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Is it permitted to kiss and embrace relatives of the opposite sex?

by Rabbi Yosef Resnick

  

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This is a touchy question indeed (pun intended)!

The Torah exhorts us to be holy people. "You should be holy, because I am holy,"1   G-d tells the Jewish people. Observing the Torah’s commandments has the uncanny effect of being able to turn the ordinary CPA next door, for example, into a holy Tzaddik.

The Jews are an essentially holy people, and the Torah instructs us how to live up to our G-d-given potential. For many people today, exchanging physical greetings like hugs and kisses is the norm. What are you likely to see at most family reunions in Anytown, USA?

Aunt Mildred kisses everyone, Grandma Fanny pinches the children’s cheeks and forgets to stop when they become teenagers, Uncle Howie gives everyone bear hugs, and cousins who see each other once every few years greet one another with awkward half-embraces. But although it can be hard for people who have grown up expecting this scene to imagine things otherwise, is this the true Jewish way?

There are things that we do at certain points in our lives that we would not think of doing at another point in our lives. For example, a child may take a magnifying glass and torture ants. Yet the same person after he gets a little older and wiser and a little more sensitive would never think of doing such a thing.

When a friend of mine was becoming Torah observant, he was reading the English translation of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (the abridged Code of Jewish Law) and actually laughed out loud. To him, where he was spiritually at that time, the Halachot seemed almost absurd in their strictness.

When a person becomes sensitized to holy matters, his whole frame of reference changes
The same person, ten years later, would now give anything to be able to abide by every detail set forth in the very same book. How could a person’s life outlook change so drastically?

When a person becomes sensitized to holy matters, his whole frame of reference changes. As Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi writes in Tanya, anything opposed to holiness becomes something distasteful to them.

So although the seemingly innocent act of touching a member of the  opposite sex is something that is commonplace in our society, it is  something that a person begins to view as anathema once they become sensitized to the real meaning of  spirituality and holiness according to Torah.

According to Judaism, touch between a man and a woman is so personal and so charged with potential energy, that it is reserved only for one’s spouse, and even then only at certain appropriate times.

There are almost always polite, creative, and good-humored ways to avoid contact with members of the opposite sex, and even to turn the moment into one of education and even spiritual enlightenment. That’s what Judaism is all about: taking the mundane – a simple handshake – and transforming it into a vehicle for G-dliness.

Now, to answer your specific question, let’s take a look at what the Halachah states:

•    A parent may kiss his or her children of the opposite sex even after they are married.

•    A grandparent may kiss a grandchild of the opposite sex. According to most authorities, it is permitted even if the grandchild is married. (Some authorities advise men not to kiss their married granddaughters.)

•    A woman is not allowed to kiss any male over the age of nine other than her husband, father, grandfather, son, or grandson.

•    A girl who has reached puberty should avoid kissing or engaging in any endearing contact with brothers who also have reached puberty.

It’s okay if these laws don’t feel comfortable for you all at once. It takes a while for the beauty and wisdom of this system to really sink in, and the value of refraining from physical contact even with relatives of the opposite gender will gradually become clearer as you try to live in accordance with the Torah’s way.

We are all traveling along a path toward greater spiritual awareness and practice, and as we incorporate halachah into our daily lives, we see for ourselves how our relationships, self-esteem, and sensitivity are enhanced. Enjoy the journey.

Suggested Reading:
"Doesn't Anyone Blush Anymore?" by Manis Friedman. HarperSanFrancisco, 1990.

Footnotes

  • 1. Leviticus 19:2.

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RELATED CATEGORIES

Life Cycle » Marriage » Family Life

Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Tzaddik
(fem. Tzidkanit; pl. Tzaddikim). A saint, or righteous person.
Halachah
Jewish Law. All halachah which is applicable today is found in the Code of Jewish Law.
Halachot
Laws governing the Jewish way of life.
Tanya
Foundation text of Chabad chassidism. Authored by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of the Chabad movement, and first published in 1796. Considered to be the "Bible" of Chassidism.
G-d
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.