Holy Lust Over Romance: Can We Rescue Sex?
We have finally done it.
Many said it could not be done but, alas, we accomplished what no generation before us has ever achieved — we killed off sex.
Our efforts to end its tortured existence began with the Sexual Revolution. Paradoxically, this period of sexual openness led to a massive decline in sex between married couples. The proliferation of pornography and the rebellion against the supposed rigidity of marriage mark this era as the beginning of intimacy’s end.
Add to those influences the introduction of televisions, cellphones and tablets in almost all of our nation’s bedrooms, and we created the greatest threats to sex in human history. (What kind of sex could compete with Netflix’s “Narcos” and Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” anyway?)
And then, the #MeToo movement and the painful sexual scandals that riddled the Catholic Church put the final nails in the coffin of sex. Whatever was left of sex became something ugly, vulgar and bestial.
No longer would sex be seen as an act of lovemaking and intimacy. Sex, instead, became increasingly absent in committed relationships, rearing its head only in cases of harassment and sordid manipulation. Today, sexuality conjures up images of men behaving like pigs —objectifying women in the workplace, pitching lewd comments and catcalls, even engaging in shameful and criminal assault. These putrid incarnations of human sexuality have seemingly, tragically, come to define it.
As for committed, monogamous relationships based on loving consent, recent studies show that one-third of marriages in the United States are almost entirely platonic. As for the married couples who are still doing it, studies show that, on average, they have sex less than twice a week for seven minutes at a time (which, I joke in my lectures, includes the time the husband spends begging). Marriages today are as bereft of sex as the moon is bereft of cheese.
And don’t think that same-sex couples are having it a whole lot better. While it’s true that about 70 percent of gay male couples in monogamous relationships have sex, on average, three times a week or more during the first two years of their relationship, the numbers nosedive for couples who have been together 10 years or longer — just above 10 percent of gay couples still have sex three times a week, all according to a 2015 survey by the Families and Work Institute.
Can we rescue sex? Can we save marital intimacy? … We can get ourselves out of this downward spiral precisely because our Judaism offers an illuminated path.
It’s a stunning accomplishment for a single generation to kill off sex. After all, the procreative instinct is the single most compelling impulse known to humankind. To wrestle with something that strong — let alone cut its heart out — is something we never thought possible. Not that sex is completely dead. It still exists, accounting for as much as 15 percent of all internet content, according to some of the more reliable estimates.
How did we get here? Who allowed it to happen? And how can we ever go back?
The last question is particularly relevant. Because, I suspect — indeed, I know — that this current situation with sex is not the way women and men want it.
I know that women don’t want sex to be something dirty and abusive. I know that for all the horror stories we’ve been subjected to during the past year, and for all the sexual degradation that so many women have experienced at the hands of men, women still hope for, long for and believe in something higher. They still believe that sex can be about respect, mutuality and love. They still long for a passionate connection with a man who loves them.
And let’s remember that the #MeToo movement does not just encompass sexual abuse in heterosexual relationships but also in same-sex scenarios, as the painful case of “House of Cards” star Kevin Spacey shows.
Even we men don’t want to be the people we’ve seemingly become. We know there is a higher code built upon honor, sensitivity and chivalry. Indeed, many men still see sex as something to be shared passionately and exclusively with one woman — at her invitation and with mutual commitment and affection. Sex, these men understand, is a way for husband and wife to coalesce into one another, becoming “bone of one bone and flesh of one flesh.”
As for same-sex relationships, I should make it clear at the outset that, while I’m an orthodox Rabbi who believes passionately in the Torah’s emphasis on opposite-sex relationships and marriage, I have counseled many same-sex couples and I have a gay brother who is an extremely proud and committed observant Jew. Same-sex couples are regulars at our Shabbat table and I have fought discrimination against same-sex couples my entire life, emphasizing that, when it comes to marriage, the state should recognize “civil unions for all and marriage for none,” as marriage is a religious as opposed to a political institution. My focus, however, in this essay will be primarily on male-female relationships and marriage, based on my values system, but the importance of maintaining erotic dignity and sexual respect applies equally to same-sex relationships.
