What is it about our modern era that necessitates the production of Jewish books on the Torah’s view of marital intimacy, on sexuality?
The answer is painfully obvious.
We find ourselves in a world that is permeated by, and preoccupied with, little other than sexuality and the seemingly limitless ways of creating and indulging sexual passion. And, to make matters worse, even as the world wallows in unbridled sexuality, it continues to instill the subliminal message that sex is evil and is linked inextricably with feelings of worthlessness, guilt, and shame.
The last century’s scientific and technological “advances” have united the world to a degree unprecedented in human history. The power and influence of the various mass media is such that, today, it is impossible for any Jew or Jewish community anywhere in the world to remain insulated from the onslaught against fundamental Torah values. We are exposed daily to value systems and ideologies foreign and antagonistic to our own.
It is no wonder, then, that the Jewish community has unwittingly absorbed some of this confused ideology into its fundamental attitudes towards sexuality. Indeed, it is astounding that we have not adopted more.
The Torah uses the physical activity of mitzvah performance to engrave the significance of a mitzvah deep into the soul. Physical activity is much more effective at impressing an idea into the soul than intellectual contemplation alone could be. And, physical pleasure that results from the performance of a mitzvah serves as the means of achieving the deepest impression of all.
Almost every mitzvah consists of taking some “prop” of the physical world and using it in His service, in fulfillment of a Divine directive. Our job as Jews as envisioned by the Torah is to take the gifts of this world and elevate them to the heights of holiness. Shabbat, for example, is sanctified over a cup of wine – words alone will not suffice. Almost every mitzvah consists of combining physical with spiritual, accomplishing, through this synergy, what each component alone never could.
This is where Judaism diverges fundamentally from other religious systems; this is what gives Judaism its unique essential character. Christianity turns a jaundiced eye on this world and its pleasures, and demands from its adherents a strict, complete denial of, and abstention from, this world and all it has to offer in return for a promise of reward in the next world. Any partaking of or involvement in things physical is condemned as weakness and compromise, a submission to the base, animal, evil desires contained within every sinful human soul. Christian philosophy pits physical against spiritual.
Nothing, the Torah teaches, could be farther from the truth! Judaism teaches that only someone who has learned to experience and appreciate pleasure in this world, and has learned to express gratitude for these pleasures to “the One Who spoke and created the world” will be capable of fully appreciating and praising the Almighty’s greatness and benevolence in the Next World.
The Torah, then, does not posit any inherent conflict between the physical and spiritual aspects of Creation.
The Torah’s view of sexuality is a perfect illustration of the general Torah attitude toward the physical world and its pleasures: The Seer of Lublin (Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak Horowitz, 1745-1815) emphasized that a person must feel and express gratitude to the Almighty when he experiences sexual pleasure. Sexual pleasure, like all physical pleasure, the Seer explained, is an opportunity to feel gratitude to God.
Western society prizes pleasure. Much, if not most, of our time, energy, attention, imagination, resources, and money is directed to the pursuit of pleasure, in innumerable forms and varieties. Many times, of course, the acquisition or enjoyment of pleasure carries with it obligations and responsibilities. Often (though not always), these obligations are discharged and these responsibilities are fulfilled. What can you do? That is the price one must pay for many pleasures.
Contrast this to the Torah’s view. The Torah also values pleasure, as we have seen – but with a significant difference. Duties and responsibilities are not the inevitable, unavoidable “cost” of pleasure. Rather, pleasure is a happy and not unwelcome byproduct that accompanies and results from the proper observance and fulfillment of many of our G-d-given obligations. In such instances, pleasure introduces an additional duty to feel and express gratitude to the Giver of all pleasures.
Pleasure obtained through, or as, the performance of God’s commandments is a nice extra – and one celebrated in countless statements by our Sages – but our gaze never falters or wanders from what, for a Jew, is the most important – indeed, the only – concern: fulfilling the will of the Almighty.
Our analysis, while correct, is incomplete. There is another dimension. Sex is not just one example of physical pleasure. It is the ultimate, most extreme example because it is the most intense, volatile, pronounced drive. Thus, we can extrapolate to all other, lesser pleasures because, if a person can attain holiness in this realm, then certainly he can attain holiness through the rest of the world’s delights.
Looking to improve your marriage? (Who isn’t?)
The OU partners with Puah Institute to address “Clinical and Torah Perspectives on Intimacy and Fertility Challenges,” April 29th in Teaneck, NJ.
This piece is excerpted from Marital Intimacy. The author, Rabbi Cary A. Friedman, is Associate Editor of the OU Press. Rabbi Friedman is available for Scholar in Residence programs, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.