Search results ({{ }}):

The Dangers of Misguided Piety

When it comes to sexual relations with one's wife, when is it appropriate to be extra modest and pious, and when is it appropriate to be more playful and passionate? (Reprinted with permission from the Jewish Press)

the.guard Monday, 31 March 2014

The man in my office was beside himself. He had been seeing me for the past few weeks and made significant strides in recovering from his porn addiction. His path was not easy, but nevertheless rewarding – he had to face brutal realizations about himself and re-order his life. Despite all the progress, he was in grave danger of back sliding because a rebbe of his whom he admired for years was caught up in a sex scandal. My client was in shock, and angry. He exclaimed, “This was a man whom I admired and was my role model. He wrote sefarim and was a world famous halachic authority! How could he do this to us?” I reminded him that the recent positive choices he began to make were not to make his rebbe happy, and nor even merely to make G-d happy, but rather, to engender a more emotionally balanced lifestyle for himself and his family. Truly, he saw how his addictive behavior was ruining his life and his relationships. The rewards of an emotionally balanced lifestyle are intrinsic and he need not let another person’s failures or hypocrisy distract him from his resolve.

I hoped I was helpful to him and that he would regain his equilibrium. After all, there can always be an occasional bad apple who behaves as Zimri but expects the reward of Pinchas (Sotah 22b), but that does not represent anywhere near the majority.

Still, the more I thought about it, the more I was troubled. Every few months the media reports incidents involving some prominent rabbi or rebbe committing some form of sexual misdeed. This phenomenon is almost a trend, and therefore not just about occasional outlier; something deeper is behind this. We are taught that the Torah serves as protection against the yezer hara, as the Talmud advises, “If that disgusting one confronts you, drag him to the Beis Midrash” and that “Torah is an antidote to the yezer hara” (both found in Kiddushin 30b). Apparently, a small, scattered but nonetheless significant number of individuals in the observant community have dragged the ugly one into the Beis Medrash but have not succeeded in rendering him ineffective. What is going wrong? Why is this process failing for a small, but persistent cohort of prominent and learned people?

Perspective and Balance

The problem for some may lie in a lack of perspective and balance. The correct execution of Torah life involves abiding by conflicting priorities and concerns in a healthy and reasonable manner. Thus, for example, while it is important to do chessed, one should not do it in the extreme, to the point of self abnegation. And while it is important to abstain from hedonistic excesses, one should enjoy life within healthy bounds. The Rambam writes at length and in depth about the issues of the desired balance in Chapters One and Two of Hilchos Deos.

Speaking as a therapist who has had the privilege of hearing about the inner lives of frum persons from all levels of observance, including very learned and pious individuals, when it comes to sexual matters, some have overshot in their desire to abstain, perhaps because the feelings and drive can be so intense. Shame and guilt about sexual impulses and fantasies has led some to attempt to utterly disavow their sexual needs. Such persons focus on limitation and strict rationing as a way to deal with lust. Instead of finding ways to channel desires in the direction of deepening passion, sexual expression and romance with their spouses, they focus on extreme modesty and other measures. The potential problem with such an approach is that each person has a different nature and while abstention and limitation may work for one person, for another it can only further stoke the fuel of desire. For some people, as their desire builds, their shame builds and they may begin to wall off their personal sexual life from their marital family life. They may behave with their wives and families with extreme and oppressive modesty, but their thoughts and impulses may be burning with unsatisfied lustful fantasies. They are too ashamed to bring this activity into their real love life, and thus are vulnerable to acting out in far more destructive ways. Sexual desire is a powerful force and cannot easily be ignored or redirected. And paradoxically, our Sages tell us, “The greater a man is, the greater his temptation” (Succah 52a – the Gemara is referring specifically to sexual temptation as is evident from the context of the Talmudic discussion.)

It is not surprising nor is it incorrect to attempt to tame the yezer hara by resorting to strict measures of modesty and abstention. The halachos of tznius clearly place responsibility upon people to limit temptation and to behave in ways that mute public sexual expression. Even private excessive sexual expression is considered dangerous, as our Chachamim warn, “A man possesses a small body part which will feel starved if one attempts to satisfy it, and will feel satisfied if one starves it” (Sanhedrin 107a.) Shulchan Aruch (O.C., 240 and E.H. 25) espouses this philosophy in great detail, delineating many steps and measures to maintain sanctity and restraint in the bedroom so the act is not merely to “sate his desire.”

Yet, while acknowledging this as the preferred and ideal course of action, the Ramah (E.H. 25:2) points out, according to the letter of the law, it is permitted to be amorous with one’s spouse engaging in almost any kind of physical activity except for a few basic restrictions. How does one know when it is best to choose the more pious and modest approach and when it is more helpful to the marriage and the individual well being to stick with the letter of the law?