For my Orthodox readers who will wonder how I can be tolerant of same-sex relationships, given my Orthodox credentials, I refer them to my many published essays on the subject, especially in my book “Moses of Oxford.” While the Bible calls homosexuality an “abomination,” the word appears approximately 122 times in the Torah. Eating nonkosher food is an “abomination” (Deuteronomy 14:3); a woman returning to her first husband after being married in the interim is an “abomination” (Deuteronomy 24:4); bringing a blemished sacrifice to God’s altar is an abomination (Deuteronomy 17:1); and Proverbs goes so far as to label envy, lying and gossip “an abomination to [the Lord]” (3:32, 16:22).
There are 613 commandments in the Torah. One is to refrain from gay sex. Another is for men and women to marry and have children. So when Jewish gay couples tell me they have never been attracted to members of the opposite sex and are desperately alone, I tell them, “You have 611 commandments left. That should keep you busy. Now, go create a kosher home. Turn off the TV on the Sabbath and share your meals with many guests. Pray to God three times a day and put on tefillin every morning.”
In the end, the sexual revolution allowed feminine sexual wisdom to be eclipsed by masculine sexual exploitation.
The Ten Commandments were given on two tablets to connote two different kinds of transgression: religious and moral. The first tablet discussed religious transgressions between God and man, such as the prohibitions of idolatry, blasphemy and desecration of the Sabbath. The second tablet contained moral sins between man and his fellow man, such as adultery, theft and murder.
Homosexuality is a religious, not a moral, sin. A moral sin involves injury to an innocent party. Who is harmed when two unattached, consenting adults are in a relationship? Homosexuality is akin to the prohibition against lighting fire on the Sabbath or eating bread during Passover; there is nothing immoral about it, but it violates the Divine will.
I am in favor of gay civil unions rather than marriage because I am against redefining marriage. But gay marriage doesn’t represent the end of Western civilization. The real killer is the tsunami of divorce and the untold disruption to children who become yo-yos going from house to house on weekends.
I have countless gay friends whose greatest fear — like that of so many straight people — is to end up alone. Should we just throw the book at these people? The Bible says, “It is not good for man to be alone.” All I ask from my religious brethren is this: Even as you oppose gay relationships because of your beliefs, please be tortured by your opposition. Understand that when our most deeply held beliefs conflict with our basic humanity, we should feel the tragedy of the conflict, not find convenient scapegoats upon whom to blame America’s ills.
As a marriage counselor, I have met with countless husbands and wives who have come to me to discuss marital discord, often boiling down their problems to just one. She says such things as: “He has a temper issue,” or, “He doesn’t listen to me,” or, “He watches TV at night and doesn’t know I’m alive.” He insists: “She is too critical,” or, “She is too demanding,” or, “I’m treated by my wife and kids as an ATM. I’m not a person to them. But I have feelings, too.” In the end, though, I generally discover that there’s another, muted issue at play — they generally have not had sex in months, sometimes years. The wife’s feeling of rejection is profound — her mascara slowly dissolving as she describes what it’s like to wear lingerie at night and have no one notice. The husband’s feeling of humiliation is pronounced — he painfully shares how he makes overtures night after night to the wife he loves only to be told that she’s too tired and needs to sleep.
Can we rescue sex? Can we save marital intimacy? Will women heal from the pain and horrors of the #MeToo movement? Will men rise to the occasion and embrace the gallant path of fairness and respect toward women?
In short, the answer is yes. We can get ourselves out of this downward spiral precisely because our Judaism offers an illuminated path.
In fact, of all the blessings, universal gifts and wisdom the Jewish religion has to offer the world, its view of sex is by far the most profound. It’s why, as a child of divorce and despite my own shortcomings, I published the book “Kosher Sex” 20 years ago. I never expected the book to become an epoch-defining tome, and I do not say that to take credit as an author. Rather, the book sold in huge numbers and succeeded in countless languages and cultures because, even a generation ago, people were looking for sex that was kosher, appropriate, passionate, intimate, erotic yet respectful, electrifying yet intimate, romantic yet playful.
Let’s examine what Judaism tells us about sex.
