Holiness Does Not Have an Expiration Date

by Rabbi Eliyahu Safran

[Editors’ Note: The piece that follows contains frank and graphic language, the kind that those faithful to derech Yisrael sava and kedushas Yisrael avoid using without euphemism, and then only in private. Nonetheless, there are times when dramatic means are necessitated to meet a challenge to mesorah. Readers are forewarned that the essay that follows is not for children, and indeed, not for many adults. We are mispallel for the day that Hashem will repair the pirtzos of Klal Yisrael.]

You shall be holy to me; for I the Lord am holy, and have separated you from other people, that you should be mine.
– Leviticus 20:26

As Jews, we are powerfully aware that the past is never just the past. The lessons, the struggles and even the victories of past ages are ours to relive in one generation after the other. In the Haggadah, we read, “You shall tell your child on that day, it is because of this that the Lord did for me when I left Egypt.” The reading is forever in the present tense, in my life. I am not to tell my child what the Lord did for the Hebrew slaves at the time of the Exodus. No, I tell what the Lord did for me.

God’s freeing us from bondage is constant in all our lives.

So too, when God commands us to “be holy” it is clearly not a directive only to the generation in the Sinai. It is a command to all of us, for all time.

Each age and generation makes specific demands on those who live it. Ours is no different. While every generation confronted salaciousness and sexuality, what other generation has had to wrestle with the ever-present Internet? What other generation has had to endure a constant barrage of pornographic images rain down on it from billboards, television screens, movie theaters, radios, and concert halls? The images, language, and messages benumb us. We become calloused. We become inured.

In doing so, we make the mistake of also becoming accepting of this pornographic tsunami. Oh, of course not “accepting” in the sense of thinking any of this is good. But we become accepting in that we simply allow it to continue in our world, viewing it as the necessary backdrop of our lives.

In doing so, we fail to take account of the damage it does to us and, more importantly, our children.

How does this generation protect itself from this onslaught?

God’s call for us to be holy is an eternal call. It is as immediate a call today for us as it was to the Hebrews in the desert of Sinai. Holiness must be protected in order to preserve its spiritual essence. While it must be hidden and protected, our teaching is clear that creation is good. We are not to remove ourselves from the world. We must function in the world. We must engage the world.

If we are to be holy, that must mean that holiness also needs to function in the world.

But, in a very deep sense, it can never be of the world.

Those who try to compromise holiness, to fail to see the eternality of the command, do lasting damage to themselves and to the Jewish people. There is no place where the challenge of kedusha is more at risk than when it comes to sexual behavior.

There is no more self-serving or hurtful excuse for the lack of kedusha than the excuse that it is “for mental health”. That is, for sexual health. Imagine, rationalizing deviant behavior, countering Torah teaching, for a positive reason! The world has been turned upside down!

The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance has taken hold of God’s divine declaration and rendered it a nullity. By aggressively championing sexual behavior – not just knowledge that a wife might use to benefit the sanctity and joy of marriage – JOFA stands opposed to the call to kedoshim tiheyu.

As reported in Lilith.org by Susan Schneider, JOFA is committed to “explicit and liberating sex education.” Interesting that sex education would be considered “liberating” when it was God’s liberation of the Children of Israel from Egypt to led to the command for us to be holy.

Have we fallen so far?

In the article, Ms. Schneider writes, “Bat Sheva Marcus, a sex educator, has a new tool for enlightening not just the Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox women who are the base of her clinical practice, but the rest of the human race as well. She is the lively and genial — and often funny — co-host and resident sexuality expert for a new podcast series, ‘The Joy of Text,’ a forum for rabbinic and psychological perspectives on sexual behavior, from masturbation before (and during) marriage, to the use of sex toys, to whether fantasy can be a religiously approved aspect of sexual behavior.

“’The Joy of Text’ is billed as ‘in-depth conversations by rabbinic and medical experts about subjects that you’ll almost never hear discussed anywhere else, even online.’”

One such podcast which was recorded live at LimmudNY recently featured Marcus in conversation with Miryam Kabakov, author of the lesbian anthology “Keep Your Wives Away from Them: Orthodox Women, Unorthodox Desires”. In another segment, Marcus and her co-host, Rabbi Dov Linzer, answered a listener’s question about whether it’s permissible to “talk dirty.” Earlier episodes discussed premarital condom use and “sneaking out to the mikveh.”

