Over on Salon, Tracy Clark-Flory declares that sexlessness (or at least articles about it) are officially a trend. Which strikes me as funny, because the article just below that one in the queue is all about the rise of non-monogamy (which together with Dan Savage’s proclamations that people should consider non-monogamy and today’s JTA headline that an Israeli group of Orthodox rabbis (c’mon, you knew this was coming!) is trying to bring back polygamy (a trend that even the Torah implicitly warns against while not forbidding) definitely qualifies as a trend.
So what to get to first? I’m impressed by the ridiculousness of Erica Jong’s complaint. I’m not sure why Clark-Flory concludes that her complaint is that technology has taken over for the actual messiness and intimacy of sex – from what I can tell, her real complaint is that this younger generation prefers monogamy and childrearing to the raunch that she claims her generation championed. Look at the utter condescension:
Punishing the sexual woman is a hoary, antique meme found from “Jane Eyre” to “The Scarlet Letter” to “Sex and the City,” where the lustiest woman ended up with breast cancer. Sex for women is dangerous. Sex for women leads to madness in attics, cancer and death by fire. Better to soul cycle and write cookbooks. Better to give up men and sleep with one’s children. Better to wear one’s baby in a man-distancing sling and breast-feed at all hours so your mate knows your breasts don’t belong to him. Our current orgy of multiple maternity does indeed leave little room for sexuality. With children in your bed, is there any space for sexual passion? The question lingers in the air, unanswered.
Right. Just where does she think those babies come from… what, they were decanted from a tube? The irony is so thick – she seems to be arguing for people to uncouple sex and intimacy even while her subtext is that people are rejecting intimacy. I wonder if she actually remembers any of the people who were engaged in those wonderful open marriages? I’m- thankfully- nowhere near old enough to remember those times, but I have mentors who were, and their stories would make anyone seeking love and intimacy feel faint: men who wanted open marriage… for themselves only; men who wanted someone to raise the children… while they went out seeking younger, newer sexual partners… for whom they eventually left their wives; relationships in which one partner (of various genders) said okay to the other one’s having sex with other people…because they loved them so much that they couldn’t bear to stand up for themselves because their partner might leave them or feared being left impoverished with children) – even though the idea of sharing their partner sexual left them heartbroken day after day; relationships where there’s no rest and no real intimacy, but ongoing competition, forever, because one or both partners aren’t really committed to the relationship, but are settling for what there is… until they can find something better. Anyone who thinks the message of an open marriage to the partner is anything other than, “you’re a commodity, and you’re replaceable” is fooling themselves.
Polygamy makes perfect sense in a world where women are chattel and their purpose is serving their husband. In any world where women matter as anything other than breeding stock, it’s vile. Open marriage and non-monogamous relationships only makes sense in a world where not just women but everyone is commodified (Although lets be honest: it affects women differentially – women are still the primary caregivers, they still bear the brunt of the effects of childbearing and rearing on their careers, they still earn less money for the same work, meaning that when Mr. open marriage ups and leaves for his next partner, the children and women’s level of survival will drop. Ms. Open marriage leaving for her next conquest won’t affect his actual health and life so much, just his heart). That’s vile too.
Human beings are not commodities. As a rabbi, I am disgusted with these “trends.” Admittedly, they are the logical outcome of several other trends in our society – the trends of treating everything as a fee for service exchange and the idea that all we are responsible for is our own individual self, and that our own pleasure in this moment is the only good worth valuing.
Although the Torah permits polygamy, it’s pretty clear that it never has a good outcome. As we assume that nothing else in the Torah is accidental, I must insist that the comparison of the three families of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is also not accidental. God does not approve of open marriage, nor of polygamy. It is, at best, to be suffered. the failures of King David and King Solomon are traceable to the same failings that multiplied their wives.
Our tradition teaches that we are to increase the light: we move towards greater goodness, towards more equality, towards better understanding of God’s desire for us. God models the behavior for us: God and Israel in one marriage together as expressed beautifully in the second chapter of Hosea: Israel runs after other gods, thinking that they will give her pleasure, but ultimately Israel will remember the love of her youth, and return, and on that day (with the verses that an adult Jew says daily as he or she puts on her tefillin in the morning) God and Israel are betrothed with tzedek, mishpat, chesed and rachamim -righteousness(and charitability), justice, gentle-lovingness and mercy; with faithfulness, “and you shall know the Lord.” -And this is followed by a universal covenant with all creation – and to God, the Torah tells us, Israel will no longer say “Ba’ali” -my master, but “Ishi” – my partner.
that “And you shall know the Lord,: uses the language of da’at – knowing another being. Knowledge is the language of intimacy -sexuality is implied when it is used about humans. Intimacy comes from perseverance, steadfastness, faithfulness. Sexuality is a stripping bare of the self. To treat it like just another fun activity is sad. Sex should be pleasurable, but that’s not all it is. It is the recognition of the divine in your other self – the half of adam that was stripped away at creation in order to create within us a longing for conjunction.
In the second chapter of the book of Genesis, when God says that it is not good for the adam to be alone, our midrash tells us that the adam (the word the Hebrew uses is “HaAdam,” with a definite article) was not in fact a man, but a two-sexed creature which God split into male and female. The adam was imperfect, and to become a fit partner for God, needed -unlike animals- to have a sense of longing for another. When we find our partner, we find the other part of ourselves, and then we are fit partners for God, as well.
When we seek sexual pleasure as its own end, with no “knowing God,” we cheat ourselves and our partners. Of course one-to-one partnership isn’t always going to be easy: nothing worthwhile ever is. Having children isn’t always easy, a career isn’t always easy, doing the right thing isn’t always easy: should we abandon children, careers, honesty and integrity?
I’m sure that between “Big Love” (feh), continued patriarchy and homosexism/heteronormativity and our American belief that the individual is more important than another human unit, there won’t be an end to this “trend” any time soon, but Erica Jong is wrong about her daughter’s generation. it seems to me that – at least as she explains it- they understand that sex is not only intimate, but private, and that far from being bloodless, human urges that are given boundaries are holier and more powerful. All human urges are boundaried by ritual – whether it’s religious ritual, or secular ritual, it is part of being human to seek meaning. Getting rid of meaning doesn’t make us free, it makes us amoeba.
XP:Kol Ra’ash Gadol