The first key idea is that sex is not for procreation. If sex were just for having kids, then pregnant women would not love sex. Indeed, there is not a single, nonhuman mammalian species in which the female accepts a male once she is impregnated.
If sex were just for offspring, then post-menopausal women would not love its ardor. And if sex were just for genetic reproduction, then there would be no reason for human males to have a disproportionately large sexual appendage — yes, size does matter, but every human male is adequate — that facilitates an intimate face-to-face sexual relationship that only humans (and bonobo monkeys) are capable of.
More importantly, the argument that sex is for procreation abets the misconception that sex is an animal impulse, particularly in men, designed to ensure the widest possible distribution of the male’s gene pool. It makes men into animals and excuses the defeatist approach they often assume in dealing with their urges. It serves as a pathetic excuse for why men and women are unfaithful and why monogamy is defined as unnatural. It leads to the fraudulent belief that men and women are not seekers of intimacy but prefer instead an endless variety of anonymous partners.
Tell me for whom this is really true? How many women would abide a man who does not make them feel chosen? And how many men, in their heart of hearts, do not seek to be known fully by a loving soul mate?
It’s time for men in general and husbands in particular to take the pledge: No more porn.
Strangely enough, the belief that sex is for procreation is held by the otherwise bitterly opposed bodies of thought espoused by evolutionary biologists and the Catholic Church.
But if sex is not about procreation, is it about recreation? That seems to be what we tried during the sexual revolution. The argument went: just as men are capable of separating their bodies from their hearts, so too are women; so we can all copulate with no feelings other than the exhilaration of sexual climax.
It was a stupid argument. The male body is built with the genitalia on the outside, enabling men, arguably, to more easily separate emotions from the sexual act. Anatomically, men find it easier to treat sex as something they do to someone else. But the same experience for a woman is internal and constitutes a literal sharing of self. The separation of emotion from the physical act seems contrary to a woman’s anatomical construct. Women also seem to be more sexually mature than men, preferring sex associated with real connection. Of all the lies promulgated by the Sexual Revolution, the canard that women would enjoy — in the words of Erica Jong — the zipless “copulation” (I’m using a euphemism here) is perhaps the greatest lie of all.
The same is true in gay relationships. So many gay women and men have told me that they reject the depiction of gay romantic culture as promiscuous and sexually driven. They tell me they are seeking love and romance, not a faceless and emotionless encounter. And I have many gay friends who marry and are desperate for children — either adopted or through a donor or surrogate.
In the end, the sexual revolution allowed feminine sexual wisdom to be eclipsed by masculine sexual exploitation. It also went against the grain of Judaism’s noble attempt to domesticate the male and inspire him to channel his erotic focus onto one woman, his wife. As sex became more available, it lost its mystery and potency. Devoid of its magic, sex suddenly became a lot less interesting than watching “Game of Thrones.” Sex as recreation led directly to the advent and ubiquity of pornography, and to the mainstreaming of degrading slogans like Playboy’s “Entertainment for Men.” Is that what women are — a form of entertainment?
If Immanuel Kant was correct that the definition of immorality is treating a human being as a means rather than an end, then we can see how porn begins to transcend the distasteful and enter the realm of the immoral. So, sex as an act of recreation doesn’t seem to have played out well.
But if the ultimate purpose of sex is neither for procreation nor recreation, then what is it for?
The Bible expresses it more beautifully than it’s ever been said, right at the beginning of Genesis: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and leave his mother, he shall cleave unto his wife. And they shall become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24)
The purpose of sex is intimacy. Sex is the sewing together of two halves into one whole. Sex is the orchestration of man and woman as bone of one bone and flesh of one flesh. Sex is the motion that brings forth such powerful and deep emotions, so potent that it can to render two separate entities as a single, unified whole.
That’s why the Kabballah says that husbands and wives are meant to make love face-to-face, their eyes open wide and lips locked in a kiss. The eyes are the window to the soul, and with our mouths, we exchange life breaths. Sex, in which the bodies are intertwined, enables a three-pronged unity: one spirit, one soul, one flesh.
