Sanctity and pleasure, feminists and rabbis

Originally published in Times of Israel

Exactly two years ago today I published my first TOI blog post called Ten Tips to Raising Sexually Healthy Orthodox Women. This was written as a response to a query I received that focused on the seeming paradox that exists between raising Orthodox children with the values of modesty and sanctity, while instilling within them the core tools necessary for healthy sexual development, such as knowledge about sexuality, body awareness, ability to perceive pleasure, and how to communicate about sex.

Two years later, this seeming conflict entered the social networks again this week, with two recent blog posts in Cross-Currents, “a journal of thought and reflections, from an array of Orthodox Jewish writers.”

In the first post, entitled, “Holiness Does Not Have an Expiration Date”  Rabbi Eliyahu Safran bemoans the ‘constant barrage of pornographic images and language’ that affect and damage our children, and asks how we can protect ourselves and our children, in keeping with God’s commandment You shall be holy to me; for I the Lord am holy, and have separated you from other people, that you should be mine. — Leviticus 20:26

This is an excellent question. Children and teens are strongly influenced by messages relayed through television, music, movies and the Internet. Advertisements that portray slim, beautiful young models determine societal norms of attractiveness, and affect the developing self and body image of both boys and girls in haredi as well as modern communities.   Graphic and violent musical lyrics and music videos often depict women (and men) as objects and generally do not reflect the values we wish to instill in our children regarding sex, which include love, mutuality, consent, autonomy, boundaries and respect.

While Rabbi Safran understandably seeks to stop the “pornographic tsunami,” perhaps he should consider why so many Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox adolescents are drawn to seek out information through these media in the first place. To what extent do lack of information and access to appropriate and values-based basic sexual information and education draw young people to these easily available resources?

Adolescents steeped in religious teachings, yet exposed to popular culture, receive divergent and confusing messages about sex. If they are not processed and balanced with a values-based sexual education, the information they do receive is likely, at best, to be incorrect, and, at worst, harmful. Sex education should not be viewed as a necessary evil required in order to contend with today’s cultural realities, but rather as crucial in preparing individuals for a sexual relationship in marriage. It incorporates elements that do not require actually experiencing partnered sexual activity, including self- and  body-awareness, positive self and body image, and development of the capacity for intimacy and expressions of love. The development of a sexual sense of self is integral to one’s ability to enjoy sexual relations in marriage.

However, the focus of R. Safran’s blog appears to disparage the very efforts (by the feminist organization, JOFA) to provide these resources. Inexplicably, he refers to providing young women with premarital education about their bodies and about pleasure as  “animalistic teachings.”

A second blog post published on Wednesday by Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein, entitled, “A Kedusha Primer: A Response to Readers,” attempts to clarify R. Safran’s post by emphasizing that the article focused on the core values of holiness and that “none of this implies that the topics should not be discussed.” He goes on to emphasize that kedusha (sanctity) means that that physical gratification is not a means to an end, that R. Moshe Feinstein forbade women as well as men to watch movies that they might find arousing, and that R. Aharon Lichtenstein wrote in Tradition on “his unease with the way contemporary Jews have perhaps read a celebration of romanticism into intimacy that may not be in the sources.” R. Adlerstein further states that “it is beyond R Safran, beyond me, and beyond anyone I know who has seriously studied Torah that teens should be urged to pleasure themselves.”

Both Rabbis Safran and Adlerstein raise legitimate issues that challenge me and other mental health professionals in the sex therapy field as well as educators and counselors. Both rabbis refer to auto-induced female arousal and pleasure, and appear quite troubled by this idea. However, there are other issues that should trouble them more than the self-pleasuring of teenage girls.

They should be troubled by the fact that lack of information sends young people to the Internet to learn about sex from pornography. They should be troubled by the fact that having no language or perceived right to boundaries leaves both young men and young women vulnerable to becoming victims of abuse, and to not reporting that abuse. And they should be troubled by the existing phenomenon of young couples who experience pain and trauma in their sexual lives, because they are provided with so little information about anatomy and physiology, arousal and pleasure. Yet, they are expected to figure it all out on their wedding night.

As a sex therapist, I recognize the value of self-awareness and knowledge in creating healthy and satisfactory physical relationships. In fact, lack of knowledge, inhibitory messages about pleasure, and lack of bodily autonomy are far more likely to impact negatively on shalom bayit, (marital harmony) and ultimately, kedusha. A couple needs to be able to experience joy and pleasure together, before being able to sanctify it. “Sanctify yourself by that which is permitted to you” (Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 20a).

R. Adlerstein sadly concludes, “What is apparent is just how far apart two different groups of people who call themselves Orthodox have drifted. We use the same texts (at times) and mouth the same words. But like people in the aftermath of the Tower of Bavel, we no longer speak the same language”

In this concluding statement, R Adlerstein provides an additional challenge that relates to cultural sensitivity and reminds us of the importance of acceptable language. Perhaps in regard to content, there is not such a lack of consensus after all. We all recognize that marital sex and pleasure is not an allowance, rather an expectation in Jewish marriage, and that modesty in speech is a long-held Jewish tradition that continues to deserve respect. However, I believe these are complementary and not conflicting values. The rabbis provide an important and culturally sensitive reminder that discussions about sexuality consider language and content that avoids offending sensibilities. Nonetheless, the time has come to empower the next generation of Orthodox couples by respecting them enough to offer honest and accurate sources of information and adequate preparation for a joyful, meaningful and satisfying marital life.

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