Jewish Journal

Physical Boundaries: The Social Justice Case for Shomer Negiah!

by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz

October 16, 2012 | 4:12 pm

Inappropriate touch

Questions around the boundaries of physical touch are emerging more and more in American legal and political discourse. When has an employer crossed the line with an employee? When has a teacher crossed the line with a student? Which parts of the human body is the Transportation Security Administration allowed to mandate for touching during a security check? What is the propriety of the New York Police Department’s “stop and frisk” policy?

One great problem with touch permitted in the name of security is that it is so easily used to justify violence, especially racial violence. As one New York Times editorial recently explained regarding the NYPD’s “stop and frisk” policy, “minority targets are more likely to be slammed against walls or spread-eagled while officers go through their belongings.” The injustices of this policing strategy, whose use has been increasing and to which hundreds of thousands of mostly black and Hispanic youths have been subjected, need to be more heavily regulated.

The Rambam taught that physical touch is the most base of human experiences, and that we should strive to become intellectual and spiritual beings of the mind and soul. We cannot neglect the importance of our bodies but we must be, and we must see others as, more than bodies; the human body is sacred and should be respected. In avoiding intimate touch with non-family members, we are forced to cultivate more meaningful relationships, respecting our fellows’ minds as paramount and their bodies as sacred.

Jewish law mandates that intimate touch (kissing, hugging, etc.) be reserved for immediate family (Leviticus 18:6 and 18:19, Sefer Hamitzvot 353, Issurei Biah 21, Even Ha’Ezer 20, Yoreh Deah 183). The stricter and more sensitive guidelines that I would propose on the societal level are inspired by, but also transcend, the Jewish legal standards of shemirat negiah (the guarding of touch).

Our society here in the United States is prone to many forms of violence, and intimate touch, from sexual harassment to sexual assault, remains a serious problem. In 2010, the FBI reported 84,767 forcible rapes. However, this did not include male victims or anal and other penetration, which have only been added to the count methodology this year. Thus, the 2010 FBI statistics only recorded three-quarters of the 1,369 rapes recorded by the New York City police, and none of the nearly 1,400 sexual assaults (including rape) recorded by the Chicago police. In addition, since most cases of rape are not reported, even the higher figures are probably significantly off.

Other surveys have confirmed the prevalence of sexual assault in the US. In December 2011, the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey reported that

• 1 in 5 women reported that she had been the victim of rape or attempted rape; and
• 1 in 4 that she had been beaten by an intimate partner.

This culture extends to the workplace. A telephone poll in 2010 revealed that 31 percent of women and 7 percent of men had experienced sexual harassment at work.

There is some potential good news: Child abuse cases have decreased by 60 percent between 1992 and 2010. While this decline is controversial, one possible reason for the improvement is the increasing tendency of victims’ families to report the abuse, rising from 25 percent in 1992 to 50 percent in 2008. The increase in reporting leads to a decrease in offenses. Thus, in spite of highly publicized cases involving pedophiles, the willingness of people to challenge abusive touching has had an effect.

Other intimate touch remains controversial. The TSA has the responsibility to ensure the security of airline passengers. However, TSA agents have frequently been accused of abusing their authority to inappropriately touch passengers. In December 2011, two octogenarian women charged that the TSA forced them to take off their clothes to examine a back brace and a colostomy bag. The TSA, while officially denying the charges, nevertheless acknowledged that it violated its own guidelines. There are also charges that female passengers have been targeted for body searches in a sexually harassing manner. Our country must no doubt be kept safe, but we must also be sure to find more ways to avoid boundary-violating touching.

Everyone will have their own personal touch boundaries in their private lives, but not everyone is good at articulating them. For this reason, touch that is not invited should never be issued. I’ll often hear folks say, “I’m old enough to be her grandfather,” or “I see him every day,” or “I don’t know if you hug but…,” but even innocent touching can alienate others, and we need stronger national and communal boundaries.

Touch, in addition to being a form of connection, can be a power move. In a psychology study, researchers (Willis and Hamm) found that those touched are more likely to be compliant. Participants were asked to sign a petition; 55 percent of those who were not touched lightly by the administrator agreed to sign, while 81 percent of those who were touched did sign. When individuals were asked to fill in a questionnaire, 40 percent of those who were not touched filled it out, whereas 70 percent of those who were touched filled it out. If touch creates intimacy and trust between people, recipients of touch will behave on the basis of that perceived closeness. While this is a beautiful and useful truth, it is also easily manipulated.

Additional studies further show that touch is a potent marker of social power. Henley found that those who initiate physical contact with others during daily business tend to be “higher status.” Summerhayes and Suchner found that those who touch others are perceived to hold more power in society. Other studies have shown that many men do not know how to interpret casual touch: In 2010, Gueguen found that men very easily misinterpreted a light nonsexual touch on the arm as a sign of sexual interest. Casual touch can escalate to sexual harassment in the workplace, which wreaks havoc on office culture and morale and destroys marriages and families.

Touch is not merely innocent. It is powerful and consequential. To protect ourselves, we must be cognizant of the effects, good and bad, of the quotidian and the expected. To protect the vulnerable, we must set stronger guidelines to prevent any unwanted touch in security lines, in frisk searches, in halls of learning and in places of business, no less than in our houses of worship.

By giving more significance to the dignity of the human body, we can raise awareness of other bodily needs (food, shelter, health, etc.) as we recommit to avodat b’gashmiyut (serving through the physical).

Stand tall! Honor the one and only body you’ve been given in life and the dignity of others! The principle of Shomer Negiah is not just a religious pious act, it is a Jewish social justice mandate.


Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America!"


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Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz...

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