In the fusion of two souls together as one, sex is the ultimate end to loneliness, a plague that decimates our generation as people communicate through electronic devices and husbands and wives allow their private lives to be overtaken by child-rearing, mortgages and stultifying routine. Likewise, as the Bible says, sex is the highest form of knowledge, more profound than even verbal communication. When we speak, we choose our words, we filter our thoughts and only small drips of our soul can be revealed, one syllable at a time. When we make love, however, we remove all inhibition and surrender to the automatic impulse of spirit. We release the animating life force from within. All of us is revealed at once.
We can see now what must be done to rescue sex: restore its sanctity, regain its passion, and revive its intimacy. It begins with respect for its exclusive nature.
In the age of #MeToo, men are now afraid to be alone with a woman or to make a comment that can be misinterpreted, lest they be accused of something untoward. Is this what we want — men respecting women more out of fear than conviction? Will the #MeToo movement succeed if the changes it brings about in men stem not from values but from trepidation? Will such surface-level change actually last?
Judaism offers a far more holistic solution.
Long ago, Judaism commanded that men and women who were not married not to be alone with each other in a closed space. Not because one might harass the other but rather out of a deep respect for the inherent attraction of each other. Men are not meant to suppress their magnetism toward women and women are not meant to repress their gravitation toward men. Sexual repression leads to an unhealthy society of aberrant behavior. Even worse is an asexual society where men and women are not strongly drawn to one another, a world devoid of a romantic spark. Far better is a society that allows the attraction between the sexes to exist naturally without suppression but also without any insensitive or unacceptable interaction, because it sets appropriate boundaries.
The prohibition of solitude between unmarried men and women, thus, lies in the simple idea of respect. Because men and women are naturally drawn to each other, they should not place themselves in situations that force them to tune out the attractiveness of each. The male executive who meets with a female subordinate and leaves the door slightly ajar is making a statement. Not that he does not trust that woman, or trust himself, but because he acknowledges her femininity and womanhood and therefore keeps the interaction strictly professional and focused on the human rather than the romantic level. The female executive who tells her male subordinate that they will meet over the conference table rather than the dinner table is making a statement that she understands she and he are not just people or co-workers, but a woman and a man who must at all times acknowledge and respect the need for appropriate professional boundaries. If the two people in question happen to be married, then committing to not being alone with a stranger — even one they work with — is a key pillar of esteem for a spouse. Again, the key here is respect and esteem and not just avoiding infidelity or inappropriate conduct.
Marriage demands not just faithfulness but a sense of awe and reverence for one’s spouse, even when they are not around.
Two years ago, Pamela Anderson and I published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal asking men to take the pledge: no more porn. It was followed up by a book we wrote, titled, “Lust for Love.” Both were rooted deeply in Jewish values.
Porn objectifies women, making it harder for men to respect them. Porn also diminishes a husband’s attachment to his wife by giving him objective, not to mention fraudulent, images of female attractiveness by which to compare his wife, even if it happens subconsciously. Although it may not be the most romantic word, the single most accurate synonym for love is “subjectivity.” To love is to be subjective. To love is be rendered incapable of rational evaluation when judging the object of one’s affection. A man who loves his wife is intuitively drawn to her body. The man infected with porn, on the other hand, sees his wife’s physical features and immediately begins to compare it to the ghosts that haunt his erotic imagination.
Porn, moreover, has desensitized us to eroticism. Ultimately, porn is a bore. It leads to overexposure, which in turn leads to contempt. Notice that when internet porn came on the scene, it quickly killed off magazines like Playboy.
Playboy, ironically, has begun dressing its models in the hope that men might start buying the magazine again. The reason: Porn so overexposes women that it leads to an erotic deadness in men. That considered, porn can succeed only in the greatest possible quantity. Men get bored so quickly that they need to click through hundreds of images just to maintain interest. No magazine, which is limited in the number of pages it can publish, can compete with terabytes of X-rated data. So, Playboy decided the best way to attract readership was to inject a healthy dose of mystery by publishing clad models.
Porn then becomes like the entry drug of, say, marijuana, where the “hit” quickly dissipates and an ever-stronger hit is required. Hence, the quick graduation from so-called “soft porn” to hard-core pornography, if not to pornographic addiction, where men are prepared to risk their careers, lives and relationships in pursuit of a fraudulent “fix” that can never be fully satisfying.
