The rabbi is a book lover. So it was an innocent question when he asked his congregant what she was reading, tucked ever-so-discreetly between her palms, as she sat in a chair in a synagogue hallway. Was that a bead of sweat trickling down her brow? Was she trying to hide the cover? Was she — no, she couldn’t be — blushing?
The last thing he expected was to discover erotica. What a choice of literature! And to indulge as she waited to collect her children from school? Nevertheless, she pushed aside her shame, looked up at him with knowing eyes and slipped him the book. She felt liberated.
At a cafe — a kosher cafe — in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, a group of young, mostly Modern Orthodox couples gathered one night. At one end of the table, the men chatted laconically about wine and sports. And at the other, the women talked excitedly — and in delicious detail — about their favorite parts of the book. “I want my husband to read it,” one of the women declared.
At a Coffee Bean in Beverly Hills, a table of Sephardic women gathered mid-morning to plan a sisterhood event. A copy of the book sat on the table. “I can’t put it down,” its owner gushed. Leaning in to whisper, she confessed, “It’s the most exciting thing I’ve read in years.” “I just ordered the whole trilogy online,” another said. Breathless with intrigue, a third woman lifted the slender volume off the table. She eyed it intently. The cover reveals only a tie, tinged in blue.
Or is it … gray?
The British writer and philosopher G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “Grey is a colour that always seems on the eve of changing to some other colour.” Perhaps that’s why British author E.L. James decided to title her first novel, “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
What started as postings to a fan fiction Web site — appropriating the already popular characters Bella and Edward from the “Twilight” series (but with way more concupiscence) — has become an international phenomenon. The book has sold 40 million copies worldwide in the five months since its publication last April. By comparison, as National Public Radio pointed out, it took Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” nearly four years to reach half that number. Naturally, it sparked a bidding war in Hollywood, and James, the pen name of former TV executive Erika Leonard, flew to Los Angeles for a week where she was wined, dined and wooed by producers, among them the Israeli tycoon Arnon Milchan, who reportedly offered the author $9 million for the title. Instead, she ended the frenzied pursuit when she signed a reported $4-million deal with Focus Features.
The buzz continued last month when British media reported that “Fifty Shades” has become the bestselling novel in U.K. history, topping “Harry Potter” and “The DaVinci Code.” And last week, a phone call to the Los Angeles Public Library downtown revealed that a stunning 1,997 names were on a waiting list for the system’s 204 copies.
Such unbridled lust for a book about lust! The Marquis De Sade would be so pleased.
But really, he wouldn’t. “Fifty Shades,” the soft-core erotic novel about a young, lustful billionaire who lures an even younger lustful college graduate into a sadomasochistic relationship, contains only elementary descriptions of sex, and its overhyped scenes of sexual violence are about as treacherous as vanilla ice cream. Oh, come on, didn’t your mother ever spank you?
The book pales by comparison to the 1954 French novel “Story of O,” which is so saturated in the sexual unthinkable that its protagonist’s aim was characterized as the annihilation of her personality. Or, as the late Susan Sontag, a major 20th century Jewish intellectual, described it, “the voluptuous yearning for the extinction of one’s consciousness.” By contrast, after skimming through the first sex scene in “Fifty Shades,” I was reminded of the tart line Jim Carrey blurts out to his bedmate in the movie “Liar Liar”: “I’ve had better.”
“Fifty Shades” has been maligned for lacking sophistication even as its popularity indicates that it is either fulfilling or shaping many women’s fantasy lives. It tells the story of Christian Grey, a witless, Adonis-like business mogul whose idea of a compliment is, “You get an A in oral skills,” and 22-year-old Anastasia Steele, whom he persuades to enter into a sex-only relationship. For this he drafts an official contract in which he assumes the role of “the dominant” and she “the submissive.” Not, however, that he can do whatever he wants. There are “hard limits” (no acts involving fire play, urination, defecation, needles or knives) and “soft limits” (let’s just say those have to do with which orifices are at his disposal).
