A Kedushah Primer: Response To Readers

Rabbi Safran’s important piece stimulated a flood of comments and responses, the vast majority as of yet unpublished. Most fall into a few discrete categories, and might best be dealt with en masse. Here is a brief attempt to cover a good deal of ground in a short piece.

More than anything else, R Safran’s essay was about kedushah, a concept that can be elusive. Yet, R Yehuda HaLevi in Kuzari manages to reduce the goals of the mitzvah system to two concepts, kedushah being one of them. G-d does not ask all human beings to be holy, although He expects them to refrain from harming others. He does ask Jews to be holy.

In regard to the topic at hand, we can say a number of things about holiness:

Kedushah requires tzniyus, privacy, and euphemism. Readers are quite correct in pointing out that there are many references and discussion about marital intimacy in the works of Chazal and the rishonim. They were not broadcast to the public, however. Chazal explicitly demand that discussion of these topics must take place in the smallest of groups, lest people follow their subconscious needs, and misinterpret what they have heard without the teacher being able to monitor their comprehension of the topic. They militate against gratuitous conversation about these topics, stating for example that “all know for what purpose the bride and groom repair to a private room, but anyone who profanes (good word – it means the opposite of “makes holy”) his mouth by talking about it, even a good edict of seventy years is torn up.” They are not speaking about “talking dirty,” but just about making explicit what deserves to kept under wraps. They understood the power of sexuality for evil as well as good, and knew that becoming more familiar easily morphs into more trivial.

Chazal praised the use of euphemism and circumlocution in this area, pointing with pride to the absence of certain words in biblical Hebrew.

None of this implies that the topics should not be discussed. As readers indeed mentioned, there is lots of material in our literature, both halachic and hashkafic. The material is not prudish, but it does push for kedushah. A good kallah teacher (and there are many) will discuss many aspects, and be frank about individual needs and differences. (There are bad kallah teachers as well, and communities whose strictures I don’t begin to understand, and cannot personally defend. I found Dr.Finkelstein’s comments to be quite cogent, even if not directly related to R Safran’s piece.) Colleagues and I have given chaburos to husbands as well as “choson talks” before weddings. I have discussed practical matters with rabbonim, roshei yeshivah, and one world-class posek. No one suffered from a dearth of material, from lack of compassion, sensitivity, or ability to be lenient on an individual basis. But we use euphemism even in private conversation among ourselves, because that is so clearly part of our mesorah. Chazal instruct that even married couples hint at their amorous intentions, rather than make explicit requests. With those who do not understand, there is no point in having this conversation.

Part of kedushah is understanding its relationship to transcendence of the purely physical. We are not a nation of ascetics, although anyone who had gone through Mesilas Yesharim knows that there is a place for asceticism as well, even if it is beyond the reach of most contemporary Jews. We are bidden in kedushah to become more like G-d, who has no physical needs. We try to become less reliant on the physical, and to transform it into something spiritual by elevating it. We aim for that kedushah not only in deed, but even in our mental space. Pleasure can be a means to an end, but it is rarely holy for its own sake. Those readers who insist that its pursuit is holy should reexamine the sources. (They might want to look at R Moshe’s teshuvah about why it is forbidden for women – not just men – to watch movies that titillate. And they should read R Aharon Lichtenstein’s article in Tradition on his unease with the way contemporary Jews have perhaps read a celebration of romanticism into intimacy that may not be in the sources. They might want to consider the title of R Manis Friedman’s classic, Doesn’t Anyone Blush Anymore?)

It is beyond R Safran, beyond me, and beyond anyone I know who has seriously studied Torah that teens should be urged to pleasure themselves.

Rarely do we publish essays in Cross-Currents that are meant to convince dissenters, and this is no different. Our conversation is with those who share the same axiology, and appreciate a bit of analysis based on the same axioms. What is apparent is just how far apart two different groups of people who call themselves Orthodox have drifted. We use the same texts (at times) and mouth the same words. But like people in the aftermath of the Tower of Bavel, we no longer speak the same language.