A few years back, I debated Larry Flynt, the founder of Hustler, in front of thousands of people in Los Angeles. On that evening, I told Larry that his magazine was proof positive of just how boring porn was. Because if a naked woman was actually endlessly exciting to men, then a smart businessman like Flynt would pay one woman to be Miss January through December without having to spend money on 11 other models. But he can’t do that. If he didn’t introduce new women, his readers would get bored.
Which leads us to the boredom that porn brings to a marriage. If Playboy magazine can’t compete against an endless sea of online pornography, then how can a man’s wife? How can marital passion survive when husbands dissipate their erotic interest in their wives by finding so many cheap substitutes?
For a start, Judaism discourages endlessly gazing upon nakedness — even that of one’s spouse. Judaism is amazingly insistent on modesty, even within marriage. In Jewish law, for example, a husband and wife are told to wear pajamas, lingerie or bathrobes rather than parading themselves around the bedroom naked. The “erotic obstacle” of clothing actually makes the body more, not less, electrifying.
Men are not supposed to be experts in the female body, just as women are not meant to be experts in the male body. Think about all the men who are self-conscious that they are not “large” enough. This presupposes that, to their minds, women are experts in male size. Based on what? Experience?
Marriage is meant to be an adventure, a journey of discovery, not a destination where we end up believing there is nothing left to explore about our spouse.
As I mentioned, to love is to be subjective in the evaluation of your spouse’s attractiveness. Love enhances your wife’s beauty and your husband’s desirability. But porn objectifies the human body, making husbands and wives less inviting to one another. Upon exposure to the body of the opposite sex, there is supposed to be an instinctual, electrifying response — one that is emotional rather than cerebral and draws us closer to our spouse.
But porn addicts, who regularly ingest thousands of images of diverse female bodies, become “subjective” about them. They lose the capacity to have their emotions, especially love, impact their attraction, and they gradually lose the ability to be excited by their spouse’s body and marital sex. All of which, of course, debilitates the marital bond.
That’s why it’s time for men in general and husbands in particular to take the pledge: No more porn. Find the erotic excitement you crave in fulfilling and lasting marital relationships rather than a pursuit that is fundamentally dehumanizing to women and deeply disrespectful to your wife.
Next, there is the need for society to embrace modesty for men and women, in dress and behavior. Far from its purpose being to suppress women’s bodies, modesty enhances eroticism. Experts on relationships have long advocated for married couples to have “erotic obstacles,” impediments to desire that magnify lust. Indeed, we all desire what we don’t have and can’t get.
Think of Steve Jobs and the genius of the iPhone. How did he make it the most successful consumer product in the history of the world? By making it impossible to buy. The introduction of every new iPhone requires the consumer to stand in line for hours, which only increases the lust for the object. And Jobs created mystery around Apple by never allowing its employees to speak about the products it had under development.
Studies show that men who cheat on their wives and leave their marriages for their mistresses often end up abandoning the new wife not long after the second marriage. When she was unavailable, she was appealing. When she is always available, she is less so. As James Goldsmith is reported to have said, “When you marry your mistress, you create a vacancy.” That’s why Judaism imposes a period of monthly sexual separation in marriage, making the object of erotic desire forbidden and off-limits.
When I wrote “Kosher Sex,” I advocated for even non-Jewish couples to observe the biblical period of 12 days of sexual separation each month in marriage — the laws of Niddah — and scores of non-Jewish women responded positively. And even greater numbers of Jewish women began to observe the laws of the mikveh, mandating an immersion in a living body of water after menstruation and sexual separation, allowing a wife to emerge feeling revitalized and new. Every marriage needs a healthy injection of novelty, and nothing produces newness like the flowing waters of a living spring.
Forbiddance is a key ingredient in the recipe for lust. And if we want to rescue marriage, we need to revert back from the “romantic marriage” to the “lust marriage.”
Recent U.S. census data seem to indicate that marriage in America may be on the way to the grave, with the number of adults who never marry hitting an all-time high of 1 in 5. In 1960 it was 1 in 10. We’re lucky it’s only that high. In Scandinavia, only 20 percent of the population bothers to marry. In France and Britain it’s about one-third.
