This essay is Part 2 of a two-part point-counterpoint series.
Click here to read Part 1: One Giant Leap.
We all love sex. We like it in the darkness of night when all we can hear are the strange house noises from electrical appliances, during broad daylight with the sounds of bustling crowds around us, or as the birds begin to chirp in the wee small hours of dawn. We like to vary our positions, play out roles, employ props of all sorts. Sometimes we like it gentle, sometimes wildly passionate, and on occasion, purely animalistic. We like it on our kitchen floors, in the stairwells of our office buildings, on boulders high atop wooded mountains, or in empty hotel lobbies at 3 AM. We like to do it, talk about it, and hear about who’s doing it with whom, illicit or otherwise (although the former is preferable). Gossip is best served of the salacious variety.
There’s no doubt that sex has a powerful hold on us – not least because it is necessary for our species’ survival. Imagine if people’s attitudes towards sex would be the same as eating, say, pecan pie: yeah, it’s good, but eh, I can do without it. We’d have long gone the way of the dinosaur, the saber-toothed tiger, and wooly North American mammoth.
Yes, Chasidic life is restrictive, sometimes even oppressive. The rules and customs that govern life run in the thousands, and as some have pointed out, the most acutely felt restrictions are sex-related. Religious rules govern how and when, how frequently, and with whom you may or may not engage in sexual activity.
Why sex is deemed such an uncouth activity baffles many. Embrace sex, some argue, take pleasure in a good romp in the sack the way nature intended. But, well, religion is religion, and religion doesn’t lend itself to those kinds of arguments. Religion is obstinate and unwieldy. If a rule doesn’t make sense, well, you’re sheer outa luck. If you buy into a religion’s foundational principles, you go with its doctrines and abide by its rules.
But it’s that little phrase that is key: If you buy into a religion’s foundational principles. If you believe in God, his revelation, and whatever code of ethics and morals he is said to have handed down, directly or indirectly, then your options are limited. Don’t like a specific rule? That’s too bad. The question isn’t whether you like it or agree with it, only whether you buy into the principle that commands it.
But one thing should be clear: rejecting a lifestyle because its rules are unpleasant makes no logical sense. If you believe in a given set of doctrines, the inconvenience of a given rule is immaterial. And if you don’t believe in it, well, then too its inconvenience is immaterial; there’s no need to follow it if you don’t believe in it. Blaming a lifestyle for its strictures is senseless if one doesn’t first reject its underlying premises. And if the underlying premise falls away, there’s no point in whining about this or that bit of unpleasantness or vilify others who haven’t come to the same conclusions.
Of course, one can – in the sense that it’s physically possible to – pick and choose those rules and restrictions that one agrees with, and discard those that are deemed inconvenient. But doing so makes a mockery of whatever beliefs one clings to, and that kind of adherence to religious doctrine is a sham.
Similarly, one might argue that one or another stricture is man-made, not a result of divine commandment, a mere human graft upon an otherwise magnificent tree of knowledge and wisdom, a foreign growth that corrupts the original intent of that body of divine inspiration. But there again, such an approach is the ultimate in arbitrary judgment, a mere exercise in adjusting what some consider immutable philosophies to the whims of individual or societal preferences.
But there’s a more important consideration in this discussion.
The sexual restrictions found in religious lifestyles might seem excessive, forcing adherents to abide by rules that seem antiquated and primitive. But to focus on sexual repression alone is mistaken in two ways.
The first is that it boils down all the ills of Chasidic society to one very small aspect, a minor one at that. To say that those born into a Chasidic lifestyle have it bad because they don’t get the college experience of hooking up at frat parties and enjoying the pleasures and thrills of living in a co-ed dorm represents a view that values the hedonistic in its most primal over all. It can be argued that there’s nothing wrong with that. As one who holds that absolute values are almost non-existent, I would be hard-pressed to make a cogent argument to the contrary. But most humans share a common recognition that the human experience encompasses joys and thrills that go beyond the primal and animalistic. Sex is good, delightfully so, perhaps the greatest of human pleasures. But it isn’t the be all and end all of human experience.
The second mistake is to think that those outside of ultra-Orthodox societies are living lives of heavenly pleasure while the rest rot in their hellish confines of sexual repression. Such a view is, to put it bluntly, immature; it over-romanticizes secularism and its freedoms to an absurd degree.
Yes, the secular world allows for romantic encounters and passionate entanglements might be denied to those in the Chasidic world. Secular adolescents and young adults have sexual opportunities that, to a Chasid, world hardly enter the realm of fantasy. If you’re lucky enough to be secular, you might get luckier and get a blow job on the school bus from your cute sixth-grade classmate in pigtails. But then again, if luck is in your stars you might be born to a filthy rich head of a multi-national conglomerate and have no lack of earthly pleasures. You, my friend, just happen to be unlucky. Being unlucky isn’t pleasant, but human lives are profoundly determined by the forces of nature’s indifference. One can’t blame any particular person or society for being dealt a bad deck of cards. You’re not the offspring of a filthy rich daddy, and you weren’t born into a society where carnal pleasures are to be had at every turn. Deal with it.
Furthermore, to see the world outside the ghetto as being purely fun-filled, with the masses engaging in carnal pleasures at every turn is mistaken. It isn’t all a bed of roses. Misery doesn’t discriminate, and people the world over are miserable for a variety of reasons. One need only attend one of the many singles events to see the masses of jaded and frustrated individuals who struggle through short-lived flings and ill-conceived romantic encounters to realize that some might actually relish the structured lifestyle of the shidduch system, where courtship is formal and short but reliable. The secular world provides loads of fun for some and agony and frustration for many. On balance, the degrees of misery and pleasure are probably on equal footing in both worlds.
Ultimately, we’re back to square one. For those with faith, the lack of sexual opportunities might be unpleasant but they’re rather insignificant in the scheme of things. For those without faith, the religious world provides far greater disadvantages than sexual repression.Printable Version