Speaking as a therapist who has seen how these matters affect many marriages, I strongly believe finding the proper balance is key in this area of life. Each person is responsible to know how much abstention and restriction will really and truly work for him and his spouse, and how much will end up causing destruction and sin. It is easy to fool oneself in either direction. While we know a person can easily rationalize moral laziness by telling himself that he is not on a particular level, most are unaware that the opposite danger lurks as well. As Rabban Gamliel warned, “Not everyone who thinks he can take the mantle of extra piety is actually able to do so.” (Mishna Berachos 2:8). Perhaps this is what the Rabbi Yochanan meant when he said, “Whoever is haughty will end up becoming ensnared in adultery” (Sotah 4b). If you think you are such a zaddik, and you really are not, then you will cause either yourself or your spouse to sin. There is little point in extra piety and abstention in the bedroom if the person is acting out improperly outside of the bedroom. Similarly, if one's spouse is feeling deprived or frustrated, given the temptations of today’s internet society, this is a dangerous state of affairs.

Rabbennu Bechaye (Vayikra 11:43) draws a parallel between the value of abstention in eating and abstention in sexuality. Perhaps a good yardstick of one’s true ability to appropriately and meaningfully manage sexual abstention is to be mindful of one’s eating habits. If you like a good steak, and have difficulty controlling your appetite and waistline, perhaps if you try too hard to abstain from permitted forms of sexuality, you may be, quite literally, biting off more than you can chew. This brings to mind something a world renowned dayan and posek once told me: “There are two basic human desires: food and sexuality. Judging by the way many outwardly frum-looking people eat, it is fair to surmise that they are not doing such a great job in the other department as well!”

It is up to each individual person, in consultation with an experienced and mature rav to decide the exact nature of what should be encouraged in the bedroom and what should be more limited. In this spirit, it is important to study statements from Chazal that indicate an alternate view that sees engaging in satisfying sexual behavior as an appropriate way to manage impulses. The rest of this article will focus on some of these teachings to help bring balance and perspective and offer alternative approaches other than strict abstention for some who are in grave danger of succumbing to temptation.


Of course there are many halachos regarding modesty that we must abide by. Nevertheless, one should not confuse various rules to moderate suggestive and lewd displays with disdain and revulsion of the value of beauty in women. In regard to this, while it is indeed somewhat mysterious, and surely deep with meaning, there are a dozen or so verses that constantly note the matriarchs’ physical beauty. (See for example, Bereishis 12:11, 24:16, 29:17.) If it wasn’t an important quality, these great people would not have been blessed with it, and no amount of tortured pilpul can completely obliterate this basic idea. It is a basic human need to feel beautiful, look beautiful and celebrate beauty.

It appears that, within the bounds of tznius, it is a Jewish value for every woman to strive to maintain her attractiveness to her husband. Some examples of this include the Mishna Nedarim (66a) where Rabbi Yishmael bemoans how poverty has affected the beauty and radiance of Jewish daughters. Lest one think this sensitivity is limited to young maidens, we find Rav Chisda making a point to his colleagues that even an elderly grandmother is expected to take steps to preserve her beauty (Gemara Moed Kattan 9b). There are even situations where concerns about possible sin are bypassed to prevent a woman from becoming ugly in her husband’s eyes (See Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 195:9)

If people are feeling shame about their desires and feel it is sinful to enjoy even their spouse’s beauty, or if women are harassed for taking steps to maintain and cultivate their beauty, some in the community will be in grave danger of transgressing. They will be tempted to direct their sexual fantasies outside of their marriage.

Healthy Outlets

While we have made it clear earlier in this article that Torah thought endorses abstention and strict modesty as an ideal and a beneficial approach to preventing sin, it is not the only approach espoused by our Sages. The Gemara (Ta'anis 23b) tells us that the wife of the tzaddik, Choni Hameagel, would adorn and beautify herself in order to greet him when he came home. When a student inquired about the propriety of this behavior, he explained, “She does this in order that I not be tempted to look at other women.” Furthermore, the Gemara (Kesubos 65a) relates an incident where a great sage became aroused by a female plaintiff in court, and upon returning home asked his wife to join him in the bedroom. (It should be noted, the Ben Yehoyada maintains that this sage was not actually aroused and offers a clever reinterpretation of the text. But it is not clear that other commentaries agree with him, and it is certainly far from the simple reading of the text.)

The Gemara (Sotah 47a) offers the following related advice: “When trying to cope with desire, discipline of children, and communication to one’s wife, one should push away with the left hand, but draw near with the right.” This push-pull idiom is a metaphor for creating some distance or rebuke, while still also being gentle and maintaining a welcome and open stance. While this Gemara is fascinating and requires discussion in many respects, the focus of the comments which follow will be on its statement regarding desire: The Gemara seems to be saying that one should not push it away too strongly, lest it results in some form of internal backlash, such as despair and transgressing in even worse ways.

It should be noted, Rashi (Op. Cit.) does not agree with this interpretation. He understands it as a warning to be careful in not shutting off desire completely, as it can lead to dysfunction and an inability to procreate. However, the Ra’vad (Ba’aley Hanefesh, Sha’ar HaKedusha) clearly understands this Gemara as suggesting a way to abate and control desire by engaging in permitted sexual relations. (He does point out that this is the least meritorious and least holy reason for marital relations, but still identifies it as a valid approach for the right kind of person.)