To many a single mind, marriage is a bore. It’s about “settling down.” The single years are a house on fire. The married years are about a kid vomiting on your suit and so many bills hitting you that you feel punch-drunk. Passion and pleasure in all things, especially sex, is the goal of the age and most people are convinced that marriage just cannot provide it. As Zsa Zsa Gabor once said: “I know nothing about sex. I’ve always been married.”
Jewish tradition sees things differently. Adam, the first human, was a hybrid of male and female. When Adam fell asleep, God removed a tzela — often translated as “rib” but actually meaning “side” — the feminine side, from its person.
The result was the compartmentalization of masculine and feminine, man and woman, with each being incomplete without the other. Ever since, each instinctively and erotically seeks unification with the lost half.
I should add, based on my experience in counseling, that the same masculine-feminine dynamic often exists in same-sex couples, with one partner evincing a more nurturing energy and the other a more activating energy. This is the mystical reason why even in a secular age, the ideal still remains marriage, or committed monogamous union. It’s why every Hollywood romantic comedy ends with a wedding. We don’t marry to obviate loneliness, because shacking up would afford the same degree of companionship. Rather, we marry so that two halves can be sewn together as an indivisible whole.
He who separated us is He who can unite us.Humans intrinsically strive to achieve an ever-elusive wholeness through the spiritual union of marriage, which is why so many people who are not church-goers still want a church wedding.
But many people who are married still feel very lonely. The reason? People don’t want to be loved but desired. Not appreciated but lusted after. Not taken care of but chosen. Marriage today is based on the Christian concept of love rather than the Jewish concept of lust. The New Testament condemns lust: “For everything in the world — the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life — comes not from the Father but from the world” (1 John 2:16).
St. Paul famously argued that “God is love” and that all marriages should be based on the comforts of compatibility, friendship and shared experience.
But Judaism believes that marriage must be built on deep desire and covetousness, the lust marriage rather than merely the love marriage. The holiest book of the Bible, the Song of Solomon, is an erotic poem that describes the burning yearning between a man and a woman: “Your breasts are like two fawns, like twin fawns of a gazelle that browse among the lilies” (4:5).
The Tenth Commandment is clear: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife” — which means you should be coveting your own.
Lust is, quite simply, much stronger than love.
How do we recapture it? By focusing on the three rules of erotic lust.
The first is frustrated desire, or erotic obstacles. Lust is enhanced through an inability to attain the object of your longing, the failure to satiate human yearning. It’s the reason why Plato argued for unconsummated, “platonic” relationships, so that desire would never wane. And it’s the reason the Torah makes a wife sexually unavailable to her husband for a dozen days out of every month.The second law of lust is mystery. Lust is enhanced in darkness and shadow. Ironically, the more the body is covered, the more one lusts after it.
The third law of erotic lust is sinfulness. The forbidden is erotic. A cursory glance at world classics demonstrates that it is not the righteous, loyal wife who fires the literary imagination but the unfaithful, sinful wife, like Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Tess, and Lady Chatterley.
To be sure, adultery is the most painful transgression of marriage and should be avoided at all costs. But now you know why the Torah made a husband and wife sexually forbidden to each other for a portion of every month, thereby injecting erotic sinfulness into an otherwise legal relationship. The many who complain that religion creates sexual taboos in relationships forget that such taboos can often enhance lust, while a permissive society that makes sex constantly available turns it from chocolate to vanilla.
Unlike the “love marriage,” which is based on closeness and constant intimacy, the “lust marriage” is based on separation, renewal and a measure of distance. Hence the centrality of the laws of Niddah and going to the mikveh, in Judaism. All great advice from a religion that champions lust over love in marriage.
“All of Torah is holy, but the Song of Songs [Solomon] is the Holy of Holies,” Rabbi Akiva says in the Talmud (Yaddayim 3:5).
On its face, the Song of Solomon is the Bible’s least worthy work. Its verses are positively scandalous.
“Oh, that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth! For your love is better than wine” (1:2).
“Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, that feed among the lilies. Your lips distill nectar, my bride; honey and milk are under your tongue” (4:5,7,9-11).
