Piety and Dysfunction

     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
fences collapses.

    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.

8 responses to “Piety and Dysfunction

  1. Daviid Klein

    Rabbi, amush

    Miut b’arayos means acting on it. That is still true. It does not refer to hirhur, histaklus and placing tests before us when they can and should be avoided. Your approach of teen intermingling creates tests which are to be avoided.

    Besides, dating among teens, leading to promiscuity will be an inevitable outcome of your approach, making the miut larger.

    You fail to justify a broad mingling of the sexes beg. already in mid to late teens, way before anyone is thinking about marriage. The Torah very much frowns on it and you still have not shown sources or halachic opinions which justify it.

    Only when young men and women are ready for marriage does the Torah say it’s OK to start mingling with the sole purpose of finding a spouse.

    • You can’t just say it is forbidden because you want to forbid it. You need sources to prohibit it. Where exactly does the Torah say that young men and women can only intermingle when they are ready for marriage ?
      And if you think the only way to avoid sin is completely shunning the object of the potential sin, then one should never talk, enter a store, hold money, leave the house on Shabbos (or anytime, for that matter), hold a job, or do the myriad other activities that comprise a normal life. The obsession some people seem to have with sex is sounding increasingly bizarre to me, and, frankly, a sign not of piety but of dysfunction.
      Would that we applied the same fear of sin to financial matters, lashon hara, and general decency. Then we would be a mamlechet kohanim and goy kadosh. And part of the impetus for my conclusion here is the increasing sense that when young men say they are ready for marriage, they actually mean that they are ready for the physical relations within marriage – but they are not actually ready for marriage. And Jewish marriages are suffering as a result.

  2. Daviid Klein

    “Where exactly does the Torah say that young men and women can only intermingle when they are ready for marriage?”

    Rav Moshe Feinstein has a teshuva where he makes that clear. So many poskim write about how it is asur before looking for marriage. I can look them up and list them but do I really have to? I’m sure you know them better than me. For 1000’s of years poskim have said it’s forbidden. Pirkei Avos-al tarbeh sicha im ha’isha is one famous source.

    When Harry met Sally-I’m sure you know the movie. Even the secular world knows that platonic relationships between men and women rarely happen. One side or the other or both always has more than friendship in mind.

    Rabbi, you can’t really ‘play dumb’ as if you are not innovating a totally new and revolutionary approach that you claim the Torah has no issues with-Rabbi you know you are.

    “The obsession some people seem to have with sex.” If you mean what you say that I guess the Torah and Chazal fit that description with all the warnings against hirhurim and histaklus and takanos like kol isha, etc.

    All the examples you give of other areas of life are not made forbidden by poskim as a baseline and they are obviously needed to live. They are not relevant to the discussion. No one can say never talk, never get a job and deal with money, etc. So we do and we try to do our best to avoid issurim. But you are suggesting something that is not an absolute necessity to live and may only possibly help pple get married many years after the group socializing but will def. increase the arayos problems in the interim.

    Rabbi, have you forgotten what it’s like to be a hormonal filled teen? You say let boys and girls from 15 and up shmuz and it’ll good for them when they eventually get married. Maybe. A big, big maybe. But what is certain is that arayos realm issues will be much more prevalent.

    Of course, hirhurim and histaklus happen anyway even among the frumest of the frum. But what you suggest will make them happen so many more times with so many more pple. And what you suggest will make so many more teens end up dating, calling, texting, having girl/boyfriends all leading to promiscuity.

    Besides, your approach is totally impractical. Show me the teen who will only socialize in public settings but not date or get into a more intimate and personal conversation (tantamount to dating) with an individual of the opposite gender even in public. You’ll have to write a shulchan aruch of what is mutar (public and what its definition is) and what is asur (called dating).

  3. Daviid Klein

    You want sources?

    Sefer Chasidim 168-on pasuk in pesukei d’zimra (Tehillim 148:12) Bachurim vegam Besulos-it says vegam not im because young men and women should not intermingle. See there for more.

    See also last Biur Halacha in Siman 339 Orach Chaim from the Chofetz Chaim-very lengthy piece against mingling of boys and girls


    1- It is forbidden even to look at the small finger of a woman if his intention is to enjoy from looking at her, and it is as if he is looking at a graver place (Shulchan Aruch, Even ha Ezer, 21)

    2- And a place that is normally covered, if it is uncovered, then even without the intention of finding enjoyment it is forbidden to look. And he who has the possibility of going through a place where no women are exposed and goes ahead and goes by a place where women are exposed, he is called evil, because one must remove himself from a place where one can come to sin. (Bava Batra 57)

    3- And even when one has no choice but to go to a place where there will be women with parts exposed he must restrict his eyes. (Bava Batra 57)

    4- Therefore in the markets and in every place where there is indecency, one must go with alacrity and with speed and not with a slow pace, and much less to stop to talk to friends in the marketplace, for women pass by with uncovered parts. (Even ha Ezer, 21)

    5- If one chances upon a woman in the marketplace, it is forbidden to walk behind her, rather one must run and leave her to the side or behind him (Even ha Ezer 21:1).

    6-There are desires that are very difficult to control unless one has been taught from childhood, like for example refraining from looking at women. Therefore, a man must teach and educate his sons on the right path so when they grow old they will not abandon it (Sefer Chassidim 10).

    • The only one of these sources you cite that is remotely relevant to the topic is R. Moshe’s teshuva. Bear in mind that R. Moshe relied on the Rambam who holds that chibuk and nishuk are independent issurim min HaTorah, and therefore R. Moshe extrapolates that conversation would be a siyag for chibuk and nushuk., But Ramban holds that chibuk and nishuk are forbidden m’d’rabbanan, as a siyag around the only issue min HaTorah – actual relations. If so, then adding a prohibition of conversation would, according to Ramban, be adding a siyag to a siyag, which we don’t do.
      I’ll remind you as well that “l’histakel” means to stare, not to see or to look.
      And I’ll mention to others that My Jewish Matches.Com (www.myjewishmatches.com) is the only 100% completely free international Jewish dating and marriage website that pre-screens its members to be Jewish and single with a qualifying questionnaire, and has been endorsed by a number of Rabbis.

  4. Barry Pinsky & Linda Scharlin

    We wish to commend your courageous comments in a realm which has become dysfunctional beyond all reason. One must wonder if the explosion in domestic challenges in recent years (divorce, abuse, violence, etc.) does not have its roots in the modern-day tendency to take the boundaries of social interaction beyond the Halachic requirements. As you have suggested, if young men and women were afforded the opportunity to meet and socialize in normal and healthy environments, rather than being segregated at a time of critical development, they would likely be far better prepared to participate in the conventional interactions which characterize marriage. Today, far too many are forced to learn their communication skills “on the job.”

    We can only look forward to the day when normal communication and access are no longer assumed to be confirmation of impiety. Our kids deserve a far broader view of the world. By and large, they can handle it.

    Barry Pinsky & Linda Scharlin

  5. Daviid Klein

    Rabbi, you are a great man but you have let this idea of yours ‘get to your head’ and I don’t think you are being intellectually honest anymore with halacha, history, or the reality of boy/girl esp. teen relationships.

    Justifying, from a Torah perspective, boy and girl teens hanging out for the purpose of possible marriage 5-7 years later is untenable and deep down you must know that.

    All the best.

  6. Daviid Klein

    I add two more points.

    1.According to your suggestion, boys and girls who have hung out together as teens should have higher % of happier marriages and less of a divorce rate than those who did not. There is no data to support that at all.

    2. The shidduch system has its issues and problems but your suggestion would create even more serious issues and problems.