 I have quoted here verbatim because I don’t know that I could have found words to come close to capture how disturbing this all is. Bat Sheva Marcus is, after all, a woman whose doctoral dissertation in human sexuality was on women and vibrator use! She takes great pride in telling high school students in Jewish day schools to intimately examine their bodies in a mirror and telling them to find the most pleasurable way to masturbate!

Could anyone stand not before a mirror but before any of our rabbis and sages – let alone God – and convincingly explain how these animalistic teachings conform with kedoshim tiheyu? Speak to the entire assembly of the Children of Israel and say to them, “You shall be holy, for holy am I, Hashem, your God…”

Ramban teaches us that the concept of holiness is not limited to the observance of any particular category of commandments. To be holy is not to adhere only to the letter of the law but to embrace the fullness of holiness. In the words of our Sages, not only by refraining from what is expressively forbidden but from too much of what is permitted! How could JOFA answer that admonition?

Rabbi Soloveitchik’s teaching is consistent with the words of Ramban and the Sages. He teaches that holiness means that the whole of our being is to be perfect – “that one’s lifestyle in toto, the overall impression, be faultless.”

Rashi informs us that the commandment “to be holy” was conveyed to the entire assembled nation as one. Everyone was required to hear it. This command was not at all like all the other mitzvoth that were first taught to Aaron then Nadab and Abihu would join them and Moshe would repeat the teaching, then the Elders would enter and Moshe would repeat it again, then he would finally teach it to all Israel. No, kedoshim tiheyu stands apart, as does this holy people! To be holy is to stand apart. And it is the Jewish people that is to stand apart, not individuals within the community. Kedoshim (You, plural) are to be holy.

A single standard applies. Not just for one time, but for all time. It is not for JOFA or anyone else to redefine that standard, for the standard was put in place from the beginning. “You shall be holy for I, the Lord your God, am holy.”

On whose book shelf of good and sacred books would “The Joy of Text” reside? Not on the shelves of those who would answer God’s call to holiness. Not to those who would heed JOFA’s vicious attacks and condemnations of a New Jersey Orthodox rabbi for openly speaking out about lifestyles that have the potential to lead all to what is decidedly not holy.

There is much to be embraced by our time in history. We live during a time of great joy. Israel is strong and bold. There is a passionate resurgence of Orthodoxy throughout the world. Torah learning abounds. But these joys should never blind us to the dangers that hold us back from fulfilling that great command.

Holiness has no expiration date. It is our call for all time, in all ages, for all eternity. 

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19 Responses

  1. Shmuel says:

    Well said.

    I wonder though whether – given the editor and author’s careful caveats regarding the language in the piece – this is indeed the right forum for this article. By and large this site is a gathering for the “choir”; this is something that needs to be expressed in other publications that perhaps have a different (or no particualr) perspective…

  2. Shlomo says:

    So JOFA is talking about female masturbation. That can’t be so bad, because this article is also talking about female masturbation.  Clearly just talking about it isn’t bad, the question is whether you are for or against it. So what exactly is the problem with “The Joy of Text”? This article would be a lot stronger if, rather than listing the topics that were discussed, it said what conclusions were reached. As it stands, I have absolutely no idea if JOFA is in favor of sex toys and “dirty talk”, or against them.

  3. Josh says:

    Why is it worse than haredi books like דבר סתר?

  4. Avi Greengart says:

    In your view, how are Orthodox Jewish women supposed to learn about sexuality “that a wife might use to benefit the sanctity of joy and marriage?”

  5. Steve Brizel says:

    Let me suggest the following-Chazal neither endorsed Greco Roman hedonism nor the denial of sexual relations as a religious goal that is very evident in Christian writings. Gdolei Rishonim wrote Baalei HaNefesh and Igeres HaKodesh and anyone who has learned Gemara and the sugya of Kol HaRai Lbilah will see that the Rishonim and Poskim went out of their way to reduce obstacles to marital intimacy. Bat Sheva Marcus’s teachings IMO demean the goal of marital intimacy and elevate hedonic pleasure as a goal to achieved without any halachic and hashkafic boundaries and guidance.

