Rabbi Dovid Hochberg
Desire. Attraction. Relationships. Forbidden emotions.
Do I have your attention?
I would like to explore with you the Torah's perspective on desire and attraction between the sexes on a practical and emotional level. First, I'll introduce two concepts that are essential for you to understand before the real discussion begins. Second, I'll present four very important ideas that hopefully will help you understand and relate personally to the Torah's perspective. Finally, and most importantly, I would like your feedback on these issues. We aren't going to able to touch on everything, so please email me if there is something you would like explained or don't understand. Let's try to take our understanding of these ideas to a new level.
Here are the two concepts:
In His infinite wisdom, G-d created an extremely powerful attraction and passion between the sexes. It exists and cannot be ignored. The Rabbis explain that G-d did this in order to perpetuate the human race. Without desire and attraction, people would not reproduce and the world would remain desolate. Therefore, He created this intense desire between men and women. Take marriage, for example. Unlike some other religions, Judaism strongly encourages marriage; in fact, the first mitzvah in the Torah commands us to have children. The Torah recognizes this passion as being very real. The message is simple. We must acknowledge the powerful desire and attraction between the sexes in order to learn how to deal with it properly.
The second concept is that contrary to what we might believe, we do have control over our desires and behavior. We don't always have control over our thoughts - that's a separate issue - but we do have control over our desires, actions and behaviors. I know, you're thinking that your desires are too strong and it is impossible not to act on them. To some degree, you are right. It can be extraordinarily difficult to control ourselves. "It's too hard not to touch", "what's wrong with just hanging out together?" "She's my best friend", "I know my limits." I know it is unbelievably hard. And I also know that we do have control.
The Talmud (Avodah Zarah, 17a) relates a fascinating story. There was a man named Elazar ben Dordyah who indulged himself in every physical desire. One time, he was told by an immoral woman that his ways would lead him to Gehinom (Hell) and he decided to do teshuva. He went to the mountains and asked them to pray for him. The mountains responded, "we have to pray for ourselves". He went to the sky, the earth, sun, the moon and the stars to pray for him and they all responded the same way.
Why was Elazar asking the mountains, the sky and the moon to pray for him? What was he thinking?
This is what he was saying: "Mountains, you are part of the natural order of the world and I am part of the natural order of the world. Hashem created you and Hashem created me. You have no control over yourselves and I have no control over my desires. It is not my fault. Pray for me that I should be forgiven."
The mountains responded, "even though we are only mountains, we still have to pray. You are a human being, a creature with control over his desires and behavior. You certainly have to pray, do teshuva, and act appropriately. Don't blame Hashem for your behavior. You have control over your actions."
After repeating this conversation with the sky, the earth, the sun, etc., the significance of what he was hearing sunk into Elazar. It dawned on him that he could not blame his actions on the way his physical being was created. He would have to make choices, act appropriately and do teshuva if he wanted forgiveness. And so, he began to pray.
Keep these two concepts (acknowledging the attraction between the sexes and realizing that we do have control over our desires) in mind as we begin to examine the Torah's perspective on relationships between men and women...
Just what is the Torah's perspective on relationships? Specifically, what is the Jewish view on "dating" and everything that goes along with it? What is the point of tznius (modesty) and yichud (not being alone with a member of the opposite sex) and shemiras negia (not touching)? Are we really expected to keep all of it? All the time?
Hashem created us with physical desires and passions. He also provided us with a framework for relationships between the sexes. It's called marriage. Relationships between the sexes have the potential to be incredibly holy. Marriage allows a man and a woman, together with Hashem, to create life. A husband and wife become partners with G-d in creation, so to speak. The Talmud has many expressions that strongly encourage marriage. For example, "One who lives without a wife, lives without happiness". The Torah itself tells us, "It is not good for Man to be alone, I will create a Helper for him.". The union of man and woman is necessary for the two of them to fulfill their individual and combined potential.
What makes a relationship special and holy? What separates a sublime relationship from one rooted only in physical passion and desire? The answer is two words: Self- control.
Which brings us to our first idea...
