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Living in the Grey

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A few weeks ago, my daughter ate at a friend’s house for Shabbat lunch. She came back and excitedly reported that the friend’s older sister, recently engaged, was there with her fiancé. She was chattering on about the lunch and then suddenly paused, concerned. “And Sarah and her chatan (fiancé) were holding hands at the table. But I thought you can’t touch until you’re married!” [Side note: Don’t believe I ever had this conversation with daughter. Which makes me wonder … what DO these girls talk about at recess???]
Anyway, as the words left her mouth, I froze. I am not ready for this conversation right now, I thought. I was wishing for one of my son’s “Does a spaceship need a steering wheel?” stumpers instead. Luckily, I was in the middle of doing something (probably arguing with a child about the necessity of changing underwear or making a dinner no one would eat) so I said with perfect honesty, “I really want to answer this question but let’s talk about it later.” This bought me a few minutes to collect my thoughts.
Later, I kept my promise, and sat down with her to discuss the issue of “shomer negiah” (loosely translated: refraining from touching members of the opposite sex). It was my first time trying to explain my mantra of “I do what’s right for me but it may not be what’s right for everyone.” And as I tripped over my words, I realized that this is quite a complicated concept for a 12-year-old. (Full disclosure: It’s difficult for me sometimes as well). Because, if you think it’s right, then isn’t it Right? Shouldn’t everyone do it? And if it’s fine either way, why choose your way?
To summarize our talking points:
  • Yes, we believe that you should save touching for when you’re married.
  • However, people have different ways of keeping halachot. So for some people, they think it’s okay, especially once they are engaged, to touch and hold hands.
  • It’s like with tzniut—one person may wear only skirts and one person may choose to wear pants. They are both observant, keepers of mitzvot. They just have different views on what constitutes “tzniut.”
  • Or another example—davening with a minyan. Some people view that as mandatory and make sure to daven at shul every day of the week. Others may see it as “nice but optional.” Both consider themselves Orthodox Jews, they just have different ways of practicing.
  • So what’s “right” for one family may be different than what’s “right” for another family.
  • But there are also different levels of “right and wrong”—while Shabbat and kashrut are more non-negotiable, how people dress, pray and spend their free time is fuzzier.
  • Still, if you came to us and said, “Hey, my boyfriend and I are going to make out on the couch now, cool?” we’d probably say no. Does that mean it’s 100 percent “wrong” or “forbidden,” and that people who do it are sinners? No. It’s not so black and white.
Afterwards, I confessed to my husband that the talk didn’t go as well as I had hoped. Although she was satisfied with my answer, I felt I confused her. What kind of lesson is “It’s not okay, but it is? Yes but no? For some people but not others?” What was I teaching her??
For a moment, I felt wistful, a bit envious of those who live in black and white. This is the right way, this is the wrong way. Touching = bad. Skirts = good. Going to minyan every day = good. No head covering = bad. It would be so much easier to teach my children if I could lay things out so clearly for them. But then I realized: I’ve chosen to live in the grey. And when you live in the grey, life can be confusing sometimes. It’s not clear-cut, black-and-white, Good vs. Bad. It’s muddled, it’s a little bit of this and a little bit of that. It’s fluid, changing and evolving.
Yet that is the kind of life we have chosen. The grey. And it is frustrating at times, to be in this constant state of considering options, evaluating choices, trying to find the path that’s right for you. But I believe the struggle instills thoughtfulness, independence, tolerance and humility.
And those values, I think, are always good things. 

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