Hashem Yerachem.

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19 Responses

  1. gad Krebs says:

    Imo we are stuck between a rock and a hard place- let’s take young men for example- the challenges of the Internet, as well as general society- have provided an enormous stumbling block for married man let alone  the premarital bochur- yet what is the correct forum for our adolescents to discuss issues of hotza’at zerah levatala? How do we teach them to overcome their yetzers or at least to not give up when they do? All I see is a projection to our youths that masturbation is evil and therefore all boys who do it are rashaim- but no solutions or forums to support them.

    i don’t agree with JOFAs approach but if the alternative is silence then I support theirs…

    [YA – If that is what you see, I don’t know where you are looking! Yes, there are new pressures today. But the yetzer hora was not invented recently. There ALWAYS was a need to talk to competent people. In the past, good rabbeim found appropriate moments to speak (yes, with circumlocutions and euphemism) about sexual topics. (The bad ones read fire and brimstone from the Zohar.) They would find a balance between removing extreme guilty without removing the expectation of striving for kedushah. At the same time, they would leave the door open for more frank, candid discussion – but on the individual level. I haven’t surveyed the field, but find it difficult to believe that all the good rabbeim have disappeared. The key point is that there are alternatives other than a sex ed curriculum for the classroom, and certainly better alternatives than the divrei nivalah of Dr Marcus et al.]

  2. Michal H says:

    Lichvod R’ Adlerstein, is it possible to provide the source for Rav Moshe’s teshuva on women and movies?

    (Also, why the choice of image? I try to avert my eyes from nude statues, and having to do so while reading an article about kedusha felt odd. )


    (from a long-time CC lurker)


    [YA – Look again. It is a cherub. Male or unisex. No nude statues on CC!]


  3. lacosta says:

    timed for parshat kedoshim no doubt.

    but i guess certain communities find that not a mitzva , but like mussar or pirkei avos , advice for  yechidei segula , the bearded class…

    so maybe this is the MO equivalent of the prevailing can-you-top-this-culinary-achievement  currently actively pursued in the most glatt kosher of venues…

    remember they will never lose a hechsher no matter how opulent or decadent the ingested faire,–as long as mixed dancing is not involved…

    [they say that after the chazon ish gave a haskama for a kosher candy ,justified that the kinderlach need something, he was less forthcoming with the next innovator , saying ‘but there already IS candy with a hechsher [and one can imagine what passed for kosher candy in the 50’s….]

  4. dr. bill says:

    Though I share some of your sense of things best left for private discussion, it is the hypocrisy that some find so troubling.  Hot channies or the over-the-top opulence at a recent Aish pesach program should also receive condemnation from “anyone I know who has seriously studied Torah.”  They do not and their impact on Jewish society is infinitely more troubling than misbehaving teenagers.  Despite the best efforts of the Ba’alei Tosfot, Talmudic views were hardly uniform, with much to disturb almost anyone regardless where they sit on the continuum of views.

    [YA – 1) I know nothing about the Aish program. Ask them. As far as the other problem you point out, it has gotten a HUGE amount of attention, in all sorts of places. Any criticism of OO, JOFA and others absolutely pales in comparison to the discussion about it in the haredi world. I suppose it would be legitimate to ask how you could possibly even venture a guess as to its non-discussion, since you don’t operate within that community! 2) So what’s your point? Because you can find different passages to cite, there is no such thing as a mainstream Torah hashkafah? That those who try to harmonize different sources wherever possible (certainly not just the Baalei Tosafos!) are playing some sort of a game? Nice.]

    • Shades of Gray says:

      Re. “harmonizing sources”, below is R. Daniel Eidensohn’s(12/4/08, Daas Torah blog) interesting experience with different rabbonim on teaching multiple views. My comment is that it’s an issue of “one man’s bread is another’s poison” :

      “Finally let me mention my experience with writing and publishing my sefer Daas Torah. When I first started working on it I consulted a famous rabbi connected with Artscroll. He told me point blank – “you are a danger to klall Yisroel. You are going to cause confusion and doubt by telling people that there are multiple ways of understanding fundamental hashkofa issues.”

