Touch Me, Don’t Touch Me

Prologue: The Divine Untouchable

“Noli Me Tangere” (John 20:17) are the words Jesus speaks to Mary Magdalene as she discovers the first evidence of the resurrection, his empty tomb. These words are not only hard to parse but unsettling. God, who created our existence, who troubled himself to come into the world to help us, who three days earlier had invited us into the eucharistic body with him, says: don’t touch. A rather off-putting rebuff. It calls up another biblical moment of distancing, where Moses, in awe, asks to see God, with whom after all he’s been in conversation for quite a while. God says, nope, you can approach only at a distance, “over there” and see me “from the back” (Exodus 33:18-23).

We can’t see an immaterial, infinite God; we can’t touch. Yet we are supposed to trust and love this deity, who claims to have forged a covenant with Adam, Noah, and the Patriarchs and to have sent his Son in a renewed covenant, a bond of eternal obligation and commitment with humanity. Perhaps Abraham had the faith—or recklessness—to leave his country, birthplace, and father’s house to follow this something-or-other we cannot see or touch (Genesis 12: 1-10). But the rest of us might be forgiven a moment of doubt and check out if the Romans are getting any better object-constancy, as the psychologists say, with their pantheon.

As it turns out, the pantheon, or rather its rejection, is one thing “Noli Me Tangere” is about. It is an invitation to grasp the difference between a deity one can see and touch, who can be made within the structures of human existence, finitude and materiality, and a deity who cannot. God appears to Mary and later to the disciples as the human person of Jesus, visible to us. But when he says, “Noli me tangere, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God,” this is something else, the immaterial Son-God, who is not of the created world. He cannot be seen or touched. Mary, even in an effort to love, cannot physically hold onto him. God must be held onto in some other way called faith.

 “Noli Me Tangere” is a reminder of that. The incarnate Jesus was seen, touched, and touched others. After the resurrection, God must be apprehended differently.

But this is prologue and about God. What I really want to look at is the scene in John from Mary’s point of view. What does she—and what do we—learn about humanity?

Tactile Humanity, Fatal Intactness

In the John 20 passage, Mary’s first impulse in seeing the image of Jesus—she has not quite grasped that he is resurrected—is to touch, to make contact. God cannot literally be held onto, but we humans need to touch and be touched. We express relationship through touch, by letting others into our spheres of selfhood, by allowing our intactness to be breached. We hug, caress, shake hands, have sex, put an arm on a shoulder, the whole compendium of physical contact. In turn, contact withdrawn is rejection. A colleague who won’t shake a hand, a friend who doesn’t give a hug, a spouse who won’t share a bed—that’s cutting. It cuts the bond.

We are made for relationships, with God and with each other. This is one meaning of covenant, begun with Adam and Noah and the way of the species since. In biblical tradition, covenant with God and among persons are inseparable: covenantal commitment to others is part of covenant with God, and covenant with God sustains us in commitment to each other. It’s the structure of the Ten Commandments, the first three of which pertain to relationship with God, the rest, seamlessly, to bonds among persons. Attempts to get one relationship without the other gets you the prophets’ ire: Amos is firm on the importance of compassion even over religious rites: “I [God] hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me… But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream” (5:21-24). Proverbs 21:3 reprises: “To do what is right and just is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.”

Whereas God, not in time and world, expresses this entwined covenant divinely, we express it through gestures of the material body Ritual expresses the human need to forge relationship through the senses. As a species, we cannot do without this sensual expression. Children lacking physical and emotional contact suffer cognitive and emotional impairment.[1]  Adults who become isolated suffer from increased risk of suicide, higher mortality rates[2] and morbidity, including depression and other emotional difficulties.[3]

So far, this seems a fairly coherent cosmos: each of us is made for covenant at once with God and with persons, a bond expressed by God divinely—“noli me tangere,” “from the back”— and by humanity through our material capacities. A difficulty arises when humanity is prevented from employing its capacities to forge and express relationship. We may be prevented by external forces, such as the covid pandemic, and we may be stopped by internal ones, by our fears of dissolution, should our intactness be breached. And it may be stopped by both, fear of external threat ratcheting up our fear of our unraveling under the physical proximity and emotional demands of relationship.

The great rabbi and artist Leonard Cohen had much to say about covenantality and its breaches as he knew himself to be a covenant fail-er par excellence, desirous of relationship with God and others (passionately, with women) and unable to sustain them. Fearful of being subsumed, he bolted. Rinse and repeat, as Babette Babich has said.[4] Here is Cohen in commitment to God: “We are made to lift my heart to you [God]…travel on a hair to you…go through a pinhole of light… and fly on the wisp of a remembrance” to you (“Not Knowing Where to Go[5]). And here he is in thrall with a woman, from a song that has gripped us since 1967: “And you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind/And then you know that you can trust her/For she's touched your perfect body with her mind” (“Suzanne”).

Yet Cohen was more gone than present, ever “Moving On,” leaving relationship more than sticking it out. “In My Secret Life” ends with Cohen noting that he’s too chilled, “crowded,” and icy to make room for anyone. And he mourns the loss that he authors.

He—we—author it in part owing to pride. “When the heart grins at itself,” Cohen writes, “the world is destroyed. And I am found alone with the husks and the shells. Then the dangerous moment comes: I am too great to ask for help” (“When I Have Not Rage,”[6]). A second reason, Henry Bean notes, is that the very intimacy we desire threatens intactness, which we need to be us and simply to be--or so we think.[7] The intimacy we want threatens existence, or so we feel. It is a terror voiced in Cohen’s “Joan of Arc.” Relying on the kabbalist image of God’s love as shards of light, Cohen writes: “Myself, I long for love and light/but must it come so cruel, must it be so bright?”

