In perhaps no other area are Jewish values more valuable than in religion’s increasingly repressive relationship with sexuality.
Dumping on sex seems to be a serious religious pastime. Paul, Christianity’s putative founder, exalted in his celibacy and preached the same for all followers capable of overcoming the temptations of the flesh. “I wish that all were as I am…; I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn…” (1 Corinthians 7).
These sentiments are put in the mouth of Jesus himself, who is supposed to have said, “There are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it” (Matthew 19:12).
No doubt the weight of this tradition will make it challenging for the new pope to address the 900-pound gorilla staring down the Catholic church, namely the never-ending sexual abuse scandals. How sad it is to see so much of that unqualified good the church does in this world eclipsed by scandals bedeviling it.
Our community likewise is not immune to sexual scandal. Articles on rabbis or religious Jewish teachers being found guilty of abuse of both boys and/or girls have been widely reported in Jewish media, including here in the Jewish Standard.
When I published “Kosher Sex” in 1999, I was addressing a secular, mainstream, and sexually free society, offering a philosophy of how sex could recapture its power to induce emotional intimacy, to serve as an emotional thread bonding husband and wife to one another rather than the empty physical shell of sex being offered today to married couples who quickly forfeit both passion and intimacy. Some studies put the rate of platonic marriage in America – defined as having sex fewer than 10 times a year – at one in five American marriages. (National Health and Social Life Survey.)
Within a few weeks of publishing the book, however, I began receiving a steady stream of emails, nearly always with pseudonyms, from religious couples around the world, both Jewish and Christian, asking specific advice about curing sexual dysfunction in their relationships.
The answers they were getting from their clerics often lacked a human dimension. Many Christians were being told sex is mostly for procreation, while many Orthodox Jews were being told that nearly everything is forbidden in the bedroom, with the exception of sex in the dark and in the missionary position.
Both groups were being misled. The Bible makes it clear in Genesis 2:24 that sex is primarily for intimacy, rather than children: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and leave his mother. He shall cleave to his wife and they shall become one flesh.” This pivotal idea is echoed in the Bible having no word for sex other than “knowledge.
So why were religious couples being consciously misled into believing that passion and lust had no place in marriage? How were we to understand the deep lust celebrated between man and woman so beautifully captured in Song of Songs, which the Talmud declares to be the holiest book of the Bible, whose tamer verses, such as here, in 7:1-2, include, “Your rounded thighs are like jewels, the work of a master hand. Your navel is a rounded bowl that never lacks mixed wine. Your belly is a heap of wheat, encircled with lilies”?
Fraudulent sexual teachings in religion have destroyed countless lives and extinguished countless marriages. Worse, false and repressive piety also may be the cause of some of the aberrant sexual behavior we are seeing in otherwise godly men and women. Is clerical celibacy in the Catholic church one of the prime things that leads to abuse? No one knows fully. Is sexual suppression in some religious Jewish circles, which could never be countenanced by Jewish law, the reason that more stories of abuse are emerging? Nothing can be said for sure. There may be other, stronger forces at work.
But this is certain. Sexuality strikes to the very heart of the human condition. A healthy, positive, and fulfilling sex life in marriage is not a luxury, but a necessity that the Bible recognizes in innumerable instances and that forms the basic narrative of so many biblical marriages, like the famous story of Isaac being “sexually playful” with his wife Rebecca told in Genesis 26:8.
This is a fact: Any religion that bases itself on our Bible cannot escape the Tanach’s healthy encouragement of carnal intimacy being the central staple of a husband and wife’s loving connectedness.
A man who is in love with his wife and concentrates his fullest erotic attention on her is living a holy life. The tenth commandment makes it clear that we are not to covet our neighbor’s wife, which, by direct implication, means we sure as heck ought to be coveting our own.
It is time for religion to reclaim and preach the holy carnal union of a passionate marital sexual bond.