The first two human beings, Adom and Chava, were given one mitzvah to perform; don't eat from the Etz Hada'as, the Tree of Knowledge. After they ate the fruit, they realized that they were naked and became embarrassed. What changed? One of the answers given is that they realized that there was nothing inherently special about the fruit of the Etz Hada'as. It didn't taste any different from the other fruits. It didn't look any different than the other fruits. The ONLY difference was that they were commanded not to eat it. This is what made it special. Self-control. Don't eat it because Hashem told you not to. Not for any other reason. Obeying Hashem's will WAS what made it different. Nothing else. After they ate from the Tree, after they realized that the fruit itself was not what was special, they saw this clearly. The holiness and power of the Etz Hada'as came simply from their control over their behavior (by not eating it). All of a sudden, their physical needs and desires were no longer special since they didn't exercise that self-control. They immediately became ashamed of their physical desires. Self control, obeying Hashem's will, is what makes natural and normal behavior into something holy, pure and special.
Self control is what makes relationships special. This is a very deep idea, but let me put it in very basic terms: It is your ability to say "no" that makes your "yes" so incredibly special and holy. If you are free with your actions and don't deny yourself any pleasure, what makes your actions special? It is only when you control yourself and limit your actions, that they have meaning. Not doing, not giving in to temptations, is what makes your life richer. You can't experience the wonderful feeling of a "yes" if you have never experienced a "no".
Yes, it is hard. Yes, it is very difficult to do. You're right. Remember though, when you are finally able to say "yes" within the framework that the Torah provides, it will truly be special BECAUSE you have said "no".
Which brings us to our second idea...
Have you ever wondered why the rich and famous in Hollywood seem to have it all, yet divorce, drugs and immoral behavior are commonplace? What drives these people to the edge of what we would call "normal" behavior? Who thought up bungee jumping? Why would people play Russian roulette with a loaded gun? Why turn pleasure into pain? What drives people to push their limits to the point of risking death?
The answer is simple. Lack of boundaries. If you have no boundaries, no point at which you can say, "stop, I am controlling myself and will not cross this line", then the line keeps moving. You keep pushing and pushing and the game gets more and more dangerous. The risks get greater. Initially, you may have "lived on the edge" by racing a bicycle down a steep hill. Now you need to climb a mountain to give you that same thrill. Tomorrow, who knows what you will need to do to feel that rush?
When it comes to the relationships between the sexes, the Torah and Chazal (Rabbis) provide us with guidelines and boundaries. In fact, we don't even need to come up with them on our own. They have already done that for us. The boundaries are so brilliant, so intuitive, and reflect deep insight about human nature. The boundaries protect the self-respect and emotions of both sexes and keep them from vulnerable moments when they may act in a way they will regret later. Let's take yichud as an example.
The Torah tells us that one may not be alone with a member of the opposite sex. It does not matter if you are alone together because you are working together. It does not matter if you are alone together because you just happen to find yourselves alone. The Torah is clear on this issue; do not be alone together. At first glance, it seems a bit extreme. You are not allowed to be alone together? What do you think is going to happen already? Come on, I have my limits.
Let's analyze this from a purely psychological and emotional perspective.
You may like her. She may like you. Obviously, both of you have lines that you will not cross when it comes to inappropriate behavior. You have self-respect and know that you will keep to those guidelines. You know that you would not be able to look at yourself in the mirror the next day if you crossed your line, whatever your particular line may be. Now, all of a sudden, you find yourself alone with him or her. You glance at each other. The attraction and desire is there. No one is around and no one will know. Everyone has a vulnerable moment. What will you do? Will you cross your line? How far? How will you feel the next day? What will it feel like, knowing that your line, your boundary that you always said you wouldn't cross, has just been violated?
I know some of you will be saying, I am stronger than that and will never cross my line, no matter what. That may be true, but let me ask you something: Which requires greater self-control; controlling yourself when you are never alone together or controlling yourself when you are alone in a room with him or her AND the attraction is there? The Torah is providing you with a boundary that does not require superhuman self-control on your part. It is protecting you from moments of vulnerability, when you may do something you may feel badly about later. Don't be alone together. Let's be honest here. It is a lot more difficult to control yourself from acting inappropriately when you are alone together than when you aren't. Don't put yourself in the position where you have to rely on greater self-control. Don't play near the edge of a cliff. True, nothing may happen, but why take the risk? Don't forget, you have to face yourself in the mirror tomorrow. Make it easy on yourself.
