I heard that shomer negiah applies to siblings past the age of puberty and other family members. I do not understand why such a law should apply to people who are related. Can you please explain this to me?
Because the sexual act can so easily become a purely physical interaction devoid of holiness and relationship, our rabbis were very sensitive and restrictive in the area of sexuality. The product of an act is infused with the nature of the activity that created it. Thus, if a baby is born by an act which is viewed purely physical and animalistic, the baby will be viewed as just another animal. I f, however, the act which created the baby is viewed as something holy, then the product of that act, namely the baby, will also be viewed as something holy.
Our rabbis understood that we are all sexual beings, predating Freud’s theories by nearly two thousand years. Being related does not mean that one loses one’s sexual nature and drives in the presence of a relative. The laws pertaining to negiah require us to be aware of that nature, and maintain respect for our and another’s body. That which is holy is not to be manhandled, but only touched within a consecrated environment, which in the case of sex is marriage.
Please note, however, that a more liberal view (as implied by the Ramban) is that the touching which is inappropriate is one which is derech chibah, which has been interpreted by many of us to mean erotic touching. Thus one could permit handshaking and non-erotic touching between relatives according to this opinion. One must note, however, that the rabbis were apparently well aware that sexual molestation is far from uncommon among relatives. In my capacity as a mental health counselor as well as rabbi I have discovered that many a young person has been subjected to inappropriate sexual touch (molestation), by siblings, aunts and uncles and even parents.
Maimonides explains that the Torah prohibits contact of men with certain women as a way of preventing illicit sexual relationships (Mishnah Torah, Laws of Forbidden Sexual Intercourse 21:1). Specifically, he points to the verse in Leviticus (18:6) that warns against “coming near” (in later Jewish literature: “touching”) those for whom a sexual relationship is proscribed. Accordingly, the restriction would apply to any member of the opposite sex categorized as an “ervah,” that is, a forbidden partner. However, Rabbi Joseph Karo (Shulhan Arukh, Even HaEzer 21:7) acknowledges that there are some relationships that we might call “Platonic.” These relationships involve no sexual excitation and no temptation at all, like the love of father for his daughter or for his adult sister or aunt (and, by extension to other familial relations, cf. Beit Shmuel ad. loc).
Of course, we are all painfully aware of aberrant behaviour that seems to contradict the underlying assumption. But Jewish law and its pre-suppositions are based on normal, not abnormal, circumstances. Needless to say, there are those who rigidly adhere to the rules without acceptance of the exceptions allowed under Jewish law. But it is perfectly acceptable for members of the same family to show affection without fear of being in violation of the Torah.
There is a passage in the Talmud (Kiddushin 81b) that allows a man to be alone with and live together with his mother and sister and even sleep together with them (although the Talmud reports how it once led to disaster.) This is followed by another passage in which the Talmud distinguishes between minor family members and those who have reached puberty. According to Rabbi Joseph Karo (op. cit.), the implication of this passage is that no contact whatsoever is allowed between siblings who have reached puberty and between parents and their adult children. But Rabbi Joshua Falk (Perishah, E.H. 21) explains that the prohibition applies only to adult family members sleeping together. Hugging and kissing, he says explicitly, is allowed.
No doubt, you have been made aware of what the Shulhan Arukh says. But Rabbi Joshua Falk is a credible halakhic authority whose view is just as compelling.
While Rabbi Grant gives a nice explanation of some of the moral and sexual ethics reasons behind the practice of Shomer Negiah, there is a ritual side to the practice as well.
In the days when The Temple stood and prior to The Temple, worship sites around the land, the idea of ritual purity was very important.If one was not ritually pure one could not take part in the sacrifices, which at the time were the major form of prayer for Jews. The state of purity vs. impurity was not analogous to a state of sin or non-sin.While there were sins one could commit that would place the individual into a state of impurity, often a person fell into that state through no fault of his or her own.
One way someone became ritually impure was to either be a woman during and for 7 days following the period of her menstruation or to come into physical contact with a woman during that time (the impurity washed away by immersion in the mikvah at the end of the 7 days following). This, of course, was not sinful, but the emission of “blood” was a cause of ritual impurity.Even after The Temple fell, the laws of ritual purity especially surrounding menstruation continued as a part of the Jewish legal framework as the Talmud developed (see Talmud Tractate Niddah).
On the principle of modesty, however, one could not ask a woman if she were in her time of impurity, so the custom (eventually gaining the force of law in some communities) developed of men simply avoiding physical contact with any adult woman with the exception of his wife. Therefore it is not only to avoid sexual impropriety that a man who follows the strict interpretation of these laws would not even touch his mother, sister or adult daughter, but it is out of a desire to remain in a state of ritual purity.
Within Reform Judaism, this question is a virtual moot point. CCAR response 5756.6 states in part:“The entire system of tum'ah and taharah [i.e. ritual purity] is bound up with the ancient Temple and the priestly cult, elements of Judaism which Reform has roundly rejected.”Therefore there is no ritual reason for Reform Jews to follow the practice of Shomer Negiah. That said it is prudent that adult individuals who are not married to one another avoid excessive physical contact with each other, although the specific nature of the relationship will dictate the definition of excessive.
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