Anastasia, a giddy, guileless girl, whose exasperation at almost everything gets expressed by squealing “Holy crap” every other sentence, is so ensorcelled by his beauty and billions, she signs up. They have a lot of sex. Sometimes he spanks her. Sometimes she likes it. But, mostly, their relationship is a confusing mess of impulse and emotion, which at times lends itself to darker shades of degradation, and other amorous behavior that is noncommittal and turbulent. If you can call it love, which is clearly the direction the author wants to take this, it’s love of a very immature sort.
So why has a retrograde fantasy that exemplifies traditional gender roles and undercuts romantic complexity risen to cultural apotheosis? If there’s anything to get all hot and bothered about, it’s this: We want sex. Hot, panting, sweaty, dirty, even depraved sex. Even badly written sex (perhaps especially badly written sex). We want to be flustered, filled and inflamed. We are at the core, animals, and we have animal needs. Since most of us will never see a battlefield or have to survive a shipwreck, sex becomes our theater of discovery. (As poet Dylan Thomas wrote in “Under Milk Wood,” “Let me shipwreck in your thighs.”) It is the most primal way through which we come to know who we are — how courageous, how giving, how loving we have the potential to be. Sex sensitizes us. It reminds us that we’re mortal. Sex is our answer to the poverty of mundane existence.
And therein lies the rub!
Religion has always seemed to caution against sex. We are taught that sex is dangerous. It is transgressive. It is completely consuming and therefore a terrible threat to higher functioning. “The thing about pleasure,” the erudite Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic, told me, “is that it knows nothing else but itself, and all it wants is more of itself.” Jewish sages were too smart to let the pursuit of sex go unchecked. The ancient rabbis realized that, without regulation, the body’s appetites would detract from the stabilizing forces of the tradition — procreation of Jews, foremost, but also the bonds of family, community and social responsibility. So while Judaism has never denied the needs of the body, as Christianity has, it instead established modesty and purity laws that would, at the very least, cover up the body.
All it takes to splinter our strictures is a silly little erotic book with its pre-feminist, pre-marital, pre-childrearing tropes, and a timeless Jewish dissonance has been brought to the fore: the tension between the tradition’s attempts to regulate erotic impulses and our unceasing desire to fulfill them, especially when we live in a wildly immodest culture, where rampant sexual freedom is the norm, and innuendo, nudity and pornography are ubiquitous and encouraged. What’s a dutiful modern Jew to do?
“Fifty Shades” posits a world where there is little room for anything but the pursuit of pleasure. Professional lives serve merely as erotic barriers, and notions of family, spirituality and God barely figure in (unless “Holy crap” counts). It is the opposite of what Jewish life asks of us, an existence that focuses exclusively on the delights of the body, bereft of any acknowledgment of intellect or soul. Where religion is concerned, the body is a blunt reminder that physicality is, in fact, what separates man from God. And it recalls that the most fundamental theological problem that exists is the question of how matter emanated from an immaterial God. How can we be more like God if we are trapped by our corporeality, the one thing, despite being crafted in God’s image, God most definitely does not have?
Despair not. While Judaism offers various and conflicting views on sexual conduct, there is more to the tradition’s understanding of sex than restraint and control (thank God). Judaism, in fact, likes sex. And quite a bit. The Book of Proverbs, for example, counts “the way of a man with a woman” as one of the wonders of the world. “Song of Songs” is so erotic and sexual that its true meaning has long been suppressed. Jewish reverence for ecstasy has been coopted by Chasidic prayer and Jewish mystical texts. The list goes on and on. Beyond simply regulating behavior, Judaism has sought to elevate, enable and ennoble sexual theater by exalting the wanton body by compounding it with a soul. Human beings are embodied spirits. And in this form, erotic life becomes of paramount importance to a fully realized existence. It may, in fact, be the highest form of existence, a way of seeking to feel what the mystics called the full infinity of every moment.