The same is true of the other laws surrounding relationships. Tznius is another example. The Torah is not being harshly restrictive about what you can and cannot wear, say, and act. It is providing you with the boundaries necessary for you to feel good about yourself and enjoy healthy self-respect and self-esteem. Of course, you want to dress and act a certain way. It is normal. The desire and attraction are there, no question about it. The Torah is giving you an easy way to maintain your boundaries. An easy way to make sure that the lines you really don't want to cross won't be violated. A way for you to feel special without needing the approval of him or her. Dress, speak and act in a modest manner and you won't need to fight with yourself and run the risk of crossing your line. Like I said earlier, don't play near the edge of the cliff. Move further back and it is not as stressful.
The same applies for shemiras negiah (touching). The Torah is showing you respect as a person. We don't behave like the outside world behaves. We have a healthier self-respect, self-esteem, and know how to practice self-control. It's not about what you aren't allowed to do, it is about providing you with strong boundaries. Think about it. The Torah is protecting you from fighting with one of your most powerful desires. Don't touch each other. Now, you don't have to worry about being intimate up to a certain point and then stopping. You don't have to get involved in emotionally vulnerable situations. Stopping in the "heat of the moment" takes incredible self-control, control that is difficult for most of us. Even if you can control yourself, why risk it? Simply follow the Torah's guidelines and life suddenly gets a lot less stressful.
Boundaries, boundaries...it is all about boundaries. Respect them.
Which brings us to the third idea...
3. Feeling Good
Tell me the truth. Have you ever felt bad after you did the right thing? I don't mean upset about missing out on whatever it was that you were thinking about doing. I am not asking if you were angry and frustrated at the time. You probably were. I'm talking about a situation where you were confronted with making a choice, a decision, to either do the right thing or the wrong thing, and you decided to do the right thing. How did you feel looking back at your choice? Did you feel good about yourself or not?
I am willing to bet...and please take me up on it if you disagree...that as you looked back and reflected about your decision, you felt good. You felt accomplished. You felt like you were in control. And guess what? You just demonstrated that you were in control.
It is a basic fact of life: People feel good about themselves when they make the right choices and do the right thing. In fact, the more desperately you want to do the wrong thing, the better you will feel about yourself if you decide not to do it.
Let's apply this idea. A member of the opposite sex asks you if you would like to spend some time with him or her alone. Alone in a manner that the Torah says is not permissible. You know it is the wrong thing to do. But, come on! Just one time! You really like him / her and you just want to talk privately. But you know it's wrong. But you'll have a great time. You struggle with the idea. What should you do?
You will have to make your own decision. However, let me tell you what you will feel like if you decide to do the right thing and say no. You will feel accomplished and in control. Your self-esteem will soar because you have just proven to yourself that YOU are in charge of your life and although you can say yes, you also know how to say no. Think about that feeling. Is it worth it? That is going to be up to you. You are the one who will have to live with whatever you decide. All I am asking you to do is think long and hard about how you will feel if you do the wrong thing and how you will feel if you do the right thing.
Which brings us to the fourth idea...
4. Spiritual and Physical Reward
I'm not even going to get into describing the reward that awaits you in the Next World for controlling your desires. We don't have any comprehension of how great it is. Instead, I would like to share a thought with you about the reward you can receive in this world.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov would often quote a Zohar that controlling one's desires and passions makes them the channel for beracha, abundance and reward, to flow into the world. Practically, what that means is that if you control yourself, Hashem will cause beracha to flow into all that you do. You will begin to accomplish more. Become more successful. You will begin to see an extra measure of Syatah Di'Shemyah, help from Heaven, in all of your actions.
Remember, there is a tremendous amount of spiritual energy out there that Hashem is waiting to give to us as long as we try.
Questions or comments? Rabbi Hochberg's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Rabbi Dovid Hochberg is Principal of Derech Chaim Academy of Baltimore, an alternative school for Orthodox adolescents at risk.