  6. Menachem Lipkin says:

    And on the other end of the spectrum you have Hamodia removing a sentence from Rabbi Shafran’s latest piece “Hubris Heights” because it has the word “mammogram”. (This according to Shafran himself.) It’s exactly such attitudes which cause women in the Chareidi community to have a greater chance of dying once they contract breast cancer. Everything should have a balance, but I’d rather err on the side of saving lives than overreacting to frank discussions of female sexuality.

    • lacosta says:

      maybe that falls under the broad category of gilui arayos [anything remotely in the  gashmi sphere]  is yeihareig v’al yaavor?

      • Jake says:

        You’re not actually defending that, right? I take this as tongue-in-cheek and say”good point”.

  7. Dr Eve Finkelstein says:

    This is a very important topic…to women. As a medial professional that deals with women’s sexual function I can assure rabbi Safran that most Haredi women that I see do not expect any sexual pleasure. They are content when the sexual act is not painful. They see themselves as a receptacle for men’s sperm in order the avoid spilling seed.  I meet mothers of many children who did not know there was such a thing as sexual pleasure. On order to find pleasure many (if not most) need to experiment.  How are women meant to do that if no one is talking about it?  Why isn’t included in kallah classes ?

    It is interesting that Orthodox men seem so obsessed with sexual pleasure that women have to cover themselves at all times in order not to provoke their desires , but women are not meant to even discover their desires….

    In the age where women’s learning is exploding and is reaching the level of men’s , it is no wonder that women are turning to other women for their spiritual guidance. Men are simply ignoring our needs

    • R.B. says:

      What does Hareidi women having or not having sexual pleasure in marriage have to do with lesbianism, masturbation, talking dirty, and vibrators? And discussing in public? What about the concept of kedushah and tehorah, are do you believe these words are a means of patriarchal oppression and sublimation of women’s desires? If women are coming to you for their sexual health, in private, that’s great. If you then proceed to host a publicly aired show about it, and discuss topics that frankly feed into our culture’s obsession with sex and obtaining sexual pleasure, that is a problem.


      • Nathan Oshlag says:

        You are readily applying scapegoats and straw man arguments where they have not purpose.  Dr. Finkelstein was clear in her statement.  The connection is that the leaders of the orthodoxy, and the communities themselves, have chosen to label all things sexual as unfitting of discussion.  This has potential to each woman to cause great distress in reducing her to a receptacle for sperm, not her own being.  I’m going to rephrase your question in a clearer format in the event that Dr. Findelstein returns so she has a chance to respond to your words without the instigation you chose to place in them.


        Dr Finkelstein, I fail to see the connection that you are drawing between Hareidi women having or not having sexual pleasure in marriage and more reproachful acts (that I am assuming run counter to Judaism) such as lesbianism, masturbation, talking dirty, and vibrators.  Would you mind expanding on this connection?  Have you considered such principles as Kedushah and Tehorah in your thinking?  If so, how do these topics fit into your paradigm?

        I find it good to know that women are coming to you for advice on sexual health.  I disagree with the idea that this issue needs to be discussed in public because the damage it causes by feeding into our culture’s obsession with sex and obtaining sexual pleasure.  This cost is too high for the benefits that would be gained by educating women in sexual topics.

    • R. Klempner says:

      Umm…Dr. Finkelstein, most likely, you have a sampling problem.

      “…most Haredi women that I see do not expect any sexual pleasure.”

      But if you are treating women because of sexual dysfunction, you are by definition not seeing all the women who have no problems of this nature. This is not a legit sample, from a research perspective.

      I actually do think this is an area in which we need to see improvement. I think that the proper derech is between the “Joy of Text” path and the one proposed by this article, which overlooks (as other articles mention) that the Gemara and many other sefarim discuss these and other topics.

      There actually are many kallah teachers who DO teach about sexual issues, describing the mutuality of sexual pleasure as essential in marriage, and sometimes even giving guidance to prepare women for their wedding night. The goal would be to make this universal. Moreover, as another commenter suggested, we need to consider other elements of sexual health – breast cancer, in particular, but also other gynecological disorders are getting overlooked in the name of tzniut and kedushah.

