Alt+SHIFT: Ma At Mevakeshet?

Yitzchak Blau Tradition Online | January 11, 2024

Alt+SHIFT is the keyboard shortcut allowing us quick transition between input languages on our keyboards—for many readers of TRADITION that’s the move from Hebrew to English (and back again). Yitzchak Blau continues this Tradition Online series offering his insider’s look into trends, ideas, and writings in the Israeli Religious Zionist world helping readers from the Anglo sphere to Alt+SHIFT and gain insight into worthwhile material available only in Hebrew. See the archive of all columns in this series.

Oriya Mevorach, Ma At Mevakashet: Sefer al Ahava va-Guf (Maggid Books), 443 pages

Contemporary Western sexual ethics clashes sharply with traditional Jewish approaches leading many Orthodox authors to address this conflict. Dr. Yocheved Debow, Dr. Michal Prince, and Dr. Jenny Rosenfeld together with Dr. David Ribner have all contributed relevant volumes; and now Oriya Mevorach adds a fresh approach. Mevorach finds fault with a good deal of traditional Jewish discourse about sexuality and simultaneously offers a sharp critique of popular Western approaches.

Her helpful categories for mapping out the terrain of the discussion are themselves an important contribution. Puritanical discourse sees sexuality as inherently negative and advances a religious view restricting the value of sex to procreation. Mevorach is rightly concerned that, among other flaws, such an approach leads to seeing women as primarily sexual objects and does not reflect the dominant view in Hazal which values sexual pleasure between married partners. I should point out here that Mevorach focuses on Hazal but a survey of Rishonim might lead to a different conclusion (see R. Lichtenstein’s essay, “Of Marriage: Relationship and Relations,” TRADITION [Summer 2005]).

In contrast to the Puritans, Mevorach writes of sexual liberation discourse which further divides into four categories. Permissive discourse actually agrees that sexuality is problematic but engages in it in order “to have some fun.” We see such an attitude quite clearly in those who happily ogle scantily clad women in the street but would never let their daughters dress that way. On the opposing side, glorification discourse portrays sex as sublime and exalted irrespective of context. That it could be applied to pornography and prostitution should give us pause, to say the least. Mevorach notes that all versions of sexual liberation discourse fail to distinguish between different contexts whereas what she calls “healthy Jewish discourse” sharply differentiates between sexual relations within a loving marriage and outside of that framework.

Mevorach is particularly good in rejecting indifference discourse and denial discourse. The former claims that sex is simply no big deal. She counters this stance by observing that many websites offer advice on how many dates take place before a couple sleeps together, while no sites discuss how many dates precede eating frozen yogurt together. Clearly, sexual activity is a significant step in a relationship. Denial claims that bodily exposure is not sexual. Mevorach wonders why media headlines focus on an actress who revealed her legs but never discuss the beauty of the same actress’ fingers. Apparently, our society does attribute sexual charge to particular body parts and we cannot escape the impact with mere declarations.

The last paragraph points to another strength of the book: Mervorach’s usage of both first-person accounts and popular media such as newspapers, movie scenes, TV commercials, and websites. She ably utilizes this material both to outline the various approaches and to indicate their fallacies.

What does healthy Jewish discourse teach? When sexuality occurs between loving spouses, it is a profound good. However, this ideally works when the couple first experiences sexual touch with each other. Kissing a host of partners before marriage cheapens the special quality of kissing. We emerge with a different argument for shemirat negia. It is not to prevent sexual relations outside of marriage but to preserve the magic of the forthcoming pleasurable touch with “The One” marriage partner.

Mevorach writes of mystery, intimacy, secret, and a covenant between spouses. A distinction she cites from R. Shagar between negative shame and positive shame helps explain her perspective. The former describes something sinful I did that I prefer to not reveal; the latter reflects something intimate and private but not problematic. I may have written a personal poem that I do not want the world to see. I may love God but resist loudly screaming about it in shul. The dynamic between a husband and wife in the bedroom belongs to the same category. There is nothing at all disgraceful about it but it remains a secret reserved for a party of two.

Mevorach uses two Talmudic passages to convey her point. A sugya about what happened to the aron ha-berit and the cherubs (Yoma 53b-54a) captures our avoidance of both Puritanical and permissive discourse. The Gentiles cannot understand the embrace of the keruvim in our Holy Temple since they start with a lowly view of sexuality. A Mishna and Gemara in Hagiga (11b, 16a) restrict which topics can be discussed publicly and caution against looking at a rainbow to preserve divine honor. For Mevorach, these limitations are not intended to prevent sinful thoughts but rather to maintain a sense of mystery and intimacy with God.

The closest theory to healthy Jewish discourse is secular conservative discourse which claims that sex is meaningful in any ongoing committed relationship even if not within marriage. Mevorach argues that this approach still depreciates the acts of intimacy meant to be an exclusive secret between two spouses. She adds that Jewish tradition protects us from the false cynicism that sees marriage as a prison.

The author does a great job of poking holes in the professed open-mindedness of liberation discourse, which claims to leave these choices up to individual decision-making but treats those who want to maintain their virginity as prudes and relates to those who dress more modestly as repressed. This hardly reflects tolerance and pluralism.

I finish with one critique of this important book. In her desire to negate Puritanical discourse, Mevorach may have gone too far in her claim that tzeniut is all about enhancing sexuality. Perhaps some components, say the yichud prohibition, serve purely as a protective fence. Secondly, Mevorach wants to avoid any sense that these laws serve as a fence against male sexual desire partially because of what such an approach says about men. I suggest we can express concern about the objectification of women without thinking that men are all simply Big Bad Wolves. Men are, thankfully, much more than that but their wolfish component might also be taken into account.

That aside, Mevorach has composed a timely and important book that should become part of our communal conversation about Jewish sexual ethics.

Yitzchak Blau, Rosh Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem’s Old City, is an Associate Editor of TRADITION.

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