June 24, 2005

Dear Wendy,

Reading your book was actually one of things at that time that propelled me towards Judaism.

Much of this attraction was based on its views on sex; as holy and good to be be enjoyed in the proper framework. But now I feel that a lot of that talk is just "PR Judaism" and the real deal has a decidedly ascetic bent to it.

I've been living within religious Judaism now for 2.5 years. I've been mostly keeping the laws of modesty through most of that time (with a few notable exceptions). I've seen Yeshiva boys at internet cafes looking at . I've had a religious guy I used to work with literally ask if he could have an affair with me and back up that it would be OK with
rabbinic sources.

I'm now at this place where I realize what a huge part of the human condition sexuality plays, and while I think you are still right on that all this sexual liberation and the after glow of free love hasn't made us any happier, when you suppress sexuality it has a tendency to come out anyway, often in very unhealthy ways.

I was in a religious relationship that lasted just shy of engagement which changed my views on how good that actually is (thats a whole story in itself). I find myself wondering—is all this religiously imposed sexual repression in your teens and twenties really such a good idea? Or is it largely a ploy by religious Judaism to perpetuate itself? I.e, if you need to get married to feel touch or satisfaction, you do so younger and quicker, and produce more babies to replenish the ranks.

I can see how the whole idea worked out well when people got married at 16, 17, but nowadays, and in the newly-religious world specifically, it can last until your late twenties, repressing this key part of being human. And at this point, I'm not so sure it's the best thing.

Personally, I'm in no hurry to get married (commitment issues etc) and so if I chose to live within orthodoxy, I'm condemning myself to sexual purgatory. Isn't there a middle way?

OK, must run—

Best wishes,

*name changed to protect privacy

Dear Laura,

I really do sympathize with your dilemma. But let's face it: dating is no picnic whether you're dating in the religious world or not. Rest assured that your feelings of frustration are totally normal.

However, I have to say, it sounds like a lot of the people you're meeting are not so normal. They're on the fringe. Internet cafes can be a lot of fun, but the reality is, if a yeshiva boy in Jerusalem is doing well, that's just not where he hangs out. The environment already selects for a lot of fringe-types. But I wouldn't extrapolate from these characters and draw broad conclusions from them. Every society has their people on the fringe; the question is, how do you want to live? All you've learned from meeting these characters is that a fringe existence is not for you. You've seen that you're idealistic, and that you deserve much better. And I wholeheartedly agree. What you're struggling with now is: does this observation take you towards a religious life, or in the opposite direction?

You say that you've already tried the religious world, but at the same time you've been only "mostly keeping the laws of modesty." This is not a criticism, but a fact: if you are at a "mostly" level, then you are going to be going out with "mostly"-type guys, which may be the reason why you are not exactly bowled over by inspiration. If you want "the real deal" then you have to be "the real deal" too. Have you given the Orthodox world a fair shot? From the people you're telling me about, I'm not sure.

Consider this analogy: suppose that a man comes to your door looking like a banker and carrying a certificate of authenticity. He is very sorry, but they have been experiencing problems with counterfeit bills, and that withdrawal you made yesterday? He's going to have to look at it. He does, and with a shake of his head informs you that he'll have to take the money back to the bank for further inspection. After signing the receipt he hands you, you return your withdrawal, and the man instructs you to visit your nearest branch for authentic bills in matching amounts. Well, guess what happens? You go to the bank first thing in the morning—because it was a large amount of money he had feared was counterfeit—but when you present your slip to a teller, he is totally baffled.

"I'm here for the real bills," you explain, "You know, your representative had to take in the counterfeit ones."

"That wasn't our representative," he informs you in measured tones, "that was a thief!"

And you protest, "But he wasn't dressed like a thief; he was dressed like a banker!"

Obviously, it doesn't matter that the man claimed to be from the bank, and was dressed as if he was from the bank. The reality is, he was not a banker—he was a thief. Logically speaking, all these supposedly Orthodox people you mentioned are in the same category. To be sure, everyone has their struggles, but a man who outwardly brags of ridiculous schemes to get out of Jewish law is simply not a religious person. I don't care if he's dressed like he's ultra-Orthodox; it is just a costume for him. His behavior doesn't say anything about the wisdom of Jewish law (though it may say a lot about him).