“There is no word for ‘sex’ in the Bible,” Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, author of several books on Jewish attitudes toward sex including “Kosher Sex” and “The Kosher Sutra,” explained. “The word the Torah uses is ‘knowledge,’ which connotes that carnal knowledge is the highest form of knowledge. That’s an amazing idea: Judaism believes that a man and a woman will love each other more deeply, more intimately, more thoroughly, through the friction caused by two bodies than even a deep philosophical conversation, or even a spiritual conversation.”
But even in the Bible, sex isn’t always idealized. It can be messy and complicated and used as manipulation. In Genesis, Jacob spots Rachel, and is instantly besotted. He wants her. But, absent a dowry, he must promise her father seven years — seven years! — of labor, before he is permitted to marry and “consort” with her. He obliges. But as if that were not a heavy enough load, Rachel’s father, Laban, deceives Jacob on his wedding night, placing the veiled Leah, Laban’s eldest daughter, in Jacob’s marital bed, thus forcing Jacob to indenture himself another seven years to win his beloved. Imagine his pent up … frustrations.
Another lurid, illicit seduction occurs in the Second Book of Samuel, when King David spies Bathsheba bathing naked on a rooftop. He watches like a hawk as she removes her garments and washes. Instantly, he falls in love, beds her that same afternoon, and then seeks to destroy her marriage by sending her hapless husband off to be killed in battle. Our ancestors, it turns out, were as vulnerable to erotic desire as we are.
Who better understood the power of human sex drives than a certain Jewish psychologist named Sigmund Freud? Freud venerated the behavioral primacy of sex, but he also recognized its power to destroy social arrangements. He viewed unconscious impulses and instincts as sensually unruly and essentially self-serving, and he argued that little sense could be made of human life without understanding them. “Freud made the point that civilization is, to a large extent, based on repression, and that repression is therefore a positive thing,” Wieseltier said. “Because if one is in the throes of pleasure or pleasure seeking, that’s all there is. And that’s dangerous, because when it’s over, you want to have it again.”
Sexual desire can be so intense it registers as an affliction, a kind of illness or madness that can drive even the most pious among us to desperation. Sontag encapsulated this best in her 1967 essay “The Pornographic Imagination” when she described sexuality as “something beyond good and evil, beyond love, beyond sanity.”
The power of the emotions formed by sex can make us crazy. Jewish law guarded against this problem with regulations to stem the salacious. To preserve the holiness of sex (and the sexes), the rabbis implemented a host of modesty and purity laws: Both men and women should dress so as not to attract sexual attention (covering much of the skin and hair), and married couples are prohibited from having sex while a woman is menstruating. This mandated period of separation, which concludes with a purifying ritual bath, is, on the one hand, a form of control. But viewed another way, it is a time of spiritually sanctioned erotic buildup, during which the proscription of sex — naturally — entreats one to want it more.
Here is where Orthodox Judaism and “Fifty Shades of Grey” have something in common. Sex in “Fifty Shades” is safe. It is carefully channeled around a set of rules and hardly the white-hot, unbridled licentiousness common in porn books. There are boundaries around desire, quite literally. The lovers are contractually bound; every detail of their erotic encounter is agreed upon: They will be monogamous, they will use birth control; diet, exercise and dress code are part of the deal. Can’t take the pain? Just say so. The portrait of their pleasure is thus carefully guarded, fenced in by rules of conduct.
Sex is also private. It is reserved for the secret sphere of the bedroom, or even better, Christian’s “Red Room of Pain,” which plainly possesses its own dangers — whips, clamps, riding crops, to name just a few choice items — but remains secluded from the rest of life, its own sacred space. It is a holy shrine to carnal pleasure, and it is cordoned off.
This containment could be seen as parallel to Judaism’s channeling of the erotic. There are sentries for seduction, defenses against unruliness. Which is an apt metaphor for the act of reading erotica itself: Getting sex in a book is safe, exempt from physical, moral and spiritual hazards. In literature, we are free to fantasize and to feel without sex complicating our lives.
