What was most striking about the reaction to last week’s piece on dating, published in the Jewish Press, was not just the chord that it struck with so many people about the miseries of the contemporary dating scene or the incapacities of many men to embrace adulthood but especially the criticism that was rooted in the prevalence of promiscuity in modern life and the methods of preventing its encroachment in our world. As many readers stressed, even casual and public interactions are unavoidable inducements to randy and sinful behavior. Strange as it sounds, the objections challenge – or at least, invert – a statement of Chazal.
The Gemara (Bava Batra 165a) says, in the name of Rav, that certain sins are hardy perennials that are difficult to suppress: “Most [people are guilty] of theft, a minority of promiscuity, and everyone of slanderous speech,” which the Gemara soon qualifies to mean the “dust of lashon hara” – indirect, disparaging
speech but not overt gossip. (It is safe to say that these days few roll only in the dust of lashon hara.) But what of the Gemara’s assertion that “mi’ut ba’arayot” – only a minority are guilty of sexual misconduct? The overheated rhetoric that came my way seemed to imply – strike that, it was stated explicitly and quite stridently – that if young men and women simply talk to each other, even in public and even in controlled settings, that sin is inevitable for all but the most unresponsive and lifeless among them. How can that be, if the Gemara perceives only a minority as succumbing to these sins?
Conversely, since the more prevalent danger is theft, why do we not embrace the same restrictions in this area that are suggested in the dating context? Rashbam notes that people are prone, especially in business, to allow themselves leniencies that increase their own profits at the expense of others (known in today’s parlance as shtick). Recall that Rav Yisrael Salanter said famously that just as there is a prohibition to seclude oneself with another’s wife (yichud),
so too there should be a prohibition to seclude oneself with someone else’s money. Reb Yisrael was undoubtedly correct, as always, that the temptation of illicit money exceeds that of lewdness, and yet we have not incorporated the same restrictions: we don’t require two people to work a cash register in a Jewish store, we are not admonished not to enter stores alone lest we shoplift or
remain alone in someone’s living room in the presence of his I-Pod or other desirable devices, nor do we require that young people with uncontrollable lusts for money and no legitimate means of earning it just avoid any contact with it.
Perhaps we should – but we don’t, because erecting limitless fences around sin
does not build character or develop reverence for Heaven. What is does is leave
a person incapable of exercising any self-control the moment one of those
Indeed, Chazal did establish one fence regarding relations between unmarried people – the prohibition of seclusion that was decreed by the Sanhedrin of King David in the wake of the Amnon-Tamar episode. Consequently, it is surely forbidden for unmarried people to seclude themselves. But how then is another fence built around the initial fence – a decree added to a decree – that would prohibit even public interactions? Is the world so much different today than it was 50, 100, 500, 1000 or 3000 years ago?
Yes and no. The world is different in terms of the dissemination of bawdy material and the tawdry imagery that inundates our senses. Modern means of communication has eased transmission of both the holy and the profane. Our eyes and our souls are always at risk whenever we venture out into the world, and even when sometimes we sit at home or in front of a computer. But human nature is the same, and we delude ourselves into thinking that, somehow, today’s young people are more concupiscent than people in ancient, medieval or pre-modern times. That is simply false. People are people and human nature is human nature. (Even the display of raunchy material is nothing new. Visit any art museum – I was at the Louvre in Paris last week – and one realizes that medieval art was almost exclusively either Christian-themed or naked women – and sometimes both, simultaneously. Of course, they called it art, like others term even more salacious material today. Either way, there is not much for a Jew to see. I developed a new appreciation to the genius of Monet, and even Morris Katz.) In the past, the public frowned on debauchery, but that does not mean that its incidence was any less frequent than today.
Obviously, the Bible has many stories of misconduct between the sexes, and the Torah prohibitions reflect that one’s desires gravitate toward those areas. The Maharal himself was banished from Prague (after his first stint there) because the people resented his carping about one of their prevalent vices – adultery – and this in a community that numbered just several thousand Jews. There is nothing new under the sun. So, knowing what we know, how can Chazal say that just a “minority” are guilty of promiscuity? Would they say the same today? Would Rav amend his statement to read that, today, sadly, “all are guilty
of theft, lechery, and gossip” – in which case, what hope is there for any of
I conclude that Chazal were correct, and that only a minority of people are guilty of licentiousness. All people are subject to fantasies, even persistent ones, but most do not act upon them. Hirhur (fantasy) is part of the human condition; fleeting thoughts are impossible to inhibit and our obligation as strivers for perfection then becomes uprooting them, not dwelling on them, and becoming involved in some more gainful and productive pursuit. To think that we can eliminate unconscious thoughts reflects an ignorance of human nature, and
Chazal profoundly understood human nature. And to think that we can eliminate sin by supplementing the Torah’s and Chazal’s prohibitions with even more prohibitions is misguided. It simply drives sin underground – to which a
generation of Jews who hide televisions in their closets, or received deliveries of televisions in air-conditioner boxes, or who furtively sit over their computers surfing the internet without a life-preserver can undoubtedly attest. At the end of the day, there is no alternative to self-control, which is a function of reverence of Heaven.
Human nature is human nature, and no community is immune from sin or devoid of sinners. The Jewish world – right, left, center, Modern, Haredi, yeshivish – has its share of miscreants, pedophiles, thieves, psychos, murderers, adulterers, degenerates, deviants, and those who would expose or cover up those sins and sinners, crimes and criminals. The comfort might be that our numbers are smaller relative to the general population in all these vices, and that lasciviousness is still perceived as aberrational conduct that is not or should not be tolerated in our midst and appropriately shocks us when it does occur. But to think further that there is one foolproof way that works for all – one way to avoid sin or temptation, one way to find a spouse, and one way to have a happy, fulfilling marriage – is delusional.
There is something else that needs to be said, an outgrowth of some of the responses I received. Fear of sin is a virtue in Jewish life, in a way that it is simply not understood in the rest of the world. We should always be mindful that we can stumble at any time, and therefore always have a conscious awareness of G-d’s presence. But there is a fine line between piety and dysfunction that tends to get blurred. Reading recent accounts of families that segregate the sexes for meals – or families in which brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law do not converse for fear of the “next step” – crosses the line from excessive piety to palpable dysfunction. If we posit that Chazal are correct – and who among us would not? – that only a mi’ut ba’arayot – then we have to accept that self-control and self-discipline are sufficient to allow normal interactions and to restrain, even among the most lustful among us, improper conduct. If not – if one cannot walk the streets or converse or casually interact without harboring persistently impure or libidinous thoughts that coalesce with an uncontrollable urge to lunge at random females, that is dysfunctional, and such a person requires all the safeguards that we can conjure, and even some that we have not yet imagined. But normal people do not require that.
The bottom line is that one who does not learn self-control before marriage will not learn it after marriage either, and invariably fall into that minority category that Chazal addressed. And one who cannot restrain his passions in any area of life – money or gossip included – will never learn to restrain it until he/she begins a process of teshuva, self-awareness, and discipline. That process is the true perfection of the soul that is a primary purpose of life itself, and
that process must always be informed by the recognition that the ways of Torah
are the “ways of pleasantness,” as well as normalcy.