The Great Reveal


From now on, I’ll only go on dates in pajamas.

On Wednesdays.

At 10:45 p.m.

Such midweek engagements in sweats and old T-shirts, with stress and exhaustion at their peak, would eliminate some pretense — therefore saving my suitors and me time in assessing marriage potential. Presenting attractive facades of ourselves in lovely clothes, fancy restaurants and charming conversation would only delay our determining true compatibility. After all, one’s spouse is the person who sees what’s revealed “in here” considerably more often than what’s undercover “out there.”

To be sure, more than a bridal veil is lifted during the transition from courtship into matrimony. The intimacy of the latter demands that two people are prepared to pour themselves out before one another, exposing the purest and most naked part of their being with faith that it will be embraced. A sacred union requires nothing less than this kind of nakedness: a revelation far beyond the physical, and so exclusive that it cannot be attained with anyone else — not even God.

That’s what this week’s Torah portion suggests. In its opening lines we learn that a meeting with the Divine is, at its most personal, something of a formal first date. Not only must one “bathe his flesh in water,” but also “be attired [in] holy garments” (Leviticus 16:4) before getting together with God — who will be “within [a] veil before [a] covering” (Leviticus 16:2).

Like a bachelor who dons a great pair of jeans, expensive cologne and plays it cool to shield himself from vulnerability to a broken heart, the High Priest must wear fine linens, burn sweet smells and keep a safe distance from his beloved, “lest he die.” Both men understand that only fools rush in to certain relationships; conversely, the High Priest’s sons — after whom the portion is named — were just those kinds of fools.

“After the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they came near before the Lord and died” (Leviticus 16:2), we learn that it was Nadav and Avihu’s premature and over-exposed advances toward God that killed them. In their display of openness to the Divine, they became consumed in their love — literally.

Perhaps this is why Rabbi Isaac Luria said the boys were killed because they were unmarried; they mistook the nakedness that can lead to ecstatic union with one’s spouse to be translatable to communion with God.

The parsha makes it more than clear that this is not a mistake to be made. Exposure of one’s nakedness — emotional or corporeal — is a level of intimacy reserved exclusively for one’s partner in love and procreation. And to make sure we get the message, the text goes on to repeat its point. It repeats the word ervah (translated as “nakedness” or “to pour out”) in prohibitive context 24 times in a 16-line paragraph.

Be it one’s parent, sibling, grandchild or in-law, we must cover our essential states of defenselessness from one another at all times. We are not intended to reveal our totalities to more than one human being at a time.

As it is, most of us are still hiding from ourselves. Be it the disapproving grimaces we offer our reflections before the mirror or the shadows we cast over the ugly aspects of our characters, we have enough trouble confronting our own naked truths with unconditional love. To succeed in achieving intimacy with another is therefore more than enough to aspire toward.

The capacity to entirely behold the emptiness and starkness and frailty of a human being is the holiest of places we can occupy. If we succeed in embracing this place, we are rewarded with the ecstasy of reunion with the Divine.

And the competence to respect the fullness and complexity and protectiveness of everyone else is the holiest of positions we can take. If we succeed in revering this place, we are rewarded with the delight of communion with the Divine.

Somewhere between the lines of the text, we can find balance between what is concealed and what is revealed. We learn through the death of the two young priests that the Light of God is too strong to approach directly; a covering is necessary. And in that we are all made in the Image, we can more easily acknowledge the Divine light that must therefore be shining behind the veils of our fellows. In fact, the more they hide behind, the more we ought to appreciate the sanctity hidden within.

Meanwhile, late at night, in sweats and a T-shirt full of holes, I am faithful that I will come to meet someone who will see this display as holy indeed. I pray for an opportunity to join those courageous enough to commit to see and be seen in a nakedness beyond the shadows, and feel blessed in knowing that God exists in it all.

Rabbi Karen Deitsch works as a freelance officiant and lecturer in Los Angeles. She can be reached at karendeitsch@yahoo.com.

Author’s advice on sex and intimacy makes her hot stuff


I open Esther Perel’s new book on the bus, and I know that my seatmate is staring at the cover photo of a man and woman in bed not touching beneath the red sheets.

“Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic & the Domestic” (HarperCollins) has caught the man’s attention, but he maintains the bus rider’s code and doesn’t ask about it. Perel’s book has also captured the attention of large numbers of readers, journalists and producers.

Recently, the Belgian-born psychotherapist has been profiled in Vogue, covered in People and featured on Oprah. She’s talking a lot about sex and intimacy, and the talk often turns to sexlessness among committed couples.

“Love flourishes in an atmosphere of closeness, mutuality, and equality,” she writes. “We seek to know our beloved, to keep him near, to contract the distance between us. We care about those we love, worry about them and feel responsible for them.