In her essay on pornography, Sontag suggested that the era’s “mounting output of dirty books [could be] attributed to a festering legacy of Christian sexual repression.” Because we want that which we cannot have. For some, religion itself has evolved into a kind of ecstatic substitute for sex, which can be seen in Chasidic prayer practices and Jewish mysticism. “Jewish mystical texts are so very, very sexual,” said Rabbi Naomi Levy, author and founder of the spiritual community Nashuva. “Rambam spoke of this — and it is constantly repeated — that your relationship to God ultimately needs to be a relationship of someone who is lovesick. It should be that kind of desperate feeling, where everywhere you are thinking of them, everywhere you feel that feeling.”
In erotic literature’s long and rich history, which extends as far back as Greek and Roman antiquity and even further, to the Bible, nowhere is the spirit of lovesickness better expressed than in Song of Songs, which appears in the Tanakh. It is widely considered the most erotic text in the Jewish tradition. “It’s a really sexy book,” said Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Ed Feinstein. “Have you ever read it? Get a bottle of wine, and a couple of candles, and someone you really like, and just read it to each other. It’s … whew!”
So, take a deep breath, and imagine you and your lover in the following scene; a verse in Chapter Five, as translated by Levy:
I am asleep, but my heart is awake
the voice of my beloved is knocking
Open up for me my sister, my love,
my dove, my pure one
My head is wet with dew
my curls are dripping with the night
I’ve already taken off my robe
how can I put it on?
I’ve already washed my feet
how can I dirty them?
My beloved took his hand off the latch
and my heart longed for him
I rose to open up for my beloved
my hands were dripping with myrrh
my fingers were flowing myrrh on the
handle of the lock…
Wet. Dripping. Dirty. Beloved. And, according to Rabbi Akiva, this is the holiest book in the Bible. Though the poem is most often read allegorically to reflect the relationship between God and Israel, the original Hebrew text portrays a strikingly different picture. It contains no mention whatsoever of God. A thoroughly secular text, it is very specifically about lovers, desperately searching for each other, consumed by their senses, proclaiming their love in poetry. Scholars Ariel and Chana Bloch, whose book “The Song of Songs” sought to reclaim the original intent of the poem, noted in their translation: “Its theme is the wonder of a woman with a man — an unmarried woman, with no concern about perpetuating the family line and no motive but pleasure.”
“It is clearly a celebration of a very intense, sexual, erotic relationship,” said Michal Lemberger, who teaches Bible at American Jewish University and UCLA Extension. Some read it as the sexual awakening of a young woman, as she and her lover become assimilated into a voluptuously sensuous world, where the eroticism of the earth fuels and harmonizes the eroticism of their bodies. The landscapes of hills and mounds become metaphors for the body. The lovers take on animal qualities, exhibiting a primal wanting, proclaiming their love in public. But to preserve the sanctity of their connection, they reserve their fantasy of union for the privacy of night and the seclusion of vineyards.
The song’s countenancing of sexual love beyond the bounds of marriage is the source of its subversion, surely one reason it was redacted, retranslated and reinterpreted for the canon. But it hardly endorses rampant promiscuity. Such exquisite unity between two souls depends on exclusivity; this kind of desire cannot be diluted among many partners. It is too concentrated, too obsessive, too fixed on its intended object. The poem affirms the sacredness of monogamy. There can only be one beloved.
“My beloved is mine, he fills all my needs and I seek from him and none other … For strong til the death is my love.”
“The other kind of wonderful thing about it,” Lemberger said, “is how reciprocal it is. The female lover is just as active as the male lover — she goes out looking for him in the city. And if you look at other books in the Bible, a woman who goes out into the streets to look for a man is a harlot. Not here.”
The song was, perhaps, ahead of its time in granting sexual equality to its subjects, though it is not entirely clear whether the lovers actually meet. It is a poem of lust and longing, and much of its erotic intensity stems from the mystery surrounding consummation. The two are always seeking, calling to one another. And the poem’s beauty is its lack of explicitness. It is the opposite of pornography. Everything is sensation, every scent woven in metaphor. And it is the imprecise, unattainable air swirling through the story that intensifies the lovers’ yearning.
