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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
Part 2/2 (to see other parts of the article, click on the pages at the bottom)


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.

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