Separation of the Sexes
"...not only is the Jewish prohibition of physical contact between unmarried members of the opposite sex not a backward fanatical rule, its one of the most practical rules in Judaism."
"I can't respect religious Judaism because of sexual discrimination" someone I barely knew informed me. While I bumbled a response I was cursing myself for how slow, flustered, and logically unsatisfactory it was. As I walked away and in fact for the rest of the day I furiously thought over the issue building a grounded rebuttal to his contention. As I wound down it occurred to me that my overly defensive yet well reasoned thought process may be of interest to others. If they can bear the style that is.
So you take issue with no contact between non married members of the opposite sex. I will have you know, the Jewish prohibition of physical contact between unmarried members of the opposite sex is not only not a backward fanatical rule, its one of the most practical rules in Judaism. First let me give you a moderately insulting priming of the mind.
People often hold views in conflict with reality due to biases affecting their thought process. This effect, which can be observed even when the misguided views are clearly wrong, is even more powerful when the logic that counters their view is deep, sublime, or complex. Most people in western society are in no way interested in giving up physical contact and hence are biased, resulting in difficulty understanding the reasoning behind such a prohibition. If however one is cognizant of this bias it's much easier to properly open the mind and understand the logic.
Now to the point, the continuity of Jewish tradition hinges upon the family structure, particularly when living amongst non-Jews where it is all to easy to assimilate. In Judaism the worst sin after murder is sexual infidelity. Remaining faithful can be a great challenge and making a happy marriage is an even greater one. One of the beautiful aspects of Judaism is it's ingenious practicalities. What Judaism does to help people with this is to create an environment that's inconducive for the root causes of domestic discord. One of the ways it does this is through the rule of shomer negiah, (Lit. guard of touch), no physical contact with the opposite gender except for, husband wife, mother son, father daughter, and young children. What this rule does is it sets a strong precedent of morality that makes certain things feel out of the question and keeps people far from the slippery slope of casual relationships that grow into something more. Without any close interaction the natural attraction is never given a chance to overwhelm people and make them make decisions they'll regret.
Many still want to know, not even a hand shake? Yes, for three reasons. One, this that the effect of seeing or touching an attractive member of the opposite sex goes unnoticed by most, despite the advertising and entertainment industries using it to their advantage, is due to their desensitization to it by repetition. That's not to say that it loses all its power through repetition, rather its effect goes unnoticed. A continuous pleasure becomes normal and only when the pleasure is gone are its effects appreciated. By contrast an individual who generally doesn't touch the opposite sex is automatically much more sensitive to the power of the contact and hence doesn't view it so flippantly. Two, the farther from intimacy one is the farther one has to go before reaching the worst, sexual infidelity. Three, the line between touching and not is clear. The line between casual and intimate contact is a vague deliniation giving people lots of room to delude themselves until they've gotten into a problematic relationship which will be painful and difficult to dissolve.
Shomer nagiah also allows for the highly effective Jewish dating method. The way people date in secular society is primarily for enjoyment and has the additional benefit, for those who are interested, of possibly finding someone to marry. This type of setup suffers from many down sides. The goal in dating is to attract the person you're interested in, hence both parties work to attract the other. Since few dates start as a prospective long term relationship neither side critically analyzes the other. Once the relationship becomes serious the judgment of both parties are compromised by powerful infatuation leading to many long term unhappy relationships. This problem is compounded by the fact that dates are picked up by convenience without any research or planning meaning more often than not dates are formed between people with gravely incompatible views and personalities which are only realized once its to late.
One needn't look any farther than the divorce rate in western countries to realize the validity behind my statements yet some still remain convinced that "love at first sight" is something pure. The truth is that the "true love at first sight" of the movies and novels is as fictitious as the characters. Love at first sight is the shallowest of loves. It's the love of the outermost aspects of a person, the aspects which mean the least in a long term relationship. It's love like the love of fish. Fish aren't eaten because people love fish. They're eaten because people love themselves and fish makes them feel good. Unfortunately bad relationships are much more damaging than bad fish.
In religious Judaism by contrast dating doesn't begin until marriage is under consideration and is mainly for the purpose of meeting someone to build a life and family with. Finding a date often involves family and friends looking out for someone they think would go well with you, or a consultant who connects clients and charges a modest fee for a pairing that results in a marriage. Once a potential candidate is found, research is done to make sure there are no problems or surprises that will later cause strife. Included in that research is a Dor Yesharim test which checks for autosomal recessive genetic disorders and assigns a number to each patient which allows the prospective couple to exchange numbers and independently verify with the organization if the two are compatible. Since numbers are exchanged before the first date there aren't any difficult breakups from genetic disorders and it goes without say that none of the kids end up with these disorders. The dates themselves are less about attracting the other and more about critically analyzing the other, focusing on personality, views, and long term goals. The system is an immensely practical way of building happy long term relationships. Without the separation this system would naturally fall into disuse as people met on their own
Many people are concerned that the separation is religiously instituted misogynism. If that where the case one might expect to find disrespect for woman in the religious texts and in the attitudes of the orthodox men. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Although Jewish literature makes a variety of remarks about both sexes, complementary and not, overall there's immense respect for woman and many laws where instituted to prevent their abuse. If these texts where written recently this would hardly be surprising. Considering they were written thousands of years ago when woman where considered property, this is truly amazing.
(In case it wasn't clear, if it's important to touch the rule doesn't apply and following it in such a situation is considered reprehensible. If for example someone has fallen and needs help, one who doesn't help because of this rule is termed a, "chossid shota" a pious fool, not something thought very highly of in Judaism.)