“For some of us, love and desire are inseparable. But for many others, emotional intimacy inhibits erotic expression. The caring, protective elements that foster love often block the unself-consciousness that fuels erotic pleasure.”

The book, her first, is theory, cultural analysis and practical advice. Based on more than 20 years of research, as well as counseling couples of all backgrounds and ages, straight and gay, married and not, the book includes many stories of real people in loving, long-term relationships who find that increased intimacy has been accompanied by decreased sexual desire. Not all of the stories have happy endings.

Esther Perel
“The challenge for modern couples lies in reconciling the need for what’s safe and predictable with the wish to pursue what’s exciting, mysterious, and awe-inspiring,” she writes.

A couples and family therapist in private practice, Perel, 48, does a lot of work related to cultural identity and ethnic and religious intermarriage. Having grown up in Antwerp, attended university in Jerusalem, lived in the United States for more than two decades and traveled around the world, she sees herself as a cultural hybrid, observing from the sidelines.

She doesn’t hold to what she says is a very American belief, that all problems have solutions. Rather, she tries to show different ways of looking at issues, trying to promote understanding.

I met up with Perel recently in a Manhattan cafe, just before she was off to Brazil to launch the Portuguese edition of the book.

Perel doesn’t easily sit still — she jumps up to clear a table when she spots an opening in a quieter corner of the cafe. She speaks rapidly, in an accent that’s not easily identifiable, perhaps a blend of the eight languages in which she is fluent. In her therapeutic work, she uses most of them, sometimes changing languages every hour. She deals with Europeans, Haitians, West Africans and ultra-Orthodox Jews.

“I live New York in the full sense,” she says.

Perel is direct and articulate, comfortable talking about sex and eroticism, and her life’s journey from Louvain, the ancient Belgian university town where she was born, to the loft in Soho that she shares with her husband, Jack Saul, the director of the International Trauma Studies Program at Columbia University, and their two sons, ages 10 and 13.

She met her husband when she came to study in the United States for what she thought would be one year, after graduating from Hebrew University. Saul was her unofficial thesis adviser and a mentor.

Perel is the child of Holocaust survivors, and she relates her perspective to her parents’ outlook on life. Growing up in a community of survivors, she came to recognize a certain type among them, a bit unusual, like her parents. The sole survivors of their families, and who came very close to death themselves, her mother and father were decidedly connected to life. They lived with exuberance, reclaiming their spirit of adventure and enjoyment.

While she knows nothing about their sex lives except that they had two children, she senses that they had a deep understanding of the erotic.

“Though I doubt they ever used the word,” she writes. “They embodied its mystical meaning as a quality of aliveness, a pathway to freedom — not just the narrow definition of sex that modernity has assigned to it.”

She also speaks of discovering talmudic stories that she found “utterly brilliant” in their understanding of the tension between the domestic and the erotic. In the book, she retells a story about Rabbi Bar Ashi, who would stand before God every night and beg to be saved from the evil urge. One day, after overhearing him, his wife dressed up as a prostitute and met him. Later on, at home, he confessed to his wife, and when she admitted that it was she, he was still distraught as he “intended the forbidden.”

The author points out that Judaism never embraced a culture of celibacy. When asked about whether the traditional laws of family purity, with their prescribed separation, are a protection from the kind of overfamiliarity among couples that she describes, she dismisses that as a modern interpretation.

Perel’s family’s background is ultra-Orthodox, although her parents left that world. She’s related to the Gerer Rebbe and does a lot of work in the Orthodox community. Among her clients are those who have sex frequently, with desire not located in the self but in the larger mitzvah, something holy and transcendent. But when they come to see her, “the system isn’t working.” When she works with these couples, she also deals with their rabbis.

“They come to me because I’m not Orthodox. I speak Yiddish, but I’m not an insider,” she explains. “Being a Jew is the central part of who I am, my world view and sensibility, how I think. I consider my Jewish identity the ultimate cosmopolitan identity. I have a very European view. I don’t belong anywhere, but I have access to the world.”

She doesn’t identify as an American Jew, nor with the experience of the hundreds of American Jews she has worked with over the years. But she’s likely to identify with a Jew from places like South Africa or Argentina “in a second.”

Book review: The Divorce Lawyers’ Guide


Divorce attorneys. Are there two dirtier words in the English language? Thoughts of them conjure up images of circling human sharks, cold-blooded assassins and profiteers feasting on the misery of others. Turning to them for suggestions on how to stay married would seem about as useful as seeking out Donald Trump for tips on humility or former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair for advice on journalistic ethics.
 