Family Size

From time to time I encounter parents who are under a combination of psychological stressors such as mental health difficulties, sholom bayis challenges, financial stress, and personal temperament that makes it highly inadvisable for them to have more children. However, sometimes because of what could be misdirected and misplaced piety, these parents continue to have more and more children, causing damage to the children and to themselves.

Of course, we all know of large families who have a dozen children, all of them beautiful, healthy and well-adjusted etc. This is not a screed against devout and energetic parents who raise large families. These concerns are being expressed to address those who feel either intense social pressure or a misplaced and inappropriate religious pressure to continue to have children beyond what is healthy for them.

Of course the entire matter of birth control is most definitely an individual and private halachic matter and should stay that way. Nevertheless, I choose to speak up because over the years I continue to encounter a significant subset of the population who are simply too scared, embarrassed or guilt-ridden to take the important and necessary steps to limit their family size, thereby causing damage to their families, their sholom bayis and themselves. Also, having served as a consultant with numerous rabbanim and dayanim from all walks of Orthodox, Chassidic and Charedi life, some of these same rabbonim have confided an exasperation with certain couples who are having way too many children than is good for them. Ironically, the rabbonim have also shared with me their fear of speaking out publicly about this matter, because they may be misunderstood as lacking in yiras shamayim and propriety.

Sometimes, shame and guilt holds people back from seeking heterim. In some communities, there is strong social pressure to produce many children in the marriage – early and often. Rabbonim are encouraged to listen for hidden mental health and other stressors that their congregants may be too ashamed to speak of openly. Mental health, distress, anguish and lack of sholom bayis can, at times, even be a matter of life and death. A sensitive and wise rav can read between the lines and to know when his congregant is hiding bigger issues behind a routine question.

Although this discussion may seem unrelated to the topic at hand, in fact it is not. I believe that part of the guilt regarding birth control comes from a feeling that sexuality within marriage is a license granted only for the purposes of having children. In fact this is not true. It is a mitzvah to have marital relations regardless of the fertility of the woman and regardless of whether it is for procreative purposes. In fact, the obligation is for the man to fulfill to his wife’s physical needs and wishes for intimacy at regular intervals and whenever it is apparent that she is desirous, not dependent on her fertility (Mishna Berura 240:2.)

Concluding Thoughts

  • Though modesty and shame are considered by the Gemara as key Jewish attributes (Yevamos 79a) it cannot come at the expense of halachic and hashkafic clarity. It is important for religious couples to discuss their sexual needs and concerns with a compassionate, wise and mature halachic authority. Even if some needs and urges seem to be shameful and dangerous, what is more shameful and destructive is to think that a person is on a level to handle these matters by strict abstention, when he is not. Exemplifying this lack of shame, the Gemara (Berachos 62a) tells us of one student, who in his desire to learn how he should behave in the bedroom, hid under his rebbe’s bed. Expecting some holy and somber experience, he actually was shocked at the joviality he heard and uttered an exclamation. His rebbe rebuked him for his lack of derech eretz, however the student’s simple yet compelling response was, “It [too] is Torah, and I must learn it.” So if you are afraid to ask questions or share the reality of what you are facing with your rabbi or rebbe, strengthen yourself and remember, “It too, is Torah.”
  • The same can be said in regard to family planning. The realistic needs and concerns of the couple must be discussed openly and without shame. If they are facing serious mental health or marital difficulties, they need to be taken into account and not hidden.
  • Of course, the couple must also have the maturity to discuss with each other their various sexual and emotional needs. Shame and avoidance will lead to frustration and distance, and quite possibly dysfunction.
  • While marital relations is an important part of sholom bayis, and indeed one sage refers to the male reproductive organ as the “peacemaker” (Shabbos 152a, see Rashi “Meysim Sholom”), if there is a lacking in sholom bayis, one or both spouses may lose desire. In such a case, even when one spouse feels a strong need, the answer is not turn the other spouse into an object or tool to manage desire. Instead, there must be thorough and sustained effort to solve the sholom bayis problems and create the emotional closeness and safety that allow desire to grow.

There is a popular saying that it is easier to die sanctifying G-d’s name than it is live sanctifying G-d’s name. Dramatic and extreme acts are in some ways easier to do because of their finality and black and white nature. Rabbenu Yonah in Yesod Hateshuva remarks, that it is much easier to fast completely than it is to eat continuously with restraint in small amounts. It is much harder to live a life of moderation and balance, constantly re-evaluating what is the healthiest and appropriate choice to make than it is to condemn and disdain all forms of passionate expression. How many truly happily married people do you know? How many people do you know, who are married for decades, and still act as if they are in love and desire their spouses? Can the Shechina reside in a home where the husband and wife do not feel close or connected and do not share passion and love? Consider current events, the world we live in and all its temptations, take an honest look at yourself, and start making choices that move you toward passion and love in your life, so you can live al pi kiddush Hashem.

Single page