      But that’s not real tzniut. Tzniut protects relationships. If talking about marital pleasure improves a marriage, then it’s tznua. If talking about breasts keeps a cancer sufferer alive to maintain her marriage and relationships with family and friends, that’s tznua.

      If we talk about sexuality’s proper place – in marriage, with limits defined by halacha (and not simple squeamishness that CHAZAL clearly didn’t share) – then we still differ from the secular approach and are still kadosh.


    • Steve Brizel says:

      Dr Samuel Heilman’s wonderful study of the Charedim ( I forget the title), which was one of his best books written and which was devoid of any ideologically tinged editorializing, has a superb chapter about how a Charedi couple are introduced to marital intimacy by a person who most of us might not consider a professional therapist, but who was considered as such in that community. Take a look at Ramban on Shemos 21:9 where Ramban contrasts marital intimacy in Klal Yisrael  with the view of the same by the Persians. Perhaps, both chasan and kallah courses in addition to the very halachos and minhagim  that comprise Hilcos Nidah can and should focus on how a husband and wife can develope a sense of emotional intimacy that can and should lead to marital intimacy in the fullest and most complete sense of that term. In a world that seems to have thrown busha out the window, which IMO Ms. Marcus has contributed to in a very negative way, perhaps we have to emphasize what are the elements of a truly intimate marriage-both  in and out of chadrei chadarim.

      • Yaakov Menken says:

        You must have the wrong author. “Defenders of the Faith: Inside Ultra-Orthodox Jewry” may have been described as many things, but “devoid of ideologically tinged editorializing” could not credibly be said about the cover, much less the contents. See this article by Rabbi A Shafran for more: http://rabbiavishafran.com/ultra-cation/ . As I said, you must have a different author in mind.

      • Steve Brizel says:

        R Menken-Defenders of the Faith: Inside Ultra Orthodox Jewry contains none of the ideologically tinged editorializing as his subsequent work on the shift to the right within MO or his “biography” of the Lubavitcher Rebbe ZL. I think that Dr Heilman’s works on the Charedim, and on his own search for a Makom Torah and shiur in Yerushalayim have much to offer the average MO reader.

  8. Nathan Oshlag says:

    While this article is well written, I find the conclusion (and the arguments towards it) to be ineffective.  I’ll attempt to outline my case as succinctly as I can.

    Rabbi Safran,

    It appears that you are conflating two ideas, and I would like to separate them out for independent examination:  On the one hand, we have the public nature of sex and sexuality in modern society.  We are bombarded by sexual images in the media far too frequently, and this immersive and constant contact with sex has a serious impact on the way we think, on our impulses, and what things we consider to be “acceptable”.  On this front, I would agree that a measure of conservatism is called for.  This ever present influence on our lives and communities should not be embraced with open arms.  Sex, in Judaism, is a private matter.  It is not a matter that we are meant to remove ourselves from completely, but it has a time and place and that is not in public.

    On the other hand, we have places of learning and institutional settings where the education of subjects, even lewd ones, can be partaken with limited concern for an impact being had upon us due to regular illicit exposure.  Places like religious colleges and kallah classes and exactly the appropriate time to be discussing these concerns.  One should learn how one’s body works, how to engage in sexual activity at the very least without discomfort, and at most, in the way that maximizes pleasure gained (within limits).  Therefore, while I believe that it is reasonable to want to restrict the public nature of sexual topics, based on a specific interpretation of what sex means, I think it unreasonable to advocate for a ban against all discussion of sex.

    Finally, I think you need to take a look at the difference between talking about a subject on a podcast, and talking about it on television, the radio, or in magazines.  Podcasts have become a source of information for many people, akin to gathering in the square and discussing matters.  It provides an opportunity for disconnected groups of people to learn about a given subject concurrently.  This context is somewhere in between being public and being private, and should not necessarily be lumped into one category or another.

