From NISHMA UPDATE December 1992

 

Inquiry with Rabbi Benjamin Hecht

Love and Sexuality: The Physical and The Spiritual

 

When I was a sophomore at Yeshiva University, a "Blind Date" party was organized between my class and the freshman class at Stern College. The evening provided a setting for members of these classes to meet each other within the context of a set program. One day, before the evening, a friend of mine noticed that the freshman organizer from Stern College was up at Yeshiva, to speak to her counterpart from the boys. My friend decided that he wished to have more information about the girl he would be going out with so he approached the organizer from Stern with some questions. Among the questions he asked was "what does she look like?", to which the girl responded, "are you interested in the soul or the body?" My friend, in turn, replied, pointing to me: "if I was only interested in a soul, I would go out with him."

My friend's retort drew laughs from those around at the time, but hidden within this exchange were subtle questions about love and sexuality that are deserving of investigation. Afterwards, we commented on how the female organizer from Stern wore make-up and was dressed in a very nice manner. If the body was unimportant why did she spend so much time on her own looks? Yet, there was the recognition that love was a product of connecting souls and that, as the cliche goes, "beauty is only skin deep". The essential question was, and is: what is the relationship between our physical drives, the sexual attraction we have for others, and the union of souls we call love?

This question is an especially relevant one in today's society. In the recent movie "Prelude to a Kiss", the souls of a new bride and an elderly man are interchanged. The groom remains loyal to the true love that he has, choosing the soul of the one he loves although that soul now inhabits the body of an elderly man. The lesson is that true love resides in the soul, the same lesson that girl from Stern College was indicating many years ago - and the lesson is a very powerful one. The strange truth, however, is that a recent review of this film indicated that an objective of the film was to develop sympathy for homosexuals and their battle with Aids. The message was that love is a matter of souls and the physical is irrelevant; it doesn't matter whether this love of soul happens between a man and a woman, two men or two women, in any context, it should be respected. While the victims of Aids, both homosexual and heterosexual, deserve our sympathy and help in their battle with this dreadful disease, this message about love is a most interesting one. "Are you interested in the soul or the body?" The expected response of righteousness was always to reject the latter for the former. "Grace is deceitful and beauty vain, a woman who fears the L-rd, she shall be praised (Mishlei 31:30, translation from Jerusalem Bible). The extended message of this is, now, that love, as the union of souls, of personalities, should also ignore physical gender. The argument is that there should be total rejection of any physical dimension, resulting in not even the sex of the individual being significant. To challenge homosexuality or bi-sexuality is to choose the body. Strangely, there is some truth in this. In rejecting the homosexual alternative, the Torah is indicating that the physical is a factor in the love relationship. There is necessary legitimacy for interest in "the body". Yet, how does this work? We come full circle back to that girl from Stern.

In our society and age, the sexual barriers fell in two, almost paradoxical, ways. On one hand, sexual permissiveness increased as an acceptance for the simple satisfaction of the physical drive for sexual contact developed. One would expect this to be correlated with a poorer treatment of women as they would be perceived as "objects" for this satisfaction, yet, it was the other sexual barrier that also fell. Women's rights took great steps forward as women were treated in a more equitable fashion. What occurred was a break between body and soul, with sexual definition assigned exclusively to the former while souls and personalities were perceived almost as neuter. Men and women were all the same with this one distinction in their physical being. Within this concept of similarity grew equality while the limited view of sexual distinction developed an allowance for the satisfaction of this specific, encapsuled, physical drive. This complete split between body and soul also explains the new attitudes in relationships and love.

Torah, ultimately, must reject this perception of the distinction between men and women. The difference between the sexes found in so many mitzvot clearly indicates that the Torah sees the distinction as going beyond mere physical reproductive characteristics. How we understand this difference, however, is most important. Clearly the advances in women's rights that accompanied this adamant split of body and soul in our society, indicate that attempts to define the female personality in the past have led to the unnecessary curtailing of the feminine potential and, thus, the backlash of rejection of this concept. An attempt to understand the difference between male and female in personality and, if we may be so bold, in soul, with the accompanying clarification of the reasons for the Torah distinctions, must meet the high standards of reality testing and ensure that, in line with these guidelines of Torah, the ultimate potential of each person, as female/male and as a human being, is met. This, however, is not the issue at hand. The Torah's position links body and soul in a oneness that unites them in being. What does this indicate in regard to love and sexual attraction? What is the role of the physical in the choosing of a mate?