      I consulted with Rav Bulman. His response was, “You will never get away with presenting multiple views. The yeshiva world holds that there is one right answer. You are following in the approach of Rav Tzadok and Rav Kook. But I want to buy the first copy. You hear I don’t want a present I want to buy the first copy.”

      I talked to Rav Yaakov Weinberg – rosh hayeshiva of Ner Israel in Baltimore. We talked for an hour and he repeatedly said. “We encourage questions from our talmidim in the yeshiva. There is nothing that you can’t ask. However regarding writing – you can write about anything except the dispute between the chassidim and the Gra.” He was also astonished when I mentioned Rav Dessler’s view of eilu v’eilu – that it is simply a manifestation of different perspectives but all competing view of our sages are fundamentally in agreement. “You can’t tell me that an intelligent person can think this way! If so words have no meaning.”

      I then went to Rav Eliashiv – he told me simply that there is no problem of raising issues and presenting multiple alternatives – as long as the source material was from mainstream accepted views. He did not see a problem “as long as I did not present sources from the Cairo Geniza.” In regards to the issue of confusion – he said simply “let them ask their rebbes and rosh yeshiva.” You don’t avoid teaching Torah because it raises questions.”

    • dr. bill says:

      I am not part of a charedi community though I have numerous occasions to interact.  I have seen the outcry from many sources on overindulgence, but its continued growth leads me to question the priority and/or even the sincerity of those in leadership positions.
      “That those who try to harmonize different sources wherever possible (certainly not just the Baalei Tosafos!) are playing some sort of a game” is quite far from what I had in mind.  (I mentioned the Ba’alei Tosfot to credit them for their methodological innovation.)  I have always tried to tease out differences between even seemingly identical/similar opinions. (Academics and some strains of Brisk tend to operate that way.) I do suspect that those who try to harmonize tend to believe in a largely uniform mesorah with disagreements at the edge. My view is that in areas of practice particularly where societal impacts tend to be less important, it is the centuries long halakhic process that produces increased uniformity.  I know it is argued, but I maintain that Hashkafah and more halakhic areas like modesty are not and cannot be impacted by that process in the same way.

  5. “”Rarely do we publish essays in Cross-Currents that are meant to convince dissenters, and this is no different. Our conversation is with those who share the same axiology, and appreciate a bit of analysis based on the same axioms. What is apparent is just how far apart two different groups of people who call themselves Orthodox have drifted. We use the same texts (at times) and mouth the same words. But like people in the aftermath of the Tower of Bavel, we no longer speak the same language.”
    Perhaps the first half of this paragraph provides as a clue as to why the second half of the paragraph has come to pass. The desire for each ideological stream within Orthodoxy to create echo-chambers in which they never have to hear or take seriously another perspective, in which people dismiss anyone who doesn’t adhere to their very narrow definitions of Orthodoxy, creates a situation where we just talk past each other because we’re no longer speaking the same language. A more sincere effort to understand the perspectives from which people you oppose are coming from, instead of merely writing them off, and more concerted effort towards making Orthodoxy into a tent big enough for a variety of different kinds of people, would, I think, go a long way towards creating a situation where we can engage in productive dialogue that’s not merely shouting things at one another that seems self-evident to you. Maybe if you committed towards engaging in that sort of dialogue instead of merely preaching to choirs, we’d all be better off.

    • YbhM says:

      A more sincere effort to understand the perspectives from which people you oppose are coming from, instead of merely writing them off, and more concerted effort towards making Orthodoxy into a tent big enough for a variety of different kinds of people, would, I think, go a long way towards creating a situation where we can engage in productive dialogue that’s not merely shouting things at one another that seems self-evident to you.

      I’m a big fan of productive dialogue.  Do you have something to offer regarding the topic of kedushah?