“Your rounded thighs are like jewels, the work of a master hand. Your navel is a rounded bowl that never lacks mixed wine. Your belly is a heap of wheat, encircled with lilies. Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle. How fair and pleasant you are, O loved one, delectable maiden! You are stately as a palm tree, and your breasts are like its clusters. I say I will climb the palm tree and lay hold of its branches. Oh, may your breasts be like clusters of the vine, and the scent of your breath like apples, and your kisses like the best wine that goes down smoothly, gliding over lips and teeth. Come my beloved, let us go forth into the fields. There I will give you my love” (7:1,2, 6-12).
“Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it” (8:1-2, 7).
Why are these verses holy?
Eroticism, that very marrow of existence, the thirsty desire to uncover life’s secrets, is not shameful but holy. Not embarrassing but enriching. Not degrading but humanizing. But only so long as it is practiced in the confines of a committed, consensual and romantic relationship, the highest iteration of which is marriage. God is a scorching fire, the Creator a raging inferno. He is discovered not in the monotony of subsistence but in the ecstasy of living.
Moses first encounters God in a burning bush. The Torah is given on Mount Sinai in a raging conflagration. And our relationship with God and with all things must be suffused with ecstasy and passion.
How many people have complained that religion turned them off? They went to synagogue to find spiritual heights but drifted into a coma instead.
If Nietzsche was right that God is dead, it is only because we have killed Him off. We took a wondrous Creator and converted Him into a haunting spirit. We replaced the grandeur of Judaism with the monotony of minutiae. We don’t pray because we have a fire burning in our hearts but because we have debts burning in our pockets and religion is the magical, furry rabbit’s foot that provides the superstitious fix. Our prayers are shallow attempts at deal-making, our faith a cynical business transaction.
Along comes the Song of Solomon to challenge us to feel for God what a man feels for a woman. It challenges us to be erotically charged in every religious commitment. A man who is obsessed with a woman thrills to the mere brush of her touch. Every interaction is charged with lust. The human gravitation to God should have shades of the erotic.
Lust is curiosity incarnate, Eros the manifestation of a desire to know. It is the woman who awakes not groggy-eyed but, in the words of the Psalmist, with a rush to greet the dawn, the discovery of a new day.
We Americans suffer not from physical privation but from spiritual scarcity. Today offers not the mysteries of tomorrow but the routines of yesterday — a cynicism captured powerfully in Ecclesiastes: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun” (1:9-10).
Plato maintained that sexual attraction should not be consummated as it would obviate hunger. Satiation is the enemy of lust, routine the adversary of Eros.
But the Bible says that sex is knowledge. And the conjoining of two bodies as one in a loving and exclusive sexual embrace brings holiness into a marriage and into the world. In Song of Solomon the two lovers are described as being in a perpetual state of frustrated desire, confronted constantly with obstacles to consummation. “I opened to my beloved, but my beloved had turned and gone. I sought him, but found him not; I called him, but he gave no answer. I am lovesick” (5:2-8).
Hence, the solution to our society’s sexual ills — be they the disrespect of the #MeToo experience or the boredom of the sexless marriage — lies in rediscovering the sanctity of sex. Sexuality is not meant to be present where love is absent. It is not designed to be found where consent is lost. And it is not supposed to be offered where commitment is withheld.
By recapturing the erotic, we regain the desire to know.
The Song of Solomon tells us a magical story of a man and a woman who have but one desire — to explore each other.
For more than 3,000 years, we Jews have been in a relationship with God but have yet to learn the most valuable lesson of all — to know how much we don’t know.
Marriage is meant to be an adventure, a journey of discovery, not a destination where we end up believing there is nothing left to explore about our spouse. Sex is meant to be an act of intimacy between two committed partners who join in mutual consent, passion and desire.
The world is becoming a more boring place. We are becoming much more dependent on empty and superficial distractions just to sustain our interest.
Passionate and intimate sex can change that. It’s time to rediscover its electricity and recapture its magic.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the author of 33 books, including “Kosher Sex,” “Kosher Adultery,” and “Lust for Love,” co-authored with Pamela Anderson. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @RabbiShmuley.