Why a Conservative Female Rabbi Decided To Pull Away From Her Male Friends
It wasn’t a question of modesty, but intimacy: ‘I had to dial back my friendships with men, for the sake of my marriage’
And there’s the rub. A new work position had brought Nick to Los Angeles, where family frequently brings me. I was really excited at first, thinking I’d get to see him whenever I was in town. In practicality, the challenges of scheduling a visit with him alongside an overwhelming number of family obligations made it difficult. Then, it happened: I thought I had some time to meet Nick one evening, and I found myself not wanting Joshua to come along. At first, I wasn’t sure where the feeling was coming from. Then I realized that I was longing to pour out my heart to someone, and Nick seemed like both an ideal candidate and—because my husband should have been my primary confidant—the wrong choice. I decided not to see him, and that’s when I wrote him the email. Nick responded with his usual generosity of spirit, recognizing that modesty is an important value and has a particular valence in Judaism. We still write occasionally, exchange notes and photos on Facebook. I don’t feel like our contact is superficial. But I can’t go back to the type of friendship we had where we sit down and pour out our hearts in person. I don’t think that Nick resents me or my choice. He is sincere and wise. Once again, he understands me.
Maybe the reason I can’t invite that level of familiar friendship with men (other than Joshua) anymore is simply that I am not a casual friend; I am devoted to and deeply involved with my closest friends. Maybe it’s because I am a twin, a person whose first friendship precedes birth. Maybe it’s because I take to heart the words of our tradition: “Acquire for yourself a friend” (Pirkei Avot 1:6). And how do you acquire a friend? The rabbis’ elaboration of Pirkei Avot (Avot deRabbi Natan) says, “A person should acquire a friend by eating and drinking with them, by studying Torah and debating with them, by lodging with them and by sharing private thoughts with them.” It’s still a useful formula for creating friendship. Particularly that last part.
Truth be told, I’m a little more discreet in my friendships with women, too, since I got married. I don’t unburden myself to my female friends either as often or in as detailed a way as I did in the past. Yet I feel a special danger when the friend is a man—there’s something intimate about spilling one’s guts to a friend. That’s what is potentially immodest about a friendship between this married woman and any man other than my husband. Confession can be sexy, and dangerous.
A friendship with Nick—or any other man with whom I have that automatic affinity—is a little perilous. That instinctive familiarity isn’t developed by an investment of time and effort; it isn’t earned by action or respect. It’s illusory and untrustworthy. I’m not even entirely sure where it comes from—similarity of disposition, or chemistry, or magic. Whatever its mysterious origins, that automatic affinity gives one a powerful feeling of being deeply seen and understood. It is as if that other person sees the secret you. Now I want only Joshua to know the secret me.
How was my email to Nick different from what my sister did with her friends? My sister believed that any close friendship with a man was inappropriate and potentially immoral. I think she felt justified, perhaps even rightly so, in cutting them off. I, on the other hand, felt apologetic. I experienced a deep need to be open about my discomfort, to reassure my friend that he was still very dear to me even if I had to pull away from him—not entirely, but in a way that felt unnatural to our previously open and honest friendship. There was never anything truly inappropriate about my friendship with Nick. On the contrary, our friendship was probably helped by the fact that we were—for all intents and purposes— romantically off-limits to one another.
Most of all, it’s not because of Nick’s exceptional familiarity with me that I needed to curtail our friendship. It’s really because of me and the energy and intimacy I need to direct toward Joshua and nurturing my friendship with him. Part of the power of monogamous sexuality is that it creates shared secrets, but it needs to be paired with greater self-revelation to be truly meaningful. And real self-revelation is something that takes time and effort. Instead of expecting Joshua to read my mind, I have to frequently unburden myself to him verbally; instead of allowing my unmet needs to fester, I have to open myself to him and expose my vulnerable bits, knowing that—unlike others—he’s earned that privileged knowledge.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
When I was young, my father cared for me. Now he’s old and needs my help, but can I really provide it?