In returning, once again, to our opening story, it would seem that my friend's question was, from a Torah perspective, a legitimate one. On the other hand, the girl's retort, that one should be interested in the soul and personality, if I may insert the word primarily, is also most powerful. The words from Mishlei, previously quoted, stand out. The famous words of Rashi, Bereishit 12:11 where the great commentator expresses the opinion that Avraham Avinu did not even know of Sarah's beauty cannot be ignored. Yet, is it not most interesting that Sarah and our other matriarchs are associated with both physical and spiritual beauty? We still, however, learn that we should not look at the vessel but what is in it (Mishnah Avot 4:27). The story of Rabbi Yehoshua and the Roman princess even indicates that physical beauty may be a hinderance in spiritual development (T.B. Ta'anit 7b). We, though, sing of the "beautiful and charming bride" (T.B. Ketubot 17a; Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer 65:1) and what about ein ishah ela l'yofi, that the prime characteristic of a woman is her beauty (T.B. Ta'anit 31a; Ketubot 59b. While this statement is in need of further clarification, which is beyond the parameters of this article, it obviously represents a positive view towards physical beauty). The matter goes back and forth. Somehow we accomplish the objective; marriages occur and there is some combination of physical attraction and love. Yet, how does it work? How do we unite the physical and spiritual in our choice of mate? How do we understand the role of our sexual drives in our connection to the person we love and with whom we share life?

The issue is not an easy one. One of the reasons for celibacy in the Catholic Church is the notion that ultimate love cannot accompany sexuality. The Middle Ages presented a concept of a true love, the woman with whom the chivalrous knight did not have relations. The perception was that the sexual drive was ultimately selfish and that one showed real love and caring for the other by not using them in the satisfaction of this drive. Love implies selflessness, giving, caring; sexual desire implies wishing something for oneself, a craving to satisfy a need of self and thus of self-interest. As such, the argument was that love and sexuality were mutually exclusive.

In our modern age, it would seem, society has gone to the other extreme, considering almost any sexual act (in the context of mutual consent) as some expression of caring, of "making love". The new perception is that sexuality is a force of bonding that unites all. Love is the yearning to unite with another; sexual desire the fuel that pushes one to join in the most essential of relationships. As such, the argument is that love and sexuality are essentially inclusive.

Judaism, somehow, sees all these factors, contradictory as they may seem to be, uniting them in a manner that is, perhaps, fundamentally unique. We answer Christian celibacy by declaring that within sexuality there is a bonding of love that cannot be ignored. We respond to modern promiscuity by warning that the self-absorbing and self-centred aspect of this drive can lead to the perception of another simply as a means for personal satisfaction. Love is selfless, not to be dependent on a cause, on what the other can do for you (Mishna Avot 5:19). Love is also a bonding, an all encompassing need for another; souls tied together so that existence apart is almost unbearable and only in unity is there a full sense of self. See, for example, such verses as Bereishit 2:24; 43:38; 44:30. Love is both a statement of self and a abstention of self.

The sexual drive is an all encompassing force that can overtake, cause the ignoring of all else, as it searches for satisfaction. Ein appatropus l'arayot, there is no guarantor against promiscuity (T.B. Ketubot 13b). Yet, the sexual drive is the force that identifies the greatest bonding we can experience with another, specifically in the meshing of two of the opposite sex. See, for example, such verses as Bereishit 2:24; 39:7-19 with Rashi thereon; Shmuel 2 11:2-5; 12:13-25. The sexual drive is both a desire that is powerfully selfish and a desire to lose self in connection with another. How can love and sexuality combine these conflicting elements? How does this strong, personal, physical drive that seeks satisfaction merge with this intensity of bonding and connection that even touches the soul? The answer must lie in the very special circumstance that is the unique relationship of husband and wife, but the question still stands, how.

In the search for reasons for the prohibition of niddah, the bar against physical contact between husband and wife during an interval of time determined by her menstrual flow, a myriad of commentators point to how abstention re-ignites desire and maintains positive energy within the marriage fabric. The sexual drive, purposely allowed to grow and become stronger in desire and need, is unleashed as a factor that rejuvenates love and the connection with another. The Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer 21:1-4, while warning of the potential for transgression arising from misapplied sexuality, clearly declares that physical attraction should be a factor in the choice of a wife and is to be a factor throughout the marriage. This is not simply an concession but is appropriate and correct. The language of Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Issurei Bi'ah 21:3 lends further support. See, however, Ra'avad thereon. In defence though of Rambam and this simple reading of Shulchan Aruch, see the commentators in Even HaEzer and the Otzar HaPoskim, Even HaEzer 21:29 which includes a different approach to the words of Ra'avad. Sexuality and love are Divinely intended to combine in the union of husband and wife.

This is Judaism's statement. Commitment to heterosexuality reflects the belief in the unity of diversity that is male and female, with both body and soul playing a role in the formation and progression of the unique bond between two individuals that is marriage. Body and soul are connected. Sexual attraction and love are connected. Personal need and the bonding with others are connected. There is the further desire to be desired. It is not surprising that the Torah that declares the Unity of the One declares a unity in the creation. The reader, though, is still left with the task of explaining the formula of combination.


Return th NISHMA top

2002 NISHMA