    Thank you for your time

  9. Sarah says:

    Rabbi Safran reasonably diagnoses a problem, yet fails to recognize a related, more insidious problem  that has the potential to undermine the sanctity and unity of a Jewish marriage. While sex education and socialization is appropriately scant and private in male yeshivah institutions, it is even more scarce – often to the point of being absent – in the education of girls.  Yes, JOFAs call for “explicit and liberating sex education” is not the way of bnos yisrael, and the inclusion of Dov Linzer on a podcast with Batsheva Marcus is untznius at its core.  But until our chareidi society finds a way of letting girls know that sexual pleasure is not only allowed but desireable, that the purpose of intimacy is to create a bond between a couple and not just to prevent their husbands from sinning or straying, and mechanisms for achieving both physical and emotional intimacy, then you will have to accept that frum women will turn to the only sources available.  Our society refuses to educate girls in matters of their sexuality, and dogmatically squelches any concerns and issues frum women have in this regard.  We are denied the background and skills to learn the Rishonim and Poskim Mr. Brizel refers to.  Does it surprise you then that the only resources available for frum women may be those lacking in propriety?

    • Steve Brizel says:

      If you have familiarity and an ability to learn Ramban on Chumash, you can learn Igeres HaKodesh which is printed in the edition of  Kisvei HaRambanthat has been published many times by Mossad HaRav Kook. There is some discussion as to whether Ramban or Raavad wrote Igeres HaKodesh but the author is assumed to be a Rishon. Baalei HaNefesh is part of Raavad’s commentary on Maseceta Nidah. When I saw it for sale in a seforim store in the Catskills, there was a warning sticker that it was only for married men.  That being the case, Dr Heilman in his book on the Charedim devoted a whole chapter to what can only be described as marital therapy for a would be chasan and kallah. It is must reading just to realize that marital intimacy is an issue that is addressed in the charedi world on its terms.

  10. Dr. David S. Ribner says:

    I write as the Chairman of the Sex Therapy Training Program at Bar-Ilan University and as a sex therapist in Jerusalem, working primarily with religious couples.
    When I began reading Rabbi Safran’s article, I mistakenly assumed that he would be taking aim at the widening circle of rabbinic and communal leaders whose sexual behaviors have so blemished the Orthodox world. It was most distressing to discover that his target instead was Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus and others who hold similar perspectives.
    One may at times take issue with Dr. Marcus’s tone and language, but the essence of her message must be heard. She is a respected colleague who is acutely aware of the needs of our community and has the courage to speak openly about those needs.
    The highly sexualized world in which we all live demands that we approach this area of our lives with new perspectives and new approaches. If, as Rabbi Safran points out, we are inundated with sexual inputs, then it stands to reason that we must be more open and affirmative of the values we espouse. Sex is no longer a “secret” and we will never put that geni back in the bottle.
    All of us who deal with the sexual challenges of religious clients are of one voice. Our community still refuses to openly discuss this profound aspect of our lives. We continue to do an injustice to our children by not providing adequate sex education at ages when they most need it. And we raise the banner of modesty when a sexual topic causes us discomfort, instead of dealing with such issues in a manner both forthright and respectful.
    Torah Judaism brought the mutuality of a couple’s sexual enjoyment to the attention of the world and taught the holiness of that experience.  Now is certainly not the time to shy away from that message.

    [YA – To whatever extent Dr. Marcus’ message is that of the Torah, indeed it should be heard. Our kids – and our married couples – require and deserve the benefit of proper Torah guidance in such an important aspect of life. As you observe, the increased sexualization of society has created new tensions and new challenges which must be met with Torah insight, and not swept under the carpet.

    The issues in this exchange are two. All discussion of areas of intimacy should be introduced by, and conducted within the context of, a deep appreciation of kedushah. That is sorely lacking in much of what we have read about and listened to that comes from Dr Marcus. That, then, raises a second issue. If her approach is so out of synch with the Torah understanding of the numerical majority of the Orthodox community, will we trust her articulation of the message itself? I would urge my colleagues to seek out sex therapists including non-Jews who walk into the therapeutic situation without any preconceptions about what the religious practices of the couple in front of them ought to include. Let that come from what they have learned from a rav with whom they have conversed and studied. (We do the same in regard to therapists. At the top of my list for referrals are men and women who are stellar in their Torah comprehension and observance, and equally crackerjack therapists. After the talmidei chachamim and insightful Torah-educated women, my next tier of preference (and it is a much larger pool) includes the crackerjack therapists who are not observant or not Jewish, but have trained with Torah figures who reflect the values of traditional Orthodoxy. At the very bottom of the list would be those whose Torah values bear the unmistakable taint of values picked up simply because of infatuation with the current and trendy.]

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