The Dangers of Misguided Piety
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.