  6. Shmuel says:

    Thank you again.


    Where is the teshuva from Reb Moshe and could you provide a link to the Rav Lichtenstein article?

    [YA – Here is the article by Rav Lichtenstein z”l. Rav Moshe’s teshuvah (asserting that even though there is no issur of v’nishmarta for women, there is an issur d’orayso of hirhur) is in Even Ha-Ezer vol.1 #69]

  7. Sarah says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein – everything you write about kedusha is absolutely correct.  However when you refer to private discussions on issues of marital intimacy in Chazal or the “material in our literature, both halachic and hashkafic”, you fail to recognize that these sources and material are typically only available to half our population.  It is very true that discussions of this nature must take place in tznius and private forums, however you must recognize that the very discussions you refer to – those in the works of Chazal and Rishonim – are, at least in mainstream Orthodoxy, off limits to women.  In what capacity, then, do you expect women to learn of these topics?  And yet the initial piece by Rabbi Safran came to denounce specifically the dissemination of this material to women, the very population who is de facto prevented from learning about it in the tznius and kadosh manner you demand. True, the manner in which some of the disseminators discuss these issues is inappropriate.  But if you (collective, not personal) do not allow women to learn about sexuality through the recommended channels, can you be surprised when it comes through less than ideal conduits?
    You seem to feel that “good kallah teachers” should then bear the responsibility for transmitting healthy and appropriate education about sexuality to frum women.  But I wonder how many “good” kallah teachers there are.  From personal experience and from forums that serve thousands of frum women, I can guarantee that these are in the minority. Perhaps in the MO world, where the topic of sexuality is less taboo than it is among the more yeshivish, there is more openness about this topic.  But for the majority of frum women, kallah classes are halacha classes. To compound matters, the sexually-repressive Bais Yaakov environment subtly educates girls to feel repulsed by the sexual, to deem it perverse.  Many kallah teachers are products of the very same environment.  Can you fault them for feeling discomfort when talking about these subjects?  Furthermore, to whom do you expect married women to turn years later, when pregnancies, menopause, illness, and intermarital issues have made the very basic, chumrahdik intimacy education they once received irrelevant or even harmful to their marriages?  Even if there are appropriate resources, because of the very privacy you espouse, the women who need them have no way to access them, and worse, don’t even know they exist to be accessed.
    I agree that explicit, brazen expressions of sexuality do not have a place in our communities.  But to service the many women who suffer in this arena – and it’s incredibly more than you think – , there needs to be some forum in which it can be expressed and disseminated.  Privacy is important, but privacy to the extent of obscurity is harming the fabric of our marriages.  And the sources you promote as the answers are as good as nonexistent for women, the suffering party.

    [YA – You’ve raised excellent points, and I’ve taken the liberty of circulating them among people who can either verify what you say – and help do something about it – or deny those points.

    I can’t agree with your articulation of this being a problem of half the population being denied access to the sources. Men do not have ready access to them either! These are cards kept close to the chest of those who do know. Because of their sensitivity, and the concern that they become cheapened precisely in the manner that Dr Marcus and YCT have done, the material is not widely broadcast, and discussion is done between two individuals. The question, then, is whether there are sufficient choson teachers and kallah teachers. Are there more of one than the other?

    My own (anecdotal and unscientific) conversations with people who are involved with these areas (both in the haredi and RWMO communities, both here and in Israel – albeit not at all with chassidic communities) is that the situation was abysmal some time ago, and then turned around sharply. There is much more awareness of what is going on in people’s minds, for better or worse, and the pressures created on both men and women, to say nothing of what is involved in the creation of marital harmony. I used to hear nothing but stories of misguided repression. Today I am hearing very different advice given to brides, grooms, and couples. I cannot tell you how widespread the new vocabularies are, but it seems clear that parents who take the initiative can find mentors for their sons and daughters before a wedding who will give them sound advice, as well as an address to turn to in the months and years down the road if they need it.]

