Chana Hughes

What Judaism says about the Rubiales kiss

Perhaps we can all learn from the strength and sensitivity of being shomer negiyah

August 30, 2023 11:47

What is the meaning of a kiss? When the participants have opposite interpretations, that simple question becomes a contentious one.

Spanish football boss Luis Rubiales has been suspended for kissing Spanish midfielder Jenni Hermoso after they beat England to win the Women’s World Cup. The waves of outrage that followed have been seismic and have broadly split into two camps.

Those supporting Rubiales’s claim that he was merely expressing exuberance felt that the kiss was taken out of context and was never meant to be sexual. They believe he is being pursued by feminists with an agenda.

Hermoso, on the other hand, denies giving consent and felt violated and belittled by the behaviour. She has gathered professional, political, and legal support, with the Spanish acting minister for equalities calling Rubiales’s behaviour a “form of sexual violence”.

There is little doubt that Rubiales’s behaviour was disrespectful, inappropriate, vulgar and offensive. But I wonder how helpful it is to call it an act of sexual violence. Does this not diminish the experience of victims of rape and other aggressive assault, which are sadly all too common and destroy lives every day?

Although we need to draw firm boundaries to prevent harassment, we also need to use accurate and clear language to condemn inappropriate behaviour to teach our children about positive interactions. It’s sad that in the 21st century, having come so far in its progressive values, the West still struggles in many ways when it comes to treating women with dignity.

The complexities of physical touch between men and women have been debated in Jewish law for centuries. Halacha forbids any affectionate or intimate physical contact between adults of different genders, except for between spouses and family members. Commonly known as being “shomer negiyah” (keeping the prohibition of physical touch), this law is taken very seriously in Rabbinic literature. There is much discussion about whether different physical gestures can ever be confidently and mutually non-affectionate and platonic and therefore permitted.

Much is written about whether even a polite gesture, such as a handshake, can ever be interpreted as affectionate. Today, many religious Jews avoid handshakes with someone of the opposite gender. Most of the time, a handshake is nothing more than a formality. But there could be times in which the context, intensity or lingering touch could be interpreted as a tease, inviting intimacy. Avoiding all physical touch with the opposite gender creates a boundary within which there is no room for that risk. It also means that when physical touch is permitted, it is more likely to be intentional and meaningful because it has not been devalued.

Being shomer negiyah is often misunderstood. Plane passengers may feel offended when asked to move seats when religious Jews prefer to sit next to passengers of the same gender, as they try to avoid even unintentional touch. But incidents such as Rubiales’s behaviour bring to light just how much wisdom and relevance being shomer negiyah holds.

Avoiding touch enables people to develop sensitivity towards personal space and respect for others. It safeguards women’s dignity by keeping far away from behaviour that could be experienced as physically intrusive, or even violating. When touch is completely out of the question unless the relationship is clear, consensual, and consecrated by Jewish law, the blurry boundary between physical affection and sexual innuendo is more defined and both men and women ultimately feel safer.

Of course, the rules of shomer negiyah are not a foolproof plan to prevent all incidents of abuse and harassment. Charedi communities struggle too with these issues. Similarly, sometimes people insist on their shomer negiya requirements in a rude or abrasive manner, which undermines the spirit of the law.

However, the essential concept of avoiding physical touch as a social norm means that the quality of interactions, especially between teenagers and young people, can be more wholesome and respectful. Connections between genders are relieved from sexual tension and all the pressure and confusion these involve. Women’s dignity is preserved, protecting them from unwelcome intrusion and objectification.

I hope that all the frenzy around the Rubiales episode is not just an excuse for society to become outraged and engage in virtuous finger-pointing. Rather, I hope it will encourage important conversations about sensitivity, respect and how to preserve other people’s dignity. To think not only about how to say no to inappropriate behaviour, but also about the impact of conflicting interpretations of physical contact and the painful confusion of ambiguous touch.

Perhaps we can all learn from the strength and sensitivity of being shomer negiyah. What is the meaning of a handshake? Think twice before you kiss that question goodbye.

Chana Hughes is a Rebbetzin and family therapist working for both the NHS and privately.

August 30, 2023 11:47

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