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The inevitable disappointment of sacred sex

2013 October 12
by Zoe Strimpel
Dinner is all very well, but it's not quite a substitute for touch.

Dinner is all very well, but it’s not quite a substitute for touch.

The idea of not touching a man before you marry him is obviously alien to non-Orthodox Jews – some of whom, like me, consider non-marriage a prime occasion for touching men. By not touching I mean not touching at all; not nudging, hugging, poking, pinching or anything else. Ultra Orthodox Jews are not meant to have friends of the opposite sex, either. This is considered a distraction – a betrayal, even – of energy from the main sexual-romantic bond: the husband or wife.

This week in Jerusalem I had the opportunity to talk at length to several haredim (ultra-orthodox) about their approach to matchmaking and their theories of intimacy. What I realised was that for all that this version of the religion is devoted to warding off, controlling and legislating sex, its practitioners end up getting obsessed with it. That you want what you can’t have is nothing new; but when what you can’t have is dressed up in robes of holiness and existential sanctity, I believe it creates a Himalayan mountain range out of a mere mountain (of variable size), with neurotic results.

Let me say something here – I think this effect is worse in religions where sex is considered a sin. In the Torah it is actually a mitzvah when done in marriage, because of its procreative and thus spiritually profoundnqualities. Sex is a mitzvah, but desire, apparently, is more like other appetites and must be carefully controlled (the Greeks would have been on board with this).

The Torah also stipulates the woman’s right to sex, and the man’s requirement to please her and not make her ask for it – which we can plonk rather roundly into the Biblical category of crumb-throwing to slaves/women.

Curious about the combination of respect for sex and seemingly excessive prohibitions surrounding it (no TOUCH! before marriage) in Judaism, I acquainted myself with the central arguments, courtesy of a woman called Gila Manolson, author of The Magic Touch. I suppose in a fair enough interpretation of the Torah, she said how sex is only meaningful understood as a sign of commitment and trust. Touch, she said, sends hormones firing and all sorts of emotions zooming through the lust-filled culprits, leading to an itch that can’t be scratched without disgrace or an unwise marriage.

Fine, fine. I took some of her reasoning – secular people do sometimes place such a great emphasis on sex that they stay with people for chemistry alone, ignoring their awfulness as human beings.

But, as I sat opposite a 22-year-old single Haredi woman this week in a Jerusalem suburb, and heard her – in hushed tones – talk about what a big deal sex was, how nervous her friends had been of it, the rumoured pain and so on, but for all that, safe in the knowledge that it would be a spiritual act when it finally happened, I was overwhelmed by a sense of archeological mismatch.

That is, understanding mere touch as a force for untold sexual appetite is a relic of the past, the days when men exclusively wandered about with sheep pelts and spears on Masada, hunting while women tended the fire back in the cave, only perhaps meeting on the way to the baths. The haredi of today – having never experienced touch – think that touch still has the power to ignite, whatever it is. And maybe, for them, it does – some of them do manage fairly expertly to avoid contact with the opposite sex, by going to single-sex schools etc, and living in religious areas.

But what they won’t know, as they bite their nails in expectation of the holy marital act, is that the spiritual and physical fireworks suggested in the Torah will, more often than not, surrender to the awkwardness and ineptitude of first timers who barely know each other – and, in the biblical sense, don’t know each other at all.

If only the hyper-religious of all ilks knew that while sex can be serious, very serious (rape is a good example), it is precisely with the people you love and trust that it can be most banal. Amusing; delightful; meaningful but above all, various and variable. And that it is precisely the sorts of expectation the bible heaps on the Jews that are not likely to help the interchange take flight. If sex prohibitions were relaxed, there might be many fewer inner cries pouring out of Meir Sh’arim: “THIS is what I’ve been waiting for?”

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