Sexual Choices Amid Evolving Standards

August 23, 2013 9:18 am 2 comments

Tel Aviv's LGBT pride parade on June 7, 2013. Photo: U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv.

Sexual depravity, like violence, was the natural state of the pagan world, with temple prostitution and human sacrifice going hand-in-hand. Even in the Bible, some of the greatest of men allowed their sexual urges to make fools and sinners of them. The Israelites, fresh out of Sinai, were seduced by Moabite purveyors of sex. The Mishna states unequivocally that lust is one of three things that can destroy a person.

In spite of all that, in Judaism sex is regarded as something wonderful, positive, and a gift of God – provided of course that one accepts the limitations and disciplines that the Torah teaches are necessary to fully appreciate its sanctity. Indeed, according to the majority opinion in Jewish law, nothing is forbidden sexually between consenting and permitted partners.

But we live in a world where sex has become a pervasive, trivial release of human urges, no more significant than a sneeze. Sex has always been misused. But in our world we have reached new lows. Women and children are abused sexually in the most barbaric and inconceivable ways. And I am not talking about those parts of the world still suffering from oppressive male religious hypocrisy. Even in the strictest of religions, the tendency to exploit and sexually abuse women has time and again proved to be more powerful than the strongest of taboos. The availability of pornography at the click of a Google search is a blight on civilization. It is the strongest argument for parental control of the internet.

If someone enjoys sadomasochism that is a private affair, and if consenting adults do whatever they feel like that is also a matter of privacy. Similarly, Christians and Muslims are free to try to convert me, and I am free to tell them to get lost. I know I am constantly being bombarded by adverts, overt and subliminal, all trying to manipulate me to buy something. But if I am mature enough, I can withstand such pressures – religious or profane.

When society seems to be losing its sense of sexual values, it is natural that some, religious or not, want to hold the line somewhere and preserve a comfort zone. All societies go through cycles of permissiveness, followed by repression, followed by relaxation. Often the way they do this is by falling back on standards that they believe once worked (even if they did not, or the circumstances were entirely different).

Many moderns look at Jewish laws that forbid sex during a woman’s period and give her time to recover as both primitive and unrealistic. But tradition can argue that, on the contrary, a voluntary form of abstinence enhances a relationship. Of course sexuality and how one treats it is very subjective and personal, and no system works for everyone.

But in my opinion, and as I have experienced it, it respects the right of the woman to decide how her body measures its rhythms. It respects her space. Again I stress that my experience tells me that periodic abstinence helps maintain the excitement of intimacy, which in too many relationships becomes mundane, loses its passion, and withers. There is lot to be said in favor of self-discipline.

I should stress that I have no idea if this is why we have these laws, but I do know I can see the benefits, whether intended or not. We live in an era of self-indulgence. The more spoilt you are the less you appreciate physical pleasure. You take it for granted, and the more addicted you are to instant gratification, the more you run the risk of needing constant stimulation. It’s like any addiction.

Traditional communities struggle to maintain values that they believe enhance life while in the world around them they are accused of being old fashioned. In a liberal society, we believe in choices and freedoms. But the same rights must be extended to those who make other choices provided of course they do not interfere with others.

Currently, a Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles, with a large Persian membership, is the center of a storm over the issue of gay and lesbian marriage. Most of the community embraces the decision of its rabbi to perform religious marriages for same-sex couples. A traditional minority has balked. It wants to adhere to traditional Jewish attitudes, which insist that Kiddushin, the religious sanctification of a union, should conform to traditional requirements. You cannot say “According to Law of Moses and Israel” if it is not.

The Ashkenazi world has been split into different denominations with their own definitions of Jewish identity and attitudes towards Jewish law. The gaps are sometimes as wide as between Protestants and Catholics. The result is a very clear demarcation between those who accept traditional halacha and those who do not. The Orthodox position has tended to be “my way or the highway.” The non-Orthodox position has been more negotiable. The Sefardi world, never having had Reform, accommodated every degree of commitment to Judaism under its broad umbrella without asking awkward questions, and its rabbinate tended to be more accommodating. Sadly, even they are increasingly being eroded as the Sefardi world is being dragged to the right.

Many Persian Jews, when they came to America, like generations of immigrants before them, found Conservative Jewry more to their liking, a bridge between modernity and tradition. Now the chickens have come to roost, and they will have to choose. Because there is always a tipping point. You simply cannot have your cake and eat it too forever.

Orthodoxy has come a long way in recent years in modulating its stance on different sexual standards and preferences. Its policy has been to welcome individuals rather than to change its value system, and to avoid invading privacy on a range of issues. It has tried to adapt to civil society without sacrificing tradition. Instead of changing the law, it preserves it as principle but in principle if not always in practice, deals caringly with those who choose to make their own decisions. Others choose instead to change the law. Two models. Two choices.

Those who fear that society has permitted too much are still subject in public to the law of the land. But they are fortunate in a free society that they can religiously preserve their own standards. The traditionalists of Los Angeles, indeed anyone who feels uncomfortable with the way their church or synagogue is going, can simply walk. There are options. I am not sure we should be framing this in terms of right or wrong, but rather in terms of preferences.