Yes, there are a number of hypocrites out there, and that is pretty sad. But equally pitiful are those who waste their whole lives thinking about hypocrites, and feeling superior just because of the failures of others. It works for them because then they never have to change, or try to live up to any ideal. But let's not forget that hypocrites only exist because there is a real ideal to begin with. There really are people who date with sincere intentions, who don't have a physical relationship until their wedding night, and are faithful to each other afterwards. There really is a core of people who live up to the Jewish ideal—in law and in spirit—and then there are those who at least sincerely give it the old college try. Is this ideal for you? I (obviously) can't answer this for you, but neither can the hypocrites. They are just a distraction from the larger questions.

If you are keeping the Torah because you've worked it out and you've determined that its origin is divine, then you follow Jewish law because it's transcendent and it transcends you. However, if you're not coming from that perspective, and you're doing things for the more utilitarian, sociological reasons you described—it makes sense to you, the Jewish attitude towards sexuality seems more healthy than that of the surrounding culture—then as soon as things don't make sense to you, your Judaism will crumble just like the men you see in those cafes.

Now, I don't mean to blame you at all for what you've been going through. I actually relate to your predicament because I also became interested in Judaism for more utilitarian, sociological reasons, because of the healthy relationships it promoted, and the attitude towards giving that it so values. And there is nothing wrong with this. But ultimately this only got me so far, and I had to ask myself, do I really believe in God? Am I doing all this for the right reasons? It was only when I started to ask these questions that it started to make sense. Eventually I did find my place in Judaism, and when I did, I realized that it was about fulfilling my purpose in the world.

Yes, there is a middle ground, but it's not exactly the one you have in mind. I feel the real middle ground is to get out there and find out what your unique purpose is going to be in this world. I know the kind of person you are, so I know that you're already giving everything you can, and doing all the learning you can. So now do even more: connect directly to Torah, and find a teacher you really connect with. That is so important. Otherwise, as much as it seems you are in the religious world, without learning on a regular basis, you are not really IN it.

You may already know all this, but I didn't. For several years I tried to keep Jewish law without really learning in a formal environment. Bookish people tend to think they can learn "on their own," but I found out that Judaism doesn't work this way. In fact, it's rigged not to work this way. To really get the tradition, you have to get it from living, breathing teachers. Otherwise, you're going to get a corrupted version of Judaism and yes, it won't be very inspiring, and it won't seem very "healthy."

If I were going to speak to the utilitarian you, I would say, face it, you are a really beautiful person, inside and out. And that means a lot of men are going to make passes at you. Does this mean they really care about you? Obviously not. Modesty is a great way to discern a man's true intentions. Couples who live together before marriage are less likely to get married. I could give you a whole list of utilitarian reasons to be modest which would be true, and yet not. Because there is a spiritual reality going on which is much deeper than this.

You've heard the saying, "we are not human beings having a spiritual experience but rather spiritual beings having a human experience." It's attributed to any number of people, but it's a very Jewish idea. Don't deny your feelings and passions, but at the same time, don't repress your spirituality either, because that should be your guide. Sexuality is indeed a "huge part of the human condition," but since it's so powerful it can be intimate and elevating or totally degrading, depending on the context. Don't lose sight of the goal: the reason it's so powerful is because it's about the connection of souls.

When you meet the right person, at the right time, I think your "commitment issues" will disappear.

Wishing you every blessing—


P.S. With regard to the "replenishing the ranks" issue, I just read a fascinating study in The Journal of Adolescent and Family Health (Vol 3, #4) which found that actually, both non-virgin men and non-virgin women were slightly more likely to get married than virgins. (The non-virgins were also considerably more likely to get divorced.) So, contrary to popular conception, virgins don't seem to "rush into marriage" to ; rather, they are more discriminating in choosing their partners, which may be why their marriages last longer.

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