Sexuality And The Rabbis

What could an old-style Chassidic rabbi say about sexuality in the modern day? Some of the readers are expecting the routine fire and brimstone attack of the promiscuous mores of contemporary society. I know that many would expect to get an earful of vitriol directed against the perversions of our time. Or, perhaps, you might be preparing for a lecture about the danger of AIDS and other venereal diseases promiscuity can cause.

This, I must tell you, is not what I am about to write.. In fact, I can fully comprehend why society has become so liberal in its views on sexuality. It is, to a great extent, a reaction to the repression of sexuality engendered by religion or, at least, the perception of what religion has to say about the subject. The perception – with, undoubtedly a healthy kernel of truth to support it, at least as some religions are concerned – is that in the eyes of G-d sexuality is, at the very worst, dirty, and, at the very best, a concession to our base, animal instincts. Some might even accord sexuality the status of a necessary evil for procreation. It is a means, albeit a rather lowly one, to reach the exalted end of bringing life and holiness into the world. Others might “justify” it on the grounds that it is our way of expressing love and all those other good emotions.

But, if these rationalizations for sexuality would be valid, why would G-d choose for us to bring life, express love and everything else positive, by way of something that is inherently flawed and animalistic? Why couldn’t G-d, in His infinite wisdom, find a more appropriate way of generating new life? After all, we do have a model for procreation without the sexual act. I am referring to teaching. When a teacher takes an idea and imparts it to a student, who is intellectually barren, he is actually “planting” the concept into the mind of the student. The student, by allowing the idea to germinate, can ultimately develop a new level of understanding. The teacher has in effect created a new intellectual being. Yet, this form of procreation is so “clean” so sanitized, sophisticated and eminently human. Why, did G-d have to resort to sex for physical procreation?

Obviously, it was questions like these that caused many an individual to reevaluate their view of sexuality. How can one consider some of the most powerful forms of expression to be no more than a concession to some animal hiding in the dark precincts of one’s soul? The response to this challenge was to remove the taboo concerning sexuality, to equate it with any other human function, to remove all inhibitions.

But, instead of really going to the essence of sexuality, its beauty, its purity and its holiness, those who have rebelled against the old-fashioned view of sexuality have gone to the opposite extreme. By flaunting the body and sex, by rendering it “normal” and making it public, these soldiers of the sexual revolution have, in actuality, distorted the true beauty of sexuality and stripped it of its true meaning.

Now, to be sure, the old fashioned view – and the perception many have of religion – that sexuality is less holy than other functions and is, at the very best, a necessary evil, flies against some of the most basic theological premises of Judaism. In relation to G-d there cannot be a distinction between the physical and the spiritual. The spiritual is no closer to G-d than the physical. And G-d, who is truly infinite, transcends the limiting parameters of both the physical and spiritual, and can therefore be found within both. The only way to “access” G-d is to make a world that is receptive to G-d’s will. There is, therefore, no reason for sexuality to be viewed as something outside the pale of holiness. When sexuality is part of a way of life whose objective is the orientation of self to the Divine way of life, then sexuality is as much a Divine experience as anything we would ordinarily refer to as spiritual. 

In fact, Judaism’s view of sexuality is that it is one of the most powerful G-dly forces, which when channeled properly, i.e., within the proper context and discipline, can become the conduit for heightened spirituality. When reduced to the level of only a physical exercise for purely physical joy, however, it is like being exposed to a powerful surge of energy, in an unprotected way. “Safe sex” should not be limited to the physical barriers one uses to prevent the spread of the HIV virus. “Safe sex” means to create the right setting and understanding of sexuality so that its power can be accessed safely.

Without the spiritual understanding, the permissive individual denigrates sexuality no less than the prude. If the perception was that religion regarded sexuality as dirty, the modern day promiscuous individual sees it as a shallow, if not a mechanical, or, recreational, activity.

In truth, sexuality is neither. It is, in essence – from Judaism’s perspective – a Divine instrument. When practiced within the confines of a relationship of commitment and love, as a profoundly private and personal experience, expressive of one’s Divine soul, and particularly when one follows the laws concerning family purity, it is comparable to a beautiful gem which can be fully appreciated for its true value and beauty when it is set within its golden casing.

Rabbi Heschel Greenberg

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