There was a story going around the Jewish corners of the Internet towards the end of last week regarding the alleged banning of colorful womens underwear from stores in Beitar Ilit. The article was based on a photograph of a printed letter, dated a year and a half ago, and as far as I’ve seen, there has been no confirmation (or denial) of whether or not this letter was enforced over the past year and a half, or whether the shopkeepers paid it any attention. This blog post is about that story, but it’s not about that story.
On the one hand, I want to rail against (against whom?)…. This is not Judaism, I want to shout, and how can people calling themselves God-fearing Jews do such a thing? It’s completely illogical; get me on a stage with two podiums and I’ll destroy these posers. Off the top of my head I can point you to at least seven different sources demonstrating that this attitude is anti-Torah, that back in the day we didn’t have any of these strange anti-sex hangups, even if, yes, sometimes it’s prohibited (just like many other things that are prohibited without any weird psychological complexes attached–shatnez, for example). One, copper in the mishkan; two, text of the ketubah; three, Genesis 2:24; four, the commentaries on Leviticus 12:2; five, getting rid of the Inclination for gilui arayot didn’t work out too well, did it; six, quoth Rabbi Akiva: “When a man and woman are worthy, the Shechina lies between them;” and yes, there’s lots more where that came from.
My second reaction is, Well, what about the “seventy faces” of the Torah? If I want to be completely honest, I can probably scrounge up a source or two implying that the idea of limiting sexuality, even between husband and wife, even during permitted times, is not completely baseless. If this is what works for them, then who am I to butt in and tell them that their well-intentioned observance is wrong?
My third reaction is, What kind of journalism is this anyway? How am I to make an informed opinion about this when I don’t know any of the facts? Who are the people who wrote this letter? How many copies were distributed? How did the populace react? How did the shop owners react?
And, finally: The details of this particular story are not the important thing here. This attitude does exist and it’s upheld by people who claim to be representing Judaism, who say that if you want to be a good Jew, this must be your attitude as well, and if not, then you’re wrong and furthermore, you’re disgusting. It’s not okay. It’s one thing to take stringencies on oneself, assuming that one is very careful about the reasons for this particular stringency; it’s dangerous to impose them onto your children without telling them what the other options are or that other options even exist. (See: Garden of Eden, “Don’t eat the fruit” versus “Don’t touch the tree,” etc.)
Please don’t misconstrue this post as Haredi-bashing. I know that the Haredi world is not monolithic, and that this attitude is not universal within the Haredi world, and not even in most of the Haredi world. We know about those stores with the housecoats in the shop windows and the good stuff in the back. So okay, this worldview belongs to a tiny minority. Ten percent? Five percent? Two percent? Does it matter?
“It’s not us; it’s the extremists”–this is a solution?!
Forget Haredim; it’s not even limited to that. All across the Torah world today, a smaller scale version of this problem exists. It’s a mixture of the attitude that we get from popular culture (to whatever extent we’re exposed to it), and the fact that it’s not considered tzniusdik to have open conversations about this kind of thing, even in a single-sex environment. So we get all this information from one direction saying that in the secular world, they do this, this, and this, and in the Jewish world–who knows? “It’s a beautiful thing, under the right circumstances,” they say. Thanks, guys, that’s super-informative.
Coincidentally (really!), another thing that happened last week is that a friend of mine let me know about a project that she’s recently finished, called Halachically Yours, a “free intimacy curriculum and set of resources designed for the halacha-observant community.” (Check it out; it’s cool. You can stop reading and then come back after you’ve taken a look. Open it in a new tab. Or a new window, if you’re oldschool like that.) As a private citizen, at first I wondered whether such a thing was necessary or even relevant. After all, the information is all out there. It always seemed to me that most people–even in the Haredi communities that I’ve interacted with–just absorb tons of stuff beforehand from parents and friends and culture, and then figure out the details later. Obviously, that’s not always good enough, but there are professionals who help in cases where things don’t just work out on their own.
Only it happens a lot where things don’t work out on their own, or they only work out after a lot of pain and issues and emotional upheaval.
“Why do they need to know about these things?” adults who don’t remember what it was like ask across the spectrum. “Let them be grossed out by it now, and when they get married, a rabbi or a kallah teacher will tell them that it’s actually a beautiful, wonderful thing, and that’ll be that!”
What do you expect? People see their bodies as something to be ashamed of and sexual pleasure as something that contradicts with Torah Judaism, absolutely, absolutely; and then one day they’re awakened to the fact that our bodies are not bad and intimacy is not shameful and they think, “The Torah lied to me,” and you’re surprised?!
Now it looks like I’m about to change the subject, but really I’m not. I want to talk for a second about the history of the Beis Yaakov school system.
Back in the day, Jewish girls didn’t learn Torah in a classroom. They learned what they needed to know at home, and in rare cases they might have a father who would take responsibility for their education. But as the world evolved, girls started to get more of an education, and since there was no yeshiva system for girls, they went to public school. The girls would see all this knowledge and learning, and say, Hey, we don’t have anything like that in Judaism, and then they were disenchanted with Judaism and they started to assimilate, which is generally thought of as Not Good For The Jews. Beis Yaakov was revolutionary. It said, Look, this knowledge has been locked from you for the past 2000+ years, but it’s holy and important and here you go!
I’m just saying, sometimes if you want your children to have a Torah perspective on something, you need to actually teach it to them from a Torah perspective.
But how can you compare something as holy as Torah learning to something as base as sexuality? Oh, and there’s number seven (for those who were counting).
Anyway, in case you were worried, I’m not advocating that we open up pole-dancing classes for children. But maybe, expand the dialogue a little. Talk to your children about intimacy–and I don’t mean that you should reluctantly give them “The Talk” when they reach puberty and never mention it again. Sex-ed should not focus on reproduction alone, or even reproduction and birth control alone. Even though they’re not married. Believe it or not, people who are not married have bodies, too! Age-appropriate information about their body parts and things that they might want to do with them (and what various halachic opinions say about that) and that they might want their spouses to do with them one day (or vice versa) (and what various halachic opinions say about that) is a good thing.
Educate your children. This is why we were given them.