Tuesday, July 27, 2010
During ancient time the 15th of Av was a festival day celebrated by matchmaking which took on a fairytale-like quality. All unmarried women would beautify themselves and don white gowns (each borrowed from the other in order not to embarrass the poor), making all women appear equal in status.
The women would then go out beyond the walls of Jerusalem to the vineyards where they would dance. In the words of the Mishle 31 still recited by every Jewish husband as eshet chayil each Friday night, they would call out to the eligible bachelors who came to watch, “Young man! Lift up your eyes and see what you choose. Do not set your eyes on beauty-set your eyes on family. False is charm and vain is beauty but a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be blessed.” The men would then choose a mate.
In today’s world, the very word ‘modesty’ often conjures up images of seuxal repression. The Catholic nun or the dried up old spinster are the stereotypical notions of the results of a modest lifestyle.
However, these images and associations are alien to the Jewish concept of human sexuality which sees sex as a potent life force not to be denied or repressed but rather to be sanctified. Judaism recognizes that sexuality is a vital component of our lives and that like the element of fire, it can be used to create goodness and beauty or misued for destructiveness.
With today’s statistics for divorce, rape, AIDS, general sexual dysfunction and misery due to family breakdown, few could argue convincingly that unbridled sexual freedom is anything but destructive.
The Torah prohibitions surrounding sexual behaviour are likened to laws regarding the care of the Torah scroll. The Torah scroll is clothed in a lovely garment in order to honour and sanctify it. Precisely because it is considered to be of such holy value there are many restrictions concerning its care. Likewise, sex is seen as too holy to be treated in a cavalier manner not befitting it. Moreover the garment protects the Torah scroll from being damaged by the elements in the same way the Torah laws of modesty protect a person.
Sexual morality is what sets us apart from the animal kingdom. When we choose not to be dominated by our animal nature, but to dominate it instead, we can then sublimate its powerful energy into the service of G-d.
Prudish and guilt ridden attitudes about sexuality have no place in Torah Judaism. The Torah often describes sexuality without shying away from it. The Songs of Songs describes our courtship with G-d with phrases such as ‘caresses are better than wine.” Yet, we are admonished for speaking in vulgar terms. Romance and love within a kosher context are taken for granted as desirable and natural but, private things must remain so. We Jews, as a holy people, aspire to speaking of such matters in a refined and elevated manner.
We are expected to utilize modesty in speech and behaviour engendering respect and dignity at all times. Common decency and the understanding that there is a correct time and place for everything in our lives including sexuality makes for a holier, healthier, and more wholesome environment in which Jewish families can be happy and thrive.