The brightness of our need illuminates—and exposes—our porousness. We are not safely intact in our sealed bodies, tucked into the membrane of control. We are needy of God and persons, and in terror of our necessary dependence, we bolt. “Night Comes On” contains one of Cohen’s most self-aware admissions: “I needed so much to have nothing to touch/I've always been greedy that way.” To be free of needing to touch--how tempting intactness is. Under the Damoclean sword of ever-possible-annihilation-through-love, self-enclosure becomes self-protection, and we are greedy for it. Cohen knew this to be true of himself at age fifty in “Night Comes On” and as a young man in 1963, when his protagonist/alter ego in TheFavourite Game writes to his girlfriend, “Dearest Shell, if you let me I’d always keep you 400 miles away and write you pretty poems and letters.”[8] I will adore thee if I can be free of thee. Cohen loved but always with an eye on the exit.

Twenty-five years later Cohen explained in 1988, “The condition that most elevates us is the condition that most annihilates us, that somehow the destruction of the ego is involved with love.”[9] The 2001 “Boogie Street” is still working this idea: “It is in love that we are made;/In love we disappear.”

If relationship is dissolution, no one would risk it. “They’re selling freedom everywhere,” Cohen sang on his 2009 world tour, “it’s flying off the shelf/Yeah, they’re selling freedom everywhere but love, that’s something else” (“Feels So Good”). Love is indeed something else. It is the most wanted thing. But in fear of “annihilation,” as Cohen put it, we’re buying the exit of “freedom.”

Wanting yet fearing love—wanting to be touched yet wary of the invasion—is a double bind. But it is not a bond. We cling to our pristine intactness, hack off our relations, and evade the maiming we do to others and ourselves. In “Closing Time” Cohen writes succinctly, “Looks like freedom but it feels like death.” We cannot stay with love, with openness to the “invasion” of touch, because we fear it’s murder of the self so we choose “freedom,” which feels like death.

This is the human condition as Cohen saw it in sixty years of poem and song. His work plumbs our breach of commitment not only in our personal but in our political lives. In “Everybody Knows” he writes, “Everybody knows the war is over/Everybody knows the good guys lost/Everybody knows the fight was fixed/The poor stay poor, the rich get rich.” “The Future” is somewhat nastier: “Take the only tree that's left/And stuff it up the hole/In your culture.” And in “Land of Plenty,” he reprises:

“For the millions in a prison,
That wealth has set apart
For the Christ who has not risen,
From the caverns of the heart…
For what's left of our religion,
I lift my voice and pray.”


“Noli me tangere” is the nature of the divine, not humanity. Mary learns this at Jesus’ tomb: God is not physically touchable, but she wants to touch. This is her human way of being. We are growing pandemically used to not touching, to being wary of others, and the closer—less than six feet?—the warier. Perhaps the distance necessitated by Covid-19, the enforced intactness, will allow us to see something of the foundational nature of touch, of openness to relationship, so that at least we don’t, of our own doing, seal ourselves off in the membrane of intactness.

[1]IJzendoorn, M. van, J. Palacios, E. Sonuga‐Barke, M. Gunnar, P. Vorria, R. McCall, L. Le Mare, M. Bakermans‐Kranenburg, N. Dobrova‐Krol and F. Juffer (2011), ‘Children in Institutional Care: Delayed Development and Resilience’, Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development 76 (4): 8–30.
[2] Pantell, M., H. Rehkopf, D. Jutte, S. Syme, J. Balmes and N. Adler (2013), ‘Social isolation: a predictor of mortality comparable to traditional clinical risk factors’, American Journal of Public Health 103 (11): 2056–2062;
[3]Cacioppo, J. and S. Cacioppo (2014), ‘Social Relationships and Health: The Toxic Effects of Perceived Social Isolation’, Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 8 (2): 58–72; Leigh-Hunt, N., D. Bagguley, K. Bash, V. Turner, S. Turnbull, N. Valtorta and W. Caan (2017), ‘An overview of systematic reviews on the public health consequences of social isolation and loneliness’, Public Health, 152: 157–71.
[4] Babich, B. (2013), The Hallelujah Effect: Philosophical Reflections on Music, Performance Practice, and Technology, Farnham/Burlington: Ashgate, 50.
[5] In Cohen, L. (1994), Stranger Music, Selected Poems and Songs, New York: Vintage/Random House, 332.
[6] Ibid., 326.
[7] Bean, H. (2018), ‘Lecture on Vayakhel – Pekude’, 10 March, Ansche Chesed, New York.
[8] Cited in Simmons, S. (2012), I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, New York: Harper Collins, 368.
[9] Burger, J. ed. (2014), Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 219.

Marcia Pally teaches Multilingual Multicultural Studies at New York University and held the Mercator Guest Professorship in the theology faculty at Humboldt University-Berlin, where she is an annual guest professor. Her most recent books are From This Broken Hill I Sing to You: God, Sex, and Politics in the Work of Leonard Cohen (2021), Commonwealth and Covenant: Economics, Politics, and Theologies of Relationality (2016), and the edited volume Mimesis and Sacrifice (2019). Commonwealth and Covenant was selected by the United Nations Committee on Education for Justice for worldwide distribution and was nominated for a Grawemeyer Award in religion.

Our project takes the words spoken by Jesus to Mary Magdalene in the garden after she discovers his empty tomb — noli me tangere (“touch me not”) — as a provocation for reflection on the COVID-19 pandemic, and on other pandemics, viral and social, that engulf us.