My community (the Persian Jewish Center) welcomes everyone. It does not apply religious tests. We only ask that our standards be respected. We adhere to traditional Jewish law even if our membership fails to live up to it. If the weight of halachic opinion changes, we will go with the flow. But until it does, we stand for caution and traditional values. It’s like being caught up in a moral tsunami. When in doubt, as the torrent rages around you, hold on. Some may say that that is a cop-out. I would argue that sometimes “discretion is the better part of valor”.

2 Comments

  • Mark Jay Mirsky

    Dear Jeremy,

    Thank you for this excellent posting. It’s painful to hear that the broad umbrella of the Sefardi community is being slowly contracted. The Jewish world of Boston, which I grew up in, included many individuals whose preferences were obviously at odds with the majority in the community, but still the majority was happy to see them occasionally in the synagogue. And in the 1920′s and 30′s, studying the archives of my grandfather’s synagogue, it seems as if traditional rabbis from both Orthodox and Conservative worlds served in its pulpit. The generosity and understanding of statements like yours are what promises a more cohesive, and happier future for all of us who believe in a Judaism alive and healthy in its traditions.

    • Mark
      Thank you so much for your generous comment.
      I wish you and all your family a very sweet year and I’m looking forward to getting together.
      Jeremy

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Music Personalities Twenty Years On, the Real and Radical Legacy of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach

    Twenty Years On, the Real and Radical Legacy of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach

    JNS.org – “He was part hippie, part yippie, part beatnik, and part New Age,” wrote Elli Wohlgelernter in a Jerusalem Post eulogy in 1994, following the Oct. 20 passing of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Twenty years later, more robust accounts of Carlebach’s life have come to the surface. Earlier this year, Natan Ophir published the book Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: Life, Mission & Legacy. This past summer, Rabbi Shlomo Katz’s The Soul of Jerusalem hit the shelves. But even the authors will admit [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Music Beatlemania Invades the Gaza Strip (SATIRE)

    Beatlemania Invades the Gaza Strip (SATIRE)

    As Hamas loses its grip on power in the Gaza Strip as a result of war, poverty and disillusionment, the Islamist terrorist group has developed an ingenious way to raise the moral of the 1.7 million Palestinian Arabs it was elected to serve. While currently focused on delivering a rocket into every Israeli home, Hamas has not left its own people behind. To gently wipe away the tears of children strategically placed inside kindergartens as human shields, the Hamas Interior Ministry has [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Spirituality/Tradition Removing Jesus’ Jewish Identity From Artwork

    Removing Jesus’ Jewish Identity From Artwork

    In a strong statement that challenges the historic divide between Christianity and Judaism, Pope Francis recently proclaimed, “Inside every Christian is a Jew.” But if you look at Renaissance artworks that depict Jesus, you will not find any evidence of a Jew inside the Christianized Jesus — even though the Gospels in the New Testament tell us that Jesus was Jewish to the core. Getting that point across to the public is a daunting task, as I learned in interviews I [...]

    Read more →
  • Music Personalities Recycling His Roots

    Recycling His Roots

    JNS.org – Having started his career playing on his family’s pots and pans, Jewish musician Billy Jonas has maintained this homemade performance ethic while spreading his messages of simple living and environmentalism to a shared home throughout the world. After beginning in the kitchen, Jonas soon moved to the music room, where he picked up the piano, guitar, and trombone. These days, the multi-talented multi-instrumentalist plays on with pretty much anything he can find, including cans, bottles buckets, and other recycled-object [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Personalities Jewish Renewal Movement Founder’s Insights Form a New Guide for Senior Living

    Jewish Renewal Movement Founder’s Insights Form a New Guide for Senior Living

    JNS.org – Sara Davidson’s The December Project is a new book that should be read by all senior citizens, and by those who hope to live a long life, for it raises a question that most of us have not been taught how to answer: What should we do in that final stage of our lives? Many of us continue working past the traditional retirement age of 65, not because we need the money and not because we find the [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Jewish History Why the Holocaust Occurred in Germany, and Why So Few Resisted (REVIEW)

    Why the Holocaust Occurred in Germany, and Why So Few Resisted (REVIEW)

    It’s hard to make a new contribution to the field of Holocaust studies,  but German historian Götz Aly accomplishes just that in Why the Germans, Why the Jews? His premise is that the origins of the Holocaust were rooted in the specific anti-Semitism found in Germany in the decades and centuries before World War II. Aly (who is not Jewish) seeks to prove his theory by studying only pre-Holocaust history, and tracing how the German people’s envy and hatred of [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Looking at Anti-Israel Celebrities and Their Brands

    Looking at Anti-Israel Celebrities and Their Brands

    JNS.org – During the current conflict in Gaza a number of celebrities have voiced their opinions in support of either the Israeli or Palestinian positions. But others—be it during Operation Protective Edge or at other times—have gone further than simply supporting the Palestinians by actively supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, making false accusations about the Jewish state, ignoring Israel’s position on the conflict, or justifying the actions of the terrorist group Hamas. Many of these [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Sports Israeli UFC Fighter Returns to Jewish State to Rejoin IDF

    Israeli UFC Fighter Returns to Jewish State to Rejoin IDF

    JNS.org – Days after winning his Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) featherweight bout against Steven Siler on July 26, Israeli-born mixed martial arts competitor Noad Lahat boarded a plane for his native country, choosing to temporarily exit UFC’s octagonal cage to rejoin the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) as a paratrooper for its operation against Hamas in Gaza. Except he didn’t actually consider it a choice. “When [our] home is in danger, there is no other way for us [but to serve [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.