Sometimes, though, the conventional wisdom misses the mark. Drawing on interviews with 100 prominent divorce attorneys nationwide, author and former practicing attorney Wendy Jaffe has written an interesting and illuminating work called, “The Divorce Lawyers’ Guide to Staying Married.” Apparently, those with ringside seats in divorce court, a place where couples venture to shred their wedding vows and one another, have a special insight into how not to behave in marriage.
 
In her book, Jaffe outlines how to diagnose and treat myriad union-killers, ranging from no-sex marriages to infidelity to unrealistic expectations. Beyond that, she argues that many couples who end up in divorce court could have, and should have, worked harder to save their unions.
 
In Jaffe’s view, marriage, except in cases of physical or verbal abuse and untreated drug and alcohol addiction, is worth fighting for. She argues that the fact that about half of all marriages in the United States don’t last is less a reflection of widespread incompatibility than an indictment of a disposable American culture that encourages folks to trade in their old-but-perfectly good cars, computers and, yes, even spouses for newer, fresher models. All too often, Jaffe argues, mates in the process of shedding their significant others come to realize too late that they’ve made a terrible mistake, especially when children are involved. The grass might appear greener elsewhere, but that, like a waterhole in the desert, is often only a mirage. The proof: Two of three second marriages end in divorce.
 
Jaffe’s starts her book detailing all the ways sex can kill a marriage. Why start with sex?
 
“It is rare that someone who is having good and regular sex will come to me for a divorce,” says Miami family law attorney Maurice Kutner, one of several lawyers Jaffe quotes.
 
Couples having infrequent intimate relations should beware, Jaffe warns. Sex, she writes, is an integral part of most marriages, and its absence augurs poorly for their survival. There are myriad reasons why married couples’ love lives can cool, including familiarity and the exhaustion of parenthood. Still, a no-sex marriage is far from the norm. As Jaffe notes, just because married spouses have stopped making love with one another doesn’t mean they have stopped making love.

Take the case of Steve and Linda, one of several case studies Jaffe sprinkles throughout her book. The couple married in their mid-20s, had three kids in six years and moved to the ‘burbs. To the outside world, they appeared to have the perfect union. However, behind the smiles, Linda felt increasingly disconnected from her spouse, and her interest in intimacy dwindled markedly with the birth of her children. Over time, Steve also became more disenchanted, especially after his wife rejected repeated requests to discuss her waning drive with a gynecologist. Steve eventually left a “shocked” Linda for a work colleague.
 
So what to do if sex begins to vanish from the bedroom? Jaffe suggests the road to recovery begins with recognition.
 
“Even if sex is not important to you,” she writes, “you have to realize that it might be extremely important to your spouse, and that it is a significant cause of divorce.”
 
Throughout the book, Jaffe encourages readers to consult a therapist. She also offers a helpful list of reference books readers might want to peruse.Infidelity is another sex-related marriage-killer with which Jaffe grapples. On the upside, she argues persuasively that many marriages can withstand cheating. If both spouses figure out what caused the straying and address the problem; if the victim spouse can forgive the affair; and if the adulterous husband or wife truly recommits to the marriage — a lot of ifs — the couple might salvage the union. On the downside, Internet chat rooms and dating services have made it easier than ever for bored spouses to find a playmate.
 
Many marriages, Jaffe writes, are in trouble even before they begin. That’s because one or both partners bring unrealistic expectations to the altar.
 
Couples who expect the romance and fires of passion to burn indefinitely set themselves up for their marriage to flameout. Similarly, men and women who believe marriage will magically transform their significant other are deluding themselves. Her insane jealousy won’t suddenly vanish, just as his verbal abuse and alcoholism won’t disappear. The bottom line: What you see is generally what you get. A caveat, though: People often do change over the course of a marriage, for better or for worse, Jaffe says.
 
Even those who’ve never married, as well as people considering getting hitched for the second or third time, could benefit from “The Divorce Lawyers’ Guide.”
 
Jaffe and the attorneys she interviewed counsel against getting married at a young age. A little life experience, they argue, allows a person to grow up and figure out what they want from themselves and from a prospective spouse. It is no surprise, Jaffe writes, that Oklahoma, despite its location at the heart of the Bible Belt, has the second-highest divorce rate, according to 1990 stats. The reason: One of the lowest average ages for first marriages, at 22 for women and 24 for men.
 
As for remarriage, Jaffe warns against the “clone syndrome.” That is, finding a new spouse with a similar personality to the person just left behind. To avoid making the same mistakes again and again, such as repeatedly hooking up with alcoholics, Jaffe suggests seeing a therapist to “understand why your marriage broke down and how your selection of your spouse played a part in it.”
 
Jaffe’s book makes a surprisingly good read, considering that many lawyers tend to write in a turgid, tangled legalese. Still, Jaffe does trip up a few times.The lawyer in her devotes an entire section to prenuptial agreements. She argues that men and women with substantial assets need to protect them. Rational?