexual observant Jews don’t work for the queer community, and it’s time to start figuring out what to do about that.