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Bible Sex & Society Today

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Showing up to Synagogue on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, you take your seat and brace yourself for the long service about to transpire. Instinctively, you reach into the pocket of the seat in front of you digging for a book, pamphlet, newsletter, or basically anything else to mitigate your extreme boredom. While searching the seat pocket, however, you find a short book that seems wildly out of place. On the cover is an illustration of a man and woman lying together on a bed wearing nothing but fig leaves. You quickly drop the book back into the seat pocket and rapidly glance around to ensure no one had been paying attention.
 
But, of course, your curiosity eventually gets the best of you, and as the service drones on you decide that you need to take another peek. You quietly grab the book and slowly open to the front page to reveal something even more lewd than the cover. Erotic poetry! In full and unabashed detail unlike anything you have ever seen before, especially in the middle of a synagogue!
 
You once again sneakily glace around the room for the potential backlash and awkwardness of someone seeing you with the book is too great to bear the risk. However you notice something funny. Everyone else is also carefully glancing around seemingly for a similar reason. You get up out of your seat and begin to pace the room and, sure enough, there is a copy of the book in every chair throughout the synagogue.
 
A week passes by and the entire community is packed into a circular room with two large lecterns in the center. A raging debate is under way.
 
Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs), one of the older Rabbis screams, is an unholy book filled with frivolity and has no place in our tradition. How dare this book be publicly distributed in our community, and even throughout our synagogues nonetheless! Many of the other Jewish leaders and Rabbis in the room shake their head in tacit agreement.
 
“Actually,” a soft voice from the back of the room beings, “Song of Songs is the holiest book in the entire corpus of Jewish literature, and today, the day that Song of Songs has been revealed, is more important than the day of creation!”
 
The room suddenly goes quiet, for on that day a powerful truth has been revealed.
 
The truth is that Judaism is not a tradition that is afraid of sex. Stories and episodes of sexual encounter are quite ubiquitous throughout our literature, and important lessons are often taught using sex as a springboard.
 
Perhaps more importantly, sex is seen as a normal, necessary, and even a positive aspect of one’s life. The first commandment within the Torah is to “be fruitful and multiply,” making the early point that sex, within the right context, is an act of good.
 
Last week the world reacted with horror when yet another sexual scandal emerged from deep within the Catholic Church. I believe that this systemic problem, ubiquitous throughout the Church, is not disconnected from the tabooed state of sex within their culture. Ever since Augustine the church has demonized sex, departing from the classic Judaic understanding of sex garnered from the Bible, and preaching celibacy for those who wish to truly follow God.
 
Because sex is a natural part of human existence it is inevitably going to happen within a large enough group of individuals. However, since all sex is wrong in the eyes of the Church the system seems inherently set up for failure. Given that large percentages of priests and other Church-leaders are going to have sexual relations, there becomes a culture of extreme secrecy amongst the leadership. As in, we all know that everyone is breaking this taboo, so no one better tattletale. Well, the problem arises when individuals move on from consenting women to horrible acts of sexual abuse, especially against minors.
 
If you are a priest who has sex with a consenting woman and you suddenly find out that your colleague is abusing a little boy, you are suddenly in a pickle. Obviously you should report the horrors of your colleague’s action, but since you yourself are doing something wrong (in the eyes of the Church) you may hesitate to report him, because he can turn around and report you in revenge. Imagine this situation a thousandfold and we can begin to understand the systemic problem of sexual abuse within the Church and how it stems from the fundamental demonization of sex.
 
While sex abuse is a problem within the Jewish community which we must confront - more so, interestingly enough, in communities that actually mimic Christianity such as the Hasidic community - it is nowhere near the same proportions or as deeply rooted as in the Church. Our leaders, thousands of years ago, were smart enough to layout a worldview where sex - a fundamental part of life - was permitted and able to be discussed within the appropriate setting. And while this may not always be comfortable (the book Shir Hashirim really does read like an erotic novel and there a tens of stories about prostitutes throughout the talmud), it hands us a rich tradition which allows Judaism to confront and deal with these problems head- on with no hesitation.
 
Moshe Daniel Levine regularly writes blog postings for Jewish Values Online.
 
Please note: All opinions expressed in Blog Postings and comments on the Jewish Values Online site and through Jewish Values Online are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views, thoughts, beliefs, or position of Jewish Values Online, or those associated with it.
 
 

Spice it up CC0 imageMay a husband and wife with mutual consent (and assuming niddah, seed spilling, etc. are not an issue) use handcuffs or other restraints or toys to spice things up? [Admininstrator's [Note: Related questions can be found on JVO at: http://www.jewishvaluesonline.org/question.php?id=67 http://www.jewishvaluesonline.org/question.php?id=486 http://www.jewishvaluesonline.org/question.php?id=978 http://www.jewishvaluesonline.org/question.php?id=1130]

 
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