“Eroticism exists specifically in the shadows,” Boteach said. “Sexuality is about proximity; eroticism is about distance. It is about unavailability; it is about frustrating desire.”
The poem functions as a unique counterpoint to the rest of the Bible. It’s a luscious sexual loophole, so long as we are fully devoted to the relationship formed by sex. Elsewhere, there is erotic flexibility in marriage, but none whatsoever outside of it. So it’s almost as though Song of Songs is rebelling against the notion that holy sex can happen in marriage only, by presenting an idealized portrait of sacred romantic love that is so intoxicating, so infinite, so ethereal, it becomes metaphysical. “The basic idea is that anything that takes you to your limits, any experience of transcendence can be described as a religious experience,” Wieseltier said.
“Fifty Shades” is spiritless in comparison. Its women have no agency in their fantasies; loving sex (which is to say, sex driven by emotional intimacy) or “vanilla sex,” which Christian Grey disdains, is unworthy in the face of violent sex. Men are the stewards of power. Women are submissive, saying yes when they mean no.
“One might argue,” said Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, “that women’s fantasies are conditioned by the reality of a world in which there isn’t real reciprocity and equality between the sexes — so we can’t even imagine what a woman’s sexual fantasies might really be.” Instead, we are left with cute sex, pornographically described, leaving precious little room for the imagination to soar. Fifty shades of gray, indeed.
What makes it even the least bit tolerable is that violence animates their intimacy. Anastasia submits herself to her lover’s assault because it is the only way she can hope to know him. And Christian inflicts his sadistic urges to purge himself of childhood pain. As the Czech writer Milan Kundera observed, “There are things that can be accomplished only by violence. Physical love is unthinkable without violence.”
Jewish tradition is ambivalent on this point. How far can a couple go in their efforts to please one another? In the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides writes, “a man is permitted to his wife,” but goes on to say that excessive sex — which, in Torah terms is a man who “frequents his wife like a rooster” — is disagreeable. Yet, a story in the Talmud tells of a woman who complains to Rabbi Judah HaNasi of her husband’s unorthodox desires. Judah the Prince replies: “What can I do my daughter that the Torah hath permitted him to you and you to him?”
Sometimes, a violent fantasy that causes pain feels like the only thing that can keep us awake. “Central to the area of sexuality is the idea of surrender, for men and for women,” Doreen Seidler-Feller, sex therapist and associate professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, said. “The whole idea behind sexual release is to get out of your head, to let go of your consciousness, to put yourself in a state of oblivion.”
But Judaism also sets limits between desire and dignity. “Judaism contains the notion that a sexual relationship has to have dignity, and that it is not acceptable to abuse, dehumanize or objectify another human being,” Feinstein pointed out. “The way I like to put it is: We have a body, and we have the power to be good or evil, depending on how we use it. And we have soul, a sense of self. So the simple rubric is: The most intimate expression of body-to-body should be reserved for those circumstances in which we have the most intimate and powerful expressions of soul to soul.”
Sex has the power to bring us to heights so intense and wild, it feels transcendent. It feels like magic. A supreme spiritual act. That’s why the erotic love depicted in Song of Songs was sublimated into a metaphor for love of God; because, if the ultimate human expression is that burning “fever of love” then how could we love God any less?
Of course, human relationships are more complicated than they appear in poetry. Human love is difficult and full of friction, perhaps more “Fifty Shades” than “Song of Songs.” It’s why we prefer to believe that the lovers in Song of Songs never find each other; we know that the most intimate relationships require an endless process of knowing, of searching, seeking, coming close and being torn apart. Human frailty is what moved the sages to declare that the only pure love is love of God. But the Talmud tells us, “God wants the heart.” Because every heart is possessed by the potency of human experience, filled with brokenness, with fragments, joy mixed in with loss and endless, agonized, longing. There will never be a perfect love. There is only what we have, and God wants.