  8. DF says:

    If all the commandments were given at Sinai, why wasn’t the law of the Blasphemer given until Moses specifically had to inquire it of God? The answer is that some things we don’t want to even countenance the possibility of (like blaspheming) by giving the law in advance. We wait until the issue arises, and then we deal with it, on a case by case basis.

    The same can be said about “sex education”, a term I say unabashedly I would be embarrassed to use in public. When isolated issues arise they can be dealt with individually, and in private. Such classes have no place – whatsoever – in any Jewish school. To even teach such a thing, even if only to urge abstinence, is to trivialize it.

    As a small child I did not understand the concept of Egypt being on the 49th level of tummah. Allowing for the hyperbole and style characteristic of chazal, what were these different “levels” of unholiness? Weren’t all gentiles the same? But now, when I compare American society today to what it looked like just 50 and 60 years ago; and when I compare it to Victorian England – now, now I know. There will eventually be another Great Reawakening in this country, but thing wont be pretty till we get there.

    [YA – I would modify the stance. Relying on meeting individual need when it arises is too risky. What if the student is too shy? Or thinks that such discussion is taboo? Or gets his or her education from the internet instead? I would argue that it most certainly is part of the role of a good school and a good rebbi to have an action plan, and that it sees to it that the hashkafa we believe in is conveyed. This does not mean sex ed classes. It might mean broaching the subject delicately and often enough that students feel comfortable in having a private conversation with a rebbi or morah. But we should not leave the entire topic to chance.]

  9. Meir T says:

    Besides the fullsome discussions in shas etc, besides the biblical mitzvah of onah, how are we supposed to understand Shlomo (the “holiest” king per generally accepted mesorah) choosing to use sexual euphemisms in Shir Hashirim, a public book included in our 24 and read publicly every year, in referring to our relationship with Hashem? did he need to get so dirty to express this (<em>Didn’t Anyone Blush in the Time of the First Beis Hamikdash?</em>) and yet R Akiva said its the holy of holies…As an aside, i dont think kedusha means holy with its connotations (or similarly, tznius), as many of our commentators read it, it really means separate, we are different, and like God must separate ourselves and act differently than nature (and indeed the parsha of Kedoshim does not harp on sex etc at all, just the forbidden relationships among many other important rules such as helping the poor and pigul).Finally, shouldn’t we consider whether the to’eles that Mrs. Marcus believes her education will have outweighs any tznius issues, which is perhaps a question she has already considered with her rabbonim? Maybe this education will keep marriages happier, since as you know many women and men do not get ANY education from their kallah/chosson teachers and then turn to the internet, it would be great if there are outlets that explain and help while still within the daled amos of halacha.

    [YA – “Finally, shouldn’t we consider whether the to’eles that Mrs. Marcus believes her education will have outweighs any tznius issues?” Absolutely not. We should find ways to bring that education to bnai and bnos Yisrael without trampling on values of kedushah and tzniyus. The only people who don’t believe that this can be done are those who have little confidence or respect for those values, and see halacha as a set of “obstacles” that can be “overcome” as the far-left has been telling us for years.]

  10. JunJun says:

    What about women who feel that urge? There is absolutely no venue for them to speak about it, even as individuals, to mashpiot.  It’s never even brought up as a challenge in female-only settings.  No Bais Yaakov teacher speaks euphemistically about the prohibition for females to self-pleasure.  Such an activity is widely considered disgusting and something that women don’t do.  There’s no opportunity or encouragement for women to come forward to their teachers and advisors and speak with them about such challenges, because they’re associated with male urges, which of course women don’t have.  The fact that women have sexual urges too is never discussed or acknowledged.

  11. Shades of Gray says:

    One point not discussed so far  is the possible  negative impact of euphemisms, and how this relates to tznius.  For example, R. Simcha Feurman has written regarding parents:

    “Educating our children about sexuality is not a one-time task, nor is it simply an acquisition of facts. Rather, it is principally an emotional and ethical educative process, and something that must be done in a number of different ways over a child’s lifetime…It is important that the parents understand what the child is asking, and what fears and anxieties are motivating the question…

    … the usage of euphemisms and other indirect methods of discussing sexuality can possibly reinforce an unhealthy degree of shame. Such shame, if excessive, could be one causative factor (among many) that could lead a child into an emotional state where he is not able to be comfortable enough with sexuality, thus impeding his functioning and causing confusion and distress later on in life when he must become actively sexual as a newly married adult. (“A Torah Perspective on Educating Our Children About Sexuality, Part VIII, Jewish Press, 10/12/09).  Dr. David Ribner has similarly written  about the individualized emotional aspect in a 2008 article,  “All too often we have justified our reluctance to actively help our children cope with their emerging sexuality by raising the banner of tziniut[modesty]. With this convenient shield, we have protected ourselves from our own discomfort. I know – at some point you had “The Discussion” with your children. So now they know some basic biology. But what about attitudes and feelings, doubts and anxieties? Frequently the true message, unstated, nevertheless comes across loud and clear, sex is not to be discussed in this family…”

    It seems to me,  the more private and individualized the forum, the easier it is to balance  tznius with the emotional aspects which  R. Feurman and Dr. Ribner refer to that are, by definition,  individualized.  As far as yeshivos, I  gained  some understanding in a conversation with one of my friends  who is involved in the Orthodox adult sexual health field as a professional. He told me that  he has no problem going into a yeshiva to  discuss sexual topics in a psychologically meaningful way. I was dully impressed with his ability to do this, but he  added he would only do it one on one– surprisingly, not  out of tzniyus concerns, but because children in a public group  have different maturity levels(I would add that once there is no longer a meaningful to’eles, then the tzniyus issue could  kick in as well) .

    • Shades of Gray says:

      Further to my previous comment,  R. Feurman discusses Shabbos 33b and Pesachim 3a re. modesty in speech, mentioned in RYA’s original post,  in the context of his series for parents. See “A Torah Perspective On Educating Our Children About Sexuality (Part II)” and  “A Torah Perspective On Educating Our Children About Sexuality (Part III)”.  All 10 parts are available  on the Jewish Press website.

  12. Ahuvah says:

    I do not know what the balance is, and i do not think that dr marcus’ approach is that balance, but there is certianly a huge need for SOMETHING to counter-balance the thousands of negative messages that Jewish teenage girls receive about their bodies in general and their sexual existence in particular. Messages that are both intentional and not intentional, overt and covert, and which many of us might not take to be negative in impact but which are heard as negative by an uncertain, sensitive, still-getting-used-to-her-adult-body teenager. Leaving it for a kallah teacher to correct, however excellent the kallah teacher may be, is not good enough. we try to prevent problems, not to nurture them so that they can be fixed at a later date.


    i’d like to give an example of doing it right. A few years ago, in a certain frum (not modern orthodox) jewish girls-only high school, the principal learned that a small group of girls had a profoundly negative view of sexual relations. she called together all the mothers of that class, and told them to talk to their daughters about sexuality, sexual pleasure (she insisted that that word and topic be used). When one mother protested that her daughter did not know about such things, she looked that mother in the eye and said firmly ‘your daughter knows more than you think. i suggest that you talk to her’. She then followed up with the mothers to make sure that they had spoken with their daughters about this, and supported those who needed guidance in beginning and carrying such an uncomfortable and sensitive conversation.

  13. Chava Rubin says:

    There is a very good sefer called Ohel Rochel which is in English and perhaps in Hebrew also. It’s written with  complete  modesty, yet explains the hashkafa of these issues in a way that is very helpful.It is written by an author who remains anonymous. It is available in at least some sefarim stores in Israel, and perhaps outside Israel, bit I don’t know.

  14. Steve Brizel says:

    http://www.thejewishweek.com/news/new-york/orthodox-women-take-vagina-monologues-twist another example of what happens when